By Brian Bedard, Director of Food Safety and Animal Health at Alinea International

The global food system stands at a crossroads. The food security paradigm postulated over the last decade has advocated for a more robust approach to the global food crisis with a focus on public health nutrition encompassing under and over-consumption, hunger and obesity, quantity and quality, and waste while assuming a more urban dimension. This challenge has been further exacerbated by catastrophic climate change, geopolitical uncertainties, regional conflicts, supply chain shocks, and other recent disruptions to the global food ecosystem. Ongoing dialogue among international agencies and organizations grapples with the dilemma of transformation. The paradox of this evolving food security paradigm begins with international and national regulatory bodies addressing the problems as a primarily public good. A consistent supply of high quality safe and nutritious food is, paradoxically, mainly a private sector undertaking among farmers, cooperatives, processors, retailers and other supply chain actors in the food industry that produce and provide food for consumers. The changing food security paradigm is further confused by siloed and conflicting roles, responsibilities, authority and accountability in what should be a seamless public-private producer partnership (PPPP), especially in low- and medium-income countries (LMICs). This challenge requires new approaches to public health, nutrition and food policy for engagement with the private sector and producers as the accelerators of transformation to a resilient food system.

COVID-19 has exacerbated food insecurity for 2.3 billion people, with a significant gender gap, especially in Latin America, the Caribbean, and Asia. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), food prices and the pandemic’s economic impact have meant that 3.1 billion people cannot afford a healthy diet, especially women. Disruptions in global and regional supply chains have been compounded by severe weather events associated with climate change, the war in Ukraine, other regional conflicts, transportation constraints, geopolitics, hoarding, restrictions on critical commodities, market uncertainties and economic downturn. Persistent food waste and foodborne diseases feed the perfect storm of events to undermine further food and nutrition security progress, which is expected to remain a global issue for years. The vulnerability of global food security signals the need for a radical makeover of how we feed ourselves—especially for the nutritional requirements of women and children in LMICs.

Developed countries have adequate regulations and enforcement procedures to guarantee the production of high-quality, safe and nutritious food. However, these may be lacking in developing countries, undermining the response to the global food and nutrition security challenge and the resilience required for the most vulnerable rural households.

Bain & Company has suggested that the private sector of the agri-food system, on the other hand, recognizes a corresponding set of paradoxes undermining food system resiliency and sustainability:

  • consumer purchasing behaviours are driven by taste, quality, healthiness, and price over sustainability,
  • risk-averse farmers’ interest in shifting to more regenerative farming and grazing practices is, paradoxically, undermined by low margins and uncertain cycles for ROIs, and
  • the market’s intention to transform is challenged by complicated agri-food supply ecosystems, often operating at stubbornly high volumes for efficiency, with processing complexities resistant to experimentation and expense.

Rebuilding these fragmented agri-food ecosystems to reward efficient food production will require innovation, especially digital technologies, transparent collaboration, trust in integration, and coordination among key market participants, driven by more demanding and better-informed consumers.

The way forward

Radical, innovative approaches are needed to weather the storm pounding at global food security, with a much more participatory approach to the Public Private Producer Partnerships (PPPPs) as the catalyst. International agencies and governments collectively identify six thematic pathways for food systems transformation through:

  • integrating humanitarian, development and peacebuilding policies;
  • scaling climate resilience across food systems;
  • strengthening the resilience of the most vulnerable to economic adversity;
  • agri-food supply chains interventions to lower the cost of nutritious foods;
  • ensuring interventions are pro-poor and inclusive; and
  • changing consumer behaviour to promote human health and the environment.

These are complemented by recommendations for the private sector, which focus on the practicalities of sustainable business models and more resilient supply chains. Value-chain approaches under PPPPs, focusing on the functioning of resilient supply ecosystems, are one way to tackle the underlying fragility of food security and under-nutrition and the inconsistent access to high-quality, safe foods essential for balanced diets.

The private sector of farmers, processors, market vendors, retailers and other food industry stakeholders can sustainably produce and distribute food to consumers under more harmonized enabling regulatory environments. Some exciting opportunities to address their vested private sector interests and quicken change include supporting farmer adoption of sustainable agriculture through contracted procurement specifications combined with training; strategic investment of the $500 billion worldwide government subsidies; transition to shorter, transparent agri-food ecosystems for local economic impact beneficial to producers, buyers, governments and CSOs; building resilient local food systems in developing markets focused on informal markets, commodity aggregators, processors, and vertically integrated brands to stimulate growth among newly invested agri-food SMEs; and innovation accelerators for smallholder agriculture and start-ups to scale-up technology, with digital transformation for transparent agri-food traceability and consumer trust.

If the public agencies, private sector, and producers urgently engage in truly trusted local partnerships, we could anticipate an aggressive transformation with significant improvement in food security. This more resilient food system will provide for stewardship of critical natural resources, biodiversity, healthier communities supporting local producers and, traceability in more transparent value chains. This would instill trust among better-informed consumers supported by harmonized regulatory frameworks, public financial incentives and private investment to ensure a robust, resilient and secure supply of high-quality, safe and nutritious diets.