This must change. In our recent report Towards ecologically and socially resilient food and agriculture systems, we make a case for a transition to a situation where healthy and delicious food is produced within the boundaries of our planet. We must transition to a system that produces food in harmony with nature, rather than working against it. And farmers should receive a fair price for their work.
Riëlla Hollander, Director Food and Agriculture at Triodos Investment Management, is one of the main authors of the report. We spoke to her about the need for a transition in global agriculture.
What is wrong with current production and consumption?
For decades now, the main goal of our food systems has been to produce as much food as possible at the lowest possible price. But the negative consequences of this approach on soil, air, water and biodiversity have been largely ignored. The same goes for the negative impact of current eating habits on our health and the impact of globalised food markets on the distribution of wealth.
The limits have now been reached. The United Nations recently published an alarming report on biodiversity. Plant and animal species are declining so rapidly due to human activity that human life is threatened as a result. An estimated one million species of plants and animals run the risk of extinction in the coming decades.
The number of people suffering from obesity now exceeds the high number of people suffering from hunger. Our meat consumption has a negative impact on the climate and highly processed foods impact our health.
Power concentrations deny many smallholder farmers a fair income. Approximately 500 million smallholder farmers and their families, primarily in developing countries, often live in poverty while they provide us with the food that we enjoy every day.
What change do you have in mind?
We need a radical and systemic change in the way we produce, trade and consume our food. It is no longer sufficient to simply improve the current system. We believe that everyone should contribute to a food system which balances ecosystems, health and inclusive prosperity. These are the ingredients for a resilient future food system.
Agricultural methods that support both ecosystems and people are available. Agriculture should not only focus on producing large amounts of cheap food. It should also focus on safeguarding our planet’s resources and food quality and diversity. This means that food should be produced sustainably and consumed locally as much as possible.
Food waste should be reduced to a minimum and we must switch to a diet that consists for the most part of fresh, plant-based products. We are not saying that everyone should become a vegetarian, but there is a need to eat less meat, not only for health reasons but also to create the space for a switch to sustainable agriculture. We recognise that this is a challenging conclusion for many livestock farmers and meat processors, so they should be supported in their transition to future-proof business models.
Smallholder farmers in emerging economies should be supported in their access to land, seeds, capital, education, knowledge and infrastructure. Farmers in developed markets should be encouraged and facilitated to move away from intensive agriculture which negatively impacts ecosystems towards regenerative forms of agriculture. Power concentrations in the production chain must be broken, leading to fair pay throughout the entire global food value chain.
Will this mean we pay much more for our groceries in the future?
I’m convinced we currently pay too little. In the Western world we used to spend a much higher proportion of our income on food. The current price of food in the shops isn’t realistic in the long term as it does not take into account the damage to ecosystems, diet related diseases and unfair wages. How is it possible that a hamburger is cheaper than a salad? In our view, these costs should be included in the price of food. This will result in lower taxes and healthcare costs because harm to nature and health can be prevented before the damage is done. Charging the true price for our food will encourage us to make more conscious choices in our eating habits.
Whose responsibility is this?
Everybody’s. It is up to us to make the necessary changes. Governments, businesses, including banks, and science all have a responsibility to boost this transition. Consumers should also be enabled and encouraged to make more conscious choices about food. We believe a collaborative effort is needed.
It is crucial that individual governments and the European Union develop strong policies. The EU agricultural policy will be reviewed in about two years. This is an important moment for a fundamental redesign. Future policies should facilitate farmers to adopt regenerative forms of agriculture. Increased subsidies should be provided for farmers that apply the organic principles. This will incentivise farmers to actively regenerate their soils, work on carbon sequestration and water retention as well as maintaining biodiversity. Farmers should be rewarded for the vital role they play.
What should the financial sector do?
We feel a responsibility to contribute. The organically managed farms financed by Triodos Bank and Triodos Investment Management in 2018 produced the equivalent of 32 million meals in 2018. That is enough food to provide a sustainable diet for approximately 29,000 people, which has a great impact. We should create more awareness among our customers as we know they expect us be vocal on this topic
But we need all financial institutions to play a significant role by innovating their investment criteria, pricing models, investment horizons and reporting. Their criteria and investment decisions should encourage long-term strategies that focus on resilient future food systems. They should support sustainable innovation from mature businesses and early-stage companies.
Money can be a force for good. Banks and investment managers should only invest in agricultural initiatives that have a positive impact on people and planet. Intensive farms may become the stranded assets of the future, but with regenerative agriculture we can avoid that. The bottom line is that we should no longer focus on profit maximisation alone, but also on what our food system is all about: to provide nutritious food for all, now and in the future.
Explore our impact report 'Accelerating the food transition' and find out more about the impact we made.