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Rural revitalization and sustainable diets

Distilling one agenda from two major international reports on agriculture, food and nutrition
Launch reports
July 16, 2019 By: Marielle Karssenberg Image: EAT-Lancet and IFPRI
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How do two reports with a different emphasis on the relation between nutrition and agriculture challenge our daily practices and current policies? This was the central question put forward by moderator Jeroen Rijniers during a recent event organized by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on June 4, 2019. Both the IFPRI’s Global Food Policy Report 2019 and EAT-Lancet’s 2019 Commission were presented, followed by an interactive panel discussion with an audience from private sector, knowledge institutes, government sector and civil society organizations. The reports shared the sense of urgency to deliver on the SDGs by 2030 and the need to go beyond business as usual to make the necessary changes on a global scale. This was emphasized in the discussion which focused on food system approaches and the different roles actors should take up to make the ambitious challenge a reality in our efforts to contribute to the SDGs.

From Agriculture to Nutrition

This year’s Global Food Policy Report brings rural revitalization to the forefront as a central topic. In his last year as Director General of IFPRI, Shenggen Fan highlighted the urgency to work on rural revitalization by stating that: “We are still facing hunger and malnutrition. Despite the tremendous progress that we have made, hunger is actually on the rise for the last three years, while malnutrition persists”. Fan further explained that rural areas in particular are facing several crises related to hunger, malnutrition, poverty, employment and environment. To effectively move towards progress in the rural areas disparities between rural and urban has to decrease. IFPRI’s report defines several building blocks to revitalize rural areas: connectivity between rural and urban areas, gender equity and women’s empowerment, restoration of environment, access to energy and finally governance as the key building block. Within the revitalization of rural areas, food systems are a vital aspect. Fan emphasized that healthy diets are important as part of a sustainable food system: “What you eat really matters for your health, but it also matters for your environment”. He stressed the need for a diverse diet and argued that rural residents can help in establishing a food system where this diversity can come forward, thus taking agriculture and rural revitalization as the starting point to talk about a transition towards a more diverse diet.

Please download the PowerPoint presentation (PDF) of Director General of IFPRI, Shenggen Fan.

From Nutrition to Agriculture

Fabrice DeClerck shared the results of the EAT-Lancet report by stating that we have to create a food system that reaches two dimensions of health, human and environmental. “The objective of the report is about recognizing the extent to which our actions on the production side and those on the consumption side are completely interlinked”. The report provides guidelines for creating better alignment between both sides. To do that, food systems and food policy have to situate themselves within a safe space between dietary and environmental boundaries. One universal recommendation in the EAT-Lancet report is that the consumption of fruits, nuts and legumes has to increase by 75-150% by 2050 as a contribution to healthy diets. Although the recommendations for diet and nutrition are challenging, they still offer flexibility towards individual dietary preferences and requirements with more than 10-30 thousand edibles plant species and varieties whose consumption can increase. The EAT-Lancet Commission also set specific environmental targets to ensure that increases in food production necessary to feed the population in 2050 remains within the safe environmental operating space. Thus, the EAT-Lancet report provides clear targets for an agricultural development agenda by providing both nutritional guidelines and the planetary boundaries of food, or the 2° of food. Shifting diets to healthy food, reducing food waste and loss, and sustainable increases in productivity in combination should guide the transformation of our food system. Quite importantly the modelling work of the Commission demonstrates that these three intervention in unison can ensure healthy diets within environmental limits by 2050.

Please download the PowerPoint presentation of (PDF) EAT Science Director, Fabrice DeClerck.

How to make food systems move in the right direction?

So, what does this difference in approach of the two reports say about the most effective approach to food system transformation? Ruerd Ruben (WUR) opened the panel session arguing that he does not only see complementarity in the reports, but also identifies tensions and tradeoffs between the objectives – which could be overcome through appropriate action. One tension is the difficulty to combine a healthy with a sustainable diet. Any strategy to balance these two dimensions should work through the entire food chain, and make sure farmers and women play a key role within this transition. What happens throughout the value chain is just as important as what happens at the different entry points for system change as set by the two reports. Another tension mentioned by Saskia Osendarp (Micronutrient Forum / representing NWGN) is that the global malnutrition problem is extremely complex. It is great that the reports reflect a sensitivity to a diversity in dietary needs. Keeping this flexibility will be crucial in the transformation to a more sustainable food system. Technological advancements and targeted interventions could play an important role in dealing with part of these complexities, but requires more research to find new solutions and better adoption of existing technologies. Mackenzie Masaki (NABC) continued about another aspect of food system transformation: ”We should not forget that for some countries producing enough is still more important than producing nutritious food.” This related to the points raised by Annelies Zoomers (UU), who was happy to see that the reports bring the rural back on the scene, as the starting point should be a landscape approach with the engagement and understanding of local people taking priority. Taking these different standpoints together thus calls for a food system and holistic approach which is flexible to deal with diversity within the system.

Different roles to move forward?

When it comes to identifying the role different actors should take in food system transformation most conversation during the event was focused on the role of the government and the private sector. While government should work towards strengthening a regulatory environment, the private sector is a crucial actor to deliver the food. To enable people to make healthy choices, there is still much more to be done by various actors, not only these two. Ruerd Ruben highlighted the key role of a food environment, which should be affordable in terms of purchasing power, information and accessibility. The discussion that followed stressed the importance of taking local reality as a starting point in the development of policies and interventions. 

A common agenda

In the closing statement, Paul van de Logt reflected on the influence of these reports on Dutch global food security policies. He stated that these two reports provide a comprehensive international agenda, which enhances structure to Dutch efforts and brings the right people together. “Understanding the complexity is important, in order to understand how different elements of the food system come together. This is a basis to define how we can work together in an overall common agenda to overcome some of the tensions that are mentioned today.”

Livestreams (part 1 & 2) of the event

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