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A sustainable global food system

/ 04:00 AM October 11, 2021

Beijing—The global food system is unsustainable. While it is worth approximately $8 trillion annually, its negative impact is valued at roughly $12 trillion. And this is not the system’s only contradiction. Around the world, food systems are both affected by climate change (owing to disruptive weather and rising temperatures) and make significant contributions to it (through greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity destruction). The millions of jobs they provide are often low-quality and poorly paid. And, most significantly, they fail in their ultimate purpose of delivering affordable, healthy food to all.

Because the global food system is fundamentally unviable, change is inevitable. But the radical reforms needed to create an inclusive, sustainable sector that produces nourishing food for the world’s population may have devastating short-term consequences. If we take the wrong approach, incorporating the true costs of production into food systems could trigger widespread bankruptcy, devastate rural unemployment, drive up prices, and increase poverty.

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The best way to achieve a rapid, fair, and safe transition to a sustainable global food system that can deliver affordable, healthy food for all is, however, a matter of heated debate.

From a production standpoint, advocates of regenerative farming vehemently oppose a new generation of soilless food production, such as lab-grown “alternate protein” and vertical farming. But it is tough to scale regenerative farming rapidly. Soilless systems must be a major part of the solution, given their dramatically reduced carbon footprint and water use, minimal impact on biodiversity, and potential for rapidly delivering cheap, healthy food at scale.

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The role of finance in this transition is no less controversial.

There is some merit to complaints about the undue influence of a limited number of private players on decisions that impact the entire global food system. Financialization—the drive to maximize risk-adjusted financial returns—is increasing across the global food system, and market concentration is growing. For example, just 10 companies control half of the world’s seed market, and four agribusiness firms account for 90 percent of the global grain trade. Just 1 percent of agricultural firms own 65 percent of the available farmland.

Financialization reinforces the unequal distribution of economic returns, squeezing the incomes of small farmers and communities, while supporting business models that undersupply healthy, affordable food, and oversupply foods containing high levels of salt, sugar, fat, and carbohydrates. Moreover, financialization amplifies corporate lobbying that externalizes public-health costs, maintains perverse agricultural subsidies, and ensures that the costs to the climate and nature do not adversely affect financial bottom lines.

But private capital is absolutely necessary for financing the global food system’s transition. We need to harness the massive financial resources managed on our collective behalf by pension funds, banks, and private equity while mitigating the dangers of financialization.

In a recent report, “Making Finance Work for Food: Financing the Transition to a Sustainable Food System,” the Finance for Biodiversity initiative maps out the role global finance can play in the needed transition. The report, prepared in association with the Food System Economics Commission, describes four ways financial tools can be used to shape future food systems.

For starters, financial policies and regulation, reinforced by shareholder and public activism, must drive investors’ internalization of the costs to nature and climate in their financing decisions. This change would strand dirty assets, accelerate green-friendly investments, and trigger a shift toward more nutritious food production.

Second, financial innovations, including blended public and private solutions, are needed to accelerate investment in healthy food produced by climate- and nature-friendly forms of farming, thereby driving down costs. Such innovations could involve scalable instruments equivalent to the feed-in tariffs that have been used to great effect in catalyzing investment in renewable energy.

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Third, policies and public finance are needed to protect and retrain those whose livelihoods are eroded during the transition. The goal should be to provide technology, skill development, and capital to enable them to own and operate commercially viable regenerative and soilless forms of food production.

Finally, we need to create opportunities to empower citizens, especially by harnessing the power of digitalization. As consumers, they can make an impact by adopting improved, sustainable diets. As investors, pension policyholders, and taxpayers, they can advocate for better uses of their money.

Delaying the transition to a more inclusive and sustainable global food system would jeopardize food security, destroy livelihoods, and prevent us from achieving environmental goals. Resetting global finance and harnessing its benefits is necessary to fund a rapid, sustainable, and equitable transition. Project Syndicate

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Simon Zadek is chair of the Finance for Biodiversity Initiative.

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