Three ideas for changing our food system


During a round table at the Convergences World Forum 2014, four experts reflected on how sustainable agricultural production could become a key component in feeding the world in the future. They shared their experiences, and pinpointed three essential lessons for going sustainable: questioning old models, innovating with local populations and adopting a comprehensive definition of sustainability.


From September 8 to 10, the 2014 edition of the Convergences World Forum brought together experts, professionals and decision-makers in Paris to reflect on innovative solutions for fighting poverty and precariousness throughout the world, and building a sustainable future. One conference focused on one of the major challenges now facing mankind: to end hunger and malnutrition, which will most likely be achieved by changing our agricultural system.

‘Feeding the planet: Meeting the food challenge with sustainable agricultural production’ was the title of the round table, which included Nicole Darmon, a research director at INRA (the French National Institute for Agricultural Research) who works notably on sustainable diets; Olivier de Schutter, a former United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to food; Sarah Hobson, Executive Director of New Field Foundation, an organisation that works with rural women’s networks in West Africa, and François Colomban, Director of the ‘Food Design’ unit at the Danone Research Centre in Palaiseau. Here are the main points that arose from their discussions Convergences

1. We need a change in our agricultural system – and agroecology might be the way to go

Olivier de Schutter did not beat about the bush. During his mandate as United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to food, he witnessed a growing consensus on the necessity to change the model. ‘For decades, the end of malnutrition was only addressed as a technical question. The only answer was to increase production. Today, we are seeing the perverse effects of this approach:’

– Large-scale producers were favoured to the detriment of family farming. This adversely impacted rural poverty and rural development, and explains why 80% of the people who suffer from hunger are in fact small farmers.

– Nutrition-wise, the connection between agriculture, food and health has also been under-invested, with all the focus being put on the number of calories, not the quality and balance of a diet.

– The environment also suffered from this quantitative approach, with soil degradation, greenhouse gases emissions, reduced biodiversity, and so on. And agriculture now largely depends on fossil energies in order to function.

To Olivier de Schutter, these three observations should drive change in two main respects. Firstly, we need to reintroduce democracy into decision-making processes on agriculture, so that small farmers’ opinions are finally taken into account. Secondly, we need to choose agroecology (read our article about the concept here). ‘I believe it is the agriculture of the future. It is by no means a traditional type of agriculture, with low productivity. Quite the contrary. It’s cutting-edge agriculture reflecting a decisive issue today: using natural resources much more efficiently.’ Agroecological systems make it possible to protect and even reinforce ecosystems. They require less investment from the small farmers and enable better nutrition, through a greater diversity of crops. Olivier de Schutter summed it up convincingly: Agreocology presents many assets for post-petrol agriculture. We need to make it a central feature of agricultural policies in the future.’

2. Adaptation is the key word

François Colomban drew on practical experience to express how he feels large companies such as Danone can contribute to building a more sustainable system. As the director of the “Food Design” unit at the Danone Research Centre in Palaiseau, he developed a product called Lemateki. This is a low-cost snack made of local cereals and plants, specifically designed to meet the nutritional needs of Senegalese schoolchildren (you can read the whole Lemateki story and our interview with François Colomban here).

“We designed Lemateki according to an absolute principle: cooperating with local NGOs, entities, technical centres, etc.” To François Colomban, innovating means “integrating the local culinary culture even more, together with the question of tastes, needs, costs, convenience and the ability to adapt our approach – all while taking environmental sustainability into account.”He said he learned from the project that the three pillars of a constructive attitude when innovating in a foreign country are“humility, empathy and co-creation.” Sarah Hobson, Executive Director of the New Field Foundation, agreed with him on the importance of local collaboration.

What we are learning from working with women in rural communities in West Africa is that African women produce 70% of the continent’s food, under very hard circumstances; that they are labelled as being the bottom of the pyramid, and yet they are extraordinarily resilient, have considerable knowledge of plants, and a great ability to adapt. It’s important to work with local populations’ organisations. It’s not just about feeding people.

These experiences prove that new models can be designed together – models that benefit everyone, especially the local populations who make, distribute, sell and consume the products. Like Olivier de Schutter, François Colomban believes that an intelligent diet starts with an intelligent agronomy. “We must think about how we can take as few resources as possible from the Earth, and render as many benefits as possible to the people. We need to open up a whole new scientific field.”

3. Sustainable means more than environmentally-friendly

Nicole Darmon, as a researcher at INRA, explores the link between nutrition and economy: is it possible to eat well on a low budget? To answer that question, of course, she needs to start with an accurate definition of eating well.’ Does it mean eating products that are the most beneficial to your health, or the ones that are the most beneficial to the environment? Are these products the same? How much do they cost? In her presentation, Nicole Darmon challenged the preconception which holds that since animal products have a higher carbon impact than plant products, and since plant products are better for the health, it should be quite easy to combine good nutritional habits and environmental protection. In reality, though vegetables are indeed less expensive and have less impact than meat, there are products that happen to be even cheaper and have even less impact: refined cereal products such as white bread or industrial pancakes, for instance. But they are also the ones most damaging to health. “If we choose to highlight only the environmental impact in what we call sustainable diets, we are heading for a catastrophe in terms of public health,” warns the researcher. Which is why she encourages adopting the definition of a sustainable diet given by the FAO in 2010: “Sustainable diets are protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems, culturally acceptable, accessible, economically fair and affordable, nutritionally adequate, safe and healthy, while optimising natural and human resources.” In this definition, the spotlight is on four aspects of sustainable eating: environmental, social, economic and health-related. Only after stringent efforts to make these four dimensions converge, which is not always easy or obvious, will we be able to feed the world – not only the people who inhabit our planet, but the Earth itself.

Front Photo © Matej Kastelic via shutterstock