Policy making in food systems

By Food Systems Policy Hub Director Professor Bob Doherty, University of York; N8 AgriFood Academic Lead Professor Katherine Denby, University of York; Professor Lisa Collins, University of Leeds

In January 2021 the Office for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) published its report ‘Making better policies for food systems’. Here three N8 AgriFood academics jointly review its findings and respond on behalf of the N8 AgriFood Food Systems Policy Hub.

It has become something of a truism in food policy to describe food as constituting a ‘system’ (Doherty et al, 2019; Ericksen, 2008; Kneen, 1993 ; Sobal et al., 1998 ; Tendall et al., 2015 ). Yet this concept is invoked far more often than actually applied satisfactorily. A notable exception is the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) new report on Making Better Policies for Food Systems which was presented by the OECD at our recent N8 Policy AgriFood Policy Hub webinar. Highlighting the “triple challenge” of food security/nutrition, livelihoods, and environmental ] sustainability, it raises a fundamental question for food policy in the 21st century: How to “simultaneously make progress on these three dimensions?” It’s not an easy question to answer.

Taking a genuinely food systems approach (see Figure 1) is the first step incorporating all elements and activities that relate to the production, processing, distribution, preparation, consumption, and disposal of food. This includes key system outcomes, such as food security, availability, utilization, safety, access, environmental outcomes, livelihoods and of course food waste. In addition, the system also includes the socioeconomic and environmental drivers – the role of the environment, people, processes, infrastructure, institutions, governance and the effects of their activities on our society, economy, landscape and climate. Finally, it recognises the forward and backward feedback loops, trade-offs, synergies and unintended consequences among system activities.

Setting policy in the food system is complex as we source food on different geographical and temporal scales, and from thousands of producers (570 million farmers globally). In the UK, we are experiencing a time of change and opportunity, with a series of key policy initiatives including the 25-year Environment Plan, new Agricultural Bill, and new National Food Strategy just to name a few. So what can policy makers learn from the OECD report?

First, the Making Better Policies for Food Systems report outlines the shortcomings and associated negative costs of our current food system including dietary ill health which is responsible for one in five deaths globally, 73% of all global deforestation, 80% of biodiversity loss and 21-37% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, 570 million farmers are reliant on the food system and in many countries is a key economic sector, for example in the UK food and drink manufacture is the largest manufacturing sector at £120 billion employing 4.3 million people.

Second, the report shows that good policymaking needs to be coherent and should consider the interlinkages between food security/nutrition, environment and livelihoods and potential spill over impacts of an individual policy into other parts of the system. For example, incentivising the
production of more fruit and vegetables in the UK to facilitate improvements in dietary health requires a multi-policy framework and should consider:

  • Demand side interventions, public information, digital interventions to encourage fruit and
    vegetable consumption which is affordable
  • Firmer regulations e.g. on promotion of unhealthy foods
  • Fiscal measures such as taxes on unhealthy foods or incentives for fruit and vegetable promotion
  • Preferential Business loans for new innovative companies focused on interventions to transform to a healthy food system for people and planet

The N8 Food Systems Policy Hub recommends we should also consider any implications for resource use in production, e.g. increased demand for water and chemical inputs, the need for skills and training in horticulture coupled with stimulating via favourable business loans new food business models aiming to supply more healthy produce into current food desert locations. The pandemic has provided a window of opportunity to initiate change as the importance of dietary health has been amplified. This coherent policy making requires increased collaboration across government between Defra, BEIS, the Department of Health and Social Care, Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government amongst others.

Third, creating policy coherence is not easy and in some areas there is friction on debates regarding trade-offs e.g. between reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and productivity/livelihoods, and in the use of genome editing and ensuring the technology is used for public good. To manage this
friction it is important to prioritise balancing the different interests and engaging all stakeholders. Policy makers in these circumstances need to gather independent robust evidence, identify diverging interests which need reconciliation, identify differences in values which need creative solutions and also identify a range of policy options as ‘silver bullets’ are rarely available. Debates between conventional and alternative are not always helpful and more integrated approaches are required. Useful approaches in these contested policy areas include independent accountability mechanisms e.g. carbon budgets from the IPCC, guidelines, building new coalitions from stakeholders with differing values coupled with the role of innovation. There is also a growing need for deliberative approaches such as public dialogues and citizen assemblies to develop societal consensus when tackling complex policy decisions.

It is clear that the food system needs to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and requires a range of policies which reduce synthetic nitrogen fertilizer use and promote green fertiliser use e.g. cover crops and leys, carbon profiling of farms to promote carbon sequestration, low emissions slurry technology, and new regulations on manure management. Animal products provide an important source of protein to consumers globally, with low intakes associated with malnutrition and health consequences (FAO 2018). They also represent a significant source of income on a global scale, representing 40% of the global value of agricultural output worldwide. However, there is a recognised need to address the key issue of greenhouse gas emissions in these production systems, particularly for ruminants (cattle, sheep, goats and buffalo) but also, albeit to a lesser extent, for monogastric species (pigs, poultry). The global scale of the issue is significant: approximately one third of the earth’s surface is used either for grazing, or for feed-crop production for livestock (Herrero et al 2013). There is no single identified ‘silver bullet’ to fix these issues. Instead, the multifaceted perspectives on, priorities for, and values surrounding the livestock sector mean there are multiple alternate versions of solutions for healthy, sustainable future livestock production systems. Examples include farming approaches that move towards greater circularity in production economies and integration of crop-livestock systems offer one avenue to driving down emissions as
well as improving soil health, and water and air quality. Other key solutions could lie in genetic selection and breeding for methane reduction, finding alternative, efficient sources of protein for animal diets, and reducing losses through endemic disease. Reflecting the multitude of approaches to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and more broadly, improving the environmental footprint of the livestock sector will require the support of a network of interlinking and complementary policies; there are numerous examples of such a multi-levered policy innovations being adopted in a range of different countries.

A thriving and innovative plant breeding sector is critical for maintaining crop yield gains made over the last 50 years in the face of climate change and the dynamic nature of pests and diseases (enhanced by changing climate and international trade). New traits are also needed, for example, for new farming systems, to help reduce GHG emissions from livestock or to extend growing seasons. Genome editing offers the potential to develop traits more quickly than conventional plant breeding and help address a number of challenges in the UK food system including environment, nutrition and
livelihood goals but policy changes are required to drive use of the technology for public good. The costs associated with current regulatory processes for genome-edited crops mean only “blockbuster” economic traits in major arable crops are likely to progress, despite the importance of fruit and vegetables in healthy diets and a realisation of the need to increase UK consumption of fruit and veg, and benefits of growing more fruit and vegetables within the UK. Different genome editing approaches carry different environmental and food safety risks. Many traits can be tackled with genome editing without incorporation of foreign DNA (resulting in an outcome that could be achieved with conventional breeding, albeit more slowly) and specific approaches need to be
distinguished both in policy-making, risk assessment and public information.

The OECD report provides some excellent international and UK examples of how we can expand the range of different tools for more coherent policy making in food systems. From the comprehensive citizens involvement in the development of the Canadian Food policy and its food systems council, the Future generations act in Wales where policy making decisions take into account the wellbeing of future generations, the Nutrient Score labelling system in France and Spain, farmer incentives for carbon sequestration in New Zealand and food in all policies by the London Food Board just to name a few. It’s clear our collaborative interdisciplinary food systems work across N8 AgriFood provides an important foundation for supporting policy makers in developing food system policy interventions. To this end, we launched the N8 AgriFood Food Systems Policy hub in November 2020 to tackle these crucial food system policy challenges.

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