Feeding a burgeoning world population… meeting rising consumption patterns of a growing middle class… ensuring a healthy diet across income and geographic scales... These are but some of the food sustainability challenges that we face in the coming decades. 

During the CBI 20th Anniversary Symposium food panel breakout, the following seeming dichotomies in food and agriculture were posed and explored by panelists and participants: 

  • Water for people or water for crops? 
  • Integrated food supply chains, or more distributed, localized and smaller scale networks for production and consumption? 
  • Feed corn or biofuel? Palm oil or lumber? 
  • Bigger business, greater efficiencies through economies of scale, or small business, more social enterprise? 
  • Forcing industry supply changes or shifting consumer demand?
  • Nutrition and healthier food for the wealthiest of us, or better nutrition for all? 

Franklin Holley, of the World Wildlife Fund, clarified how while the prospects for dramatic increase in agricultural productivity are unclear, there’s critical need to explore new techniques and partnership that can boost production and conservation goals simultaneously. She cited successful cases in China, Indonesia, and SE Asia – yet we are often still faced with putting western strategies on eastern facing problems, where trade, governance, and scaling challenges are difficult to surmount. 

Nick Papadopolous, Crop Mobster, made a compelling case for how tackling the food waste dilemmas (1/3 of the world’s food is wasted) that plagues the supply chain - using crowd sourcing to connect surplus food and those who need it - could turn this aspect of food into value for the climate, nutrition, and energy efficiency. 

Allison Karpyn, of the Food Trust, elaborated on how cheap and fast food along with unhealthy eating habits have led to rising rates in obesity and associated diseases in rich and middle-income countries. Yet, food insecurity and malnutrition continue to plague the poor urban areas. She told the story of inner city Philadelphia finding ways to bring back retail grocery into former food deserts to increase choice and availability of a wider range of healthier foods. 

Hank Cardello, of the Hudson Institute, talked about the business case for selling healthier foods. For companies, he argued, moral arguments are often less compelling than a bottom line analysis. The good news, he’s finding, is that the business case for healthier products as key profit centers can increasingly be made with data, case examples, and trends. 

The panel and participants demonstrated how enhanced collaboration can help develop integrated, broad-scale responses to these challenges developed country expertise connecting with developing country local knowledge, grocery retail working with urban advocates, and farmers and consumers connecting through the web. 

However, the sheer size and complexity of food production, supply, and consumption makes collaboration on a scale possible to have major impact difficult to achieve. Most national and international organizations focus on a specific subset of issues: land use, production, productivity, environmental impacts, (mal)nutrition, or health and wellness. Connecting across the supply chain and across desired outcomes (healthier consumers, healthier environment, etc.) requires framing up complex issues in way that draws stakeholders from outside their fields of knowledge, networks, and views of the problem (and their solutions). 

  • Despite the complexities underlying the issue, the group highlighted several unifying themes, central to understanding and alleviating local and global food insecurity.
  • To start, we need to shift our perspective: solving food issues is a community not just a commodity problem. Unlike other goods, food reaches people at a personal, emotional level. It defines our culture and heritage, connects us all together, and inextricably ties us, as communities, to our environment and to one another.
  • In order to start untangling seemingly untraceable food issues, we need to seek to understand the emotional basis behind parties’ claims and develop solutions that derive from self-reflection, partnership, problem solving not blaming, and place-based innovation. 
  • Power disparities, rife within the food sector, should be addressed. The conversation focused on women, farmers, and developing countries as parties typically deprived of power and full agency. How do we give a voice to these groups, bring them to the table, and empower them as effective negotiators to build more fair, sustainable solutions? 
  • The opportunity space for tackling food issues is now. Climate change, trade barriers, demographic changes, and other factors are coming together to stress food systems. 

Organizations and their stakeholders will continue to struggle to meet the challenges of a more sustainable food system that must feed an additional 3 billion people by 2050, especially given the globalized nature of the food marketplace, the welter of government regulations and programs, private sector supply chains and marketing strategies, and fast-changing social norms around food and eating. The questions posed in the session will remain, but perhaps, in the best spirit of mutual gains, reframed toward possible integration, less contention and greater joint gains.