More Reports, Signaling Urgency

IMG_20181021_102511583_HDRBuilding on last month’s post noting that we have seen a wave of high-quality reports addressing many of the global challenges underlying the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), I’m happy to note that this encouraging trend continued in January.

First, we saw the release of Food in the Anthropocene: The EAT-Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems from EAT-Lancet – which, notably, will be reviewed in over 30 cities around the globe in the coming months.  Next, Second Harvest Food Bank of Canada released its comprehensive report on the state of food waste in Canada: The Avoidable Crisis of Food Waste.  Last, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation brought food system, circular economy, and urbanization themes together in its release of Cities and Circular Economy For Food.

There’s a lot of good work here to process.  Let’s focus on the first one for now.

The EAT-Lancet report gets at a critical aspect of the challenge of feeding 10 billion – the fact that we will need a transformational shift in the global diet to ensure the health of people and the health of the planet.  Not surprisingly, the report notes that the global population will need to sharply increase consumption of healthier food items (fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes) and sharply decrease consumption of less healthy items such as added sugars and red meat.  The latter is a challenge in developed countries where over-consumption is excessive, but also in developing regions where expanding middle class consumers desire more animal-based proteins and processed food items.

The authors note that without concerted action, the world risks failing to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Accord, while the children of today will be left with a degraded planet and “much of the population will increasingly suffer from malnutrition and preventable disease.”  Yet another important signal for change to bring sustainable solutions to the global food system.

Noting that food is “the single strongest lever to optimize human health on Earth” while it is also “currently threatening both people and planet,” the authors point out that “a radical transformation of the global food system is urgently needed.”  And the key word here — urgency.

Focusing on two “end points” of the food system – consumption (healthy diets) and production (i.e. sustainable food production) – the authors develop global scientific targets for both healthy diets and sustainable food production.  The linkage between the two is critically important – and while there is general acceptance that plant-rich diets are beneficial for both human health and environmental health, the authors go deeper to determine how to achieve “planetary health diets” which include the health of the human population and the health of the natural systems that enable it.  We know we are exceeding planetary boundaries now, particularly driven by lifestyle patterns in developed countries (which is specifically addressed by SDG 12), with serious externalities generated by the food system – particularly with respect to vast levels of global food waste.

Similar to WRI’s recent report (referenced in last month’s post) which lays out 22 solutions to achieve a sustainable food system across five major categories, the EAT-Lancet report sets five major targets for attaining healthy diets and sustainable food production, including:

  1. Seek international and national commitment to shift toward healthy diets
  2. Reorient agricultural priorities from producing large quantities of food to producing healthy food
  3. Sustainably intensify food production, generating high-quality output
  4. Strong and coordinated governance of land and oceans
  5. At least halve food losses and waste, in line with UN Sustainable Development Goals

There is, of course, considerable overlap with themes from the WRI report, which is a good thing – and not surprisingly both address the need to reduce global food loss and waste.  Both also cover different needs between developed and less developed countries.

The WRI report points to the importance of addressing food waste in developed countries by changing consumer behavior (through initiatives such as trayless dining and improved date labeling) and through improved inventory management and purchasing agreements at the retail level.  The authors also mention approaches to reduce food loss in developing nations, such as better harvesting equipment, improved agricultural practices (for consistent ripening) and better storage capabilities to preserve food.  Obviously, these are just a few of many needed solutions.  They also promote WRI’s Target, Measure, and Act framework – which calls for nations to adopt commitments for food loss and waste reduction in accordance with Target 12.3, and for food system actors to measure and act to reduce food loss and waste.

The WRI authors note that reducing food loss and waste by 25% globally would reduce the 2050 food calorie gap by 12%, the land use gap by 27%, and the greenhouse gas mitigation gap by 15%.  Significant impact indeed.

The EAT-Lancet report points to opportunities to improve harvesting techniques in less developed countries, as well as the need for improved cooling and storage capacity and increased investment in processing technologies.  It also recommends campaigns to reduce food waste in developed countries, addressing multiple issues such as improved purchase planning, understanding of date labels, portion control, food preparation and leftover techniques, and more.  The authors also point to the importance of public policy – and national waste reduction programs – to reduce food loss and waste.

In short, I am thrilled with the continued stream of high-quality reports we are seeing on the food system and other SDG-related topics (Plastics, Climate, etc.).  Momentum for change to ensure a livable planet and the ability to feed 10 billion by 2050 is strong – and that is not only hugely exciting, and very much needed.

And as I review the signals and the recommendations in all of these reports, I come back to one recurring theme: Urgency.

More than fifteen years ago, Jean Francois Rischard pointed to 20 urgent global problems to be solved collaboratively in the next 20 twenty years.  These included many problems which underpin several of the SDGs today – such as global warming, biodiversity, fisheries depletion, deforestation, water deficits, maritime pollution.  Rischard was spot on, and when I first read his piece, I could not help but be impressed with the need for urgent change – especially with regard to the global food system – improvements to which would drive improvement in all of the SDGs.  Rischard’s twenty-year frame is just a few years out, and despite some nice momentum on several SDG goals in recent years, we are well behind what is needed to achieve the 2030 goals.

And the urgency level is rising.  As Andrew Winston noted in his summary piece from 2018 – The Story of Sustainability in 2018: ‘We Have About 12 Years Left.’

Urgency.  It was my takeaway when I first read Rischard, and it is my key takeaway with each major report release today.

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