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How to fix a broken global food system and make it net positive?

The Future of Food summit 2022 encouraged collaboration in creating a net-positive food system

Deloitte’s global Future of Food summit 2022, brought food executives, experts and enthusiasts together to share their experiences and perspectives on how to create this better food system. What will you do differently tomorrow to realize a net-positive food system?

Climate change, price inflation, Covid and the war in Ukraine; the issues are piling up for the global food value chain. These global disruptions are reinforcing the need for sustainable and resilient food chains. Add the sustainability targets that players in the food chain have committed to, and we see companies fundamentally having to rethink how we source, produce, process and consume food. We must leverage this significant momentum and establish coalitions to create a net-positive food system. Deloitte’s global Future of Food summit 2022, brought food executives, experts and enthusiasts together to share their experiences and perspectives on how to create this better food system.

“Our global system is broken,“ said Paul Polman, co-founder and co-chair of IMAGINE, and former global CEO of Unilever. “We are realising that we can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet, and the costs of not acting become higher than the costs of acting.” We need to move to a net-positive food system, and create a reliable food value chain for the long term. That means giving back more than we take from our planetary food system, making things better than we found them.

Now is the time to do it. “This is the decade of action,” continued Paul. “And the agricultural value chain is the biggest opportunity we have.” Creating a regenerative food system can create a financial benefit of USD 4 trillion and it contributes to solving about 30% of global climate issues. But we must realise that it is a leadership issue. “We need political and industry leaders to show courage to set real targets and work in broad partnerships that may, potentially, uncover inconvenient truths.”

The net-positive movement is huge, and co-creation and innovation play a big part. As mentioned at last year’s summit, ‘coalitions of the willing’ are making an impact that matters. “I’m pleased to see that a large group of organisations is already part of the net-positive movement,” said Sharon Thorne, Chairwoman of the global Board of Directors of Deloitte. “These companies are making their own responsible choices but also helping their suppliers and customers to integrate sustainable choices into their strategy.”

“We are at a point where companies realise how vulnerable their supply chains are,” said Ira Kalish, Chief Global Economist at Deloitte, as he talked about how global developments are impacting the food system. The current disruptions have led to high oil prices, stressed global supply chains, significant price increases of food production and higher food prices for consumers. These are negative factors but can offer opportunities as they help companies to see the need for diversification in order to build resilient food supply chains. Diversification may increase costs initially but also leads to economic growth in other places. The current issues may also accelerate the investments in green energy, in our food production, and in more companies taking climate considerations into account. “If this all helps to reduce our dependence on carbon-based fuels, we are well on our way to the net positive situation we are hoping to achieve.”

Barriers such as political issues, the complexity of the food system and the lack of a global approach are roadblocks in the move to net-positive. In a panel discussion, food executives talked about how their organisations have worked on reducing value chain emissions and the importance of working together to tackle the issues. “Farmers are the custodians of nature,” said Peter Boterman, Corporate Director Global Sustainability at Friesland Campina. “The key to success is remembering that it starts with them but it only works if everyone plays their part. Farmers know what to do but we can help them by giving them the tools, business models, revenue, and the technology to reduce their carbon footprint.

Reduction was mentioned as a better solution than offsetting but for this there’s a need to engage and change the consumer mindset towards better food choices. “We need a better understanding of consumption,” said Dr. Garmt Dijksterhuis, Perception Psychologist at Wageningen University Research. “The psychology of the consumer is vital in making the right choices, but existing change models may not work for food. There’s not one single consumer group, and turning information (education about food and nutrition) into behaviour works differently for different groups.” The physical availability of the right (sustainable) product is a precondition, just as the availability of marketing materials and suitable pricing is needed to help consumers make the right choices. “True pricing and transparency are key factors,” agreed Randy Jagt, Future of Food Lead at Deloitte. “We need to help consumers make the right choices. The ‘True Price coffee bar’ at our office in the Netherlands sells coffee that takes the true price of the environment and society into account. For a cappuccino it is about 80 eurocents more expensive but the majority of our people are willing to pay the true price.”

At AB InBev they see the impact of climate change across their whole value chain and have made good use of their position as a global company by sharing learnings across their global teams in the various markets. “Our success in reducing emissions was also helped by our strategy of co-designing our vision and public commitments with our operations and sourcing teams,” said Ezgi Barcenas, Global Chief Sustainability Officer at AB InBev. “It is not just the sustainability department involved in setting the targets. We needed the input from our people on the ground, who see the impacts of climate change in their area.” Another really bold move Ezgi talked about was to tie the sustainability roadmaps they designed to annual targets that are, in turn, linked to bonuses.

Bas Rüter, Global Head Food System Transition at Rabobank, talked about the power of partnerships. He stressed the importance of moving away from short-term thinking and said that long-term relationships in the food chain help address some of the operational risks and disruptions we face and are also needed to meet the ambitious emissions targets and provide traceable, ‘Paris-proof’ food. “We need to invest in long-term relationships in supply chains and in relationships between the wholesalers and the farmers. This might cost some money initially but ultimately it leads to the credibility and reliability of the supply chain. We help the farmers build the right business models so they are rewarded for doing the right thing, for producing sustainably.”

The participants were challenged to continue to think about what really needs to happen to achieve a net positive system. To see where we can mobilise the entire food ecosystem and work together as a coalition of food players throughout the chain. Not just to look at the targets set to become carbon net zero, but to consider what really works and what doesn’t. “We see that many initiatives are underway and impact is being made, but it is not enough,” said Randy. “It is clear we need to collaborate even more and scale the innovations and changes.” We all have a role to play, and, in closing, Randy made it clear that it is up to us all to change: How about you? What will you do differently tomorrow to realize a net-positive food system?

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