Five key steps to a sustainable food system

This is the first in our Farm to Fork series – a collection of blogs, videos and infographics in partnership with other organisations and individuals – calling for large-scale change to the food system. Here, Dr Jason Clay, from WWF, gives us his five key steps to a sustainable food system.

1. Forget the status quo

A bowl of vegatables
Dr Jason Clay

Dr Jason Clay

Senior Vice President, Food & Markets and Executive Director, Markets Institute at World Wildlife Fund

Dr Clay has spent his career bringing business, governments and NGOs together to improve environmentally sensitive practices in agriculture.

No one company, government or organisation is big enough to move the sector by themselves.

Business as usual under current conditions is tricky for most producers due to climate change and variable weather. In the course of his or her lifetime, successful producers will have to adapt and produce more different crops than their ancestors. And yesterday’s better practices will no longer yield predictable – much less stable – increases in productivity or efficiency. Businesses will need to adapt and invest in new producers and shifting production faster than ever before. And all of this will happen under the watchful gaze of the 7.4 billion food experts on the planet.

2. Sustainable food is a pre-competitive issue

What foods companies sell and how they market them are competitive issues, but whether there is food or not, and how sustainably it is produced, is pre-competitive. To achieve transformative change at speed and scale in the global food system, we need to recognise that no one company, government or organisation is big enough to move the sector by themselves. Sustainability has to be a pre-competitive issue, with all actors working, and more importantly learning, together to make the global food system more sustainable.

3. Externalities and the true cost of food

Today, we don’t pay the social or environmental costs of producing food. They are ‘passed on’ to producers or the planet. Eventually, we will all have to pay for the costs of degradation from agriculture. 

Sustainable food systems must address costs like habitat conversion and biodiversity loss, soil health, water use, pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, as well as viable incomes for producers, and liveable wages and healthy environments for workers. When half of producers globally can’t feed their own families, and when farm children are malnourished and stunted at higher rates than any other segment of society, the global food system is broken.

4. Change how we finance innovation and production

The infrastructure of our global food system needs to be upgraded. We need long-term investments to create and maintain viable food systems in the face of increased population and income, changing consumption patterns, and the impacts of climate change and weather variability. We need to finance increased productivity, efficiency and sustainable intensification, as well as innovation, resilience and adaptation to climate changes. 

Longer-term contracts with price finding mechanisms could buy down the risk of investing in more sustainable production. We need to find ways to identify and agree on key problems and resolve them more efficiently than the hit or miss results we achieve today from venture capital.

5. Move the bottom

The bottom 25% of producers (by performance) produce up to 50% of the impacts but only 10% of the product. We would produce far more food with fewer impacts by focusing on the poorer performers rather than the better ones that tend to be rewarded through certification. It is among the poorest performers that we find most illegality in food supply chains where producers consistently violate laws or regulations. 

Producing more with less will be impossible if we don’t address the impacts of the poorer performers. They pose health, financial and reputational risks for brands and consumers alike. With social media, ignorance won’t be a defence.

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