Why do we need to transform the food system?

Sustainable food. The current food model is at the heart of the current quadruple climate, environmental, social and health crisis. Where we should start?

Job insecurity, the loss of fertile soil, obesity and cardiovascular disease, the climate emergency, species becoming extinct… The current food model is at the heart of the current quadruple climate, environmental, social and health crisis. A crisis that has highlighted our dependence on nature, how its most basic processes and operation have been altered, how dangerous this is for the continuity of life on the planet and, in particular, how fragile the globalised food system is. We need to encourage new models that are fairer, healthier and more sustainable and resilient. But where should we start?

It is estimated that 8.6% of households in Barcelona have limited food of a limited quality. According to some studies, one in five deaths in the world can be attributed to an inadequate diet: high-calorie diets, added sugars, saturated fats and processed foods. Other research suggests that around 25-30% of all the food produced in the world (about 1.3 billion tonnes) is lost between field and plate. These are just a few figures that show the urgency with which we need to move towards a sustainable food model, a new system that will lead to prosperity, promote social justice, protect and regenerate natural resources and ecosystems, and safeguard future generations’ ability to feed themselves in a sustainable manner.

Within the framework of the celebrations to mark Barcelona’s status as the World Sustainable Food Capital for 2021, Barcelona City Council and the Barcelona Metropolitan Strategic Plan have produced Sustainable Food: A Handbook for Cities, a document that proposes nine fields of action around sustainable food, setting out the current problems and possible solutions to them. These nine fields of work, which must be approached comprehensively, are:
Buying local, seasonal products that are environmentally friendly, such as agroecological and organic products and those obtained from sustainable fishing.

  • Encouraging people to adopt diets that are healthy both for them and for the planet, based on fresh foods and the avoidance of ultra processed products.
  • Encouraging people to eat less, but higher quality, meat and meat products.
  • Reducing food and packaging waste.
  • Fostering fair relationships in the agri-food chain.
  • Nurturing diversity in our fields, at our tables and in our neighbourhoods.
  • Creating sustainable and empowering food environments.
  • Transforming the food system with everyone and for everyone.

The author of the handbook, Ana Moragues, an expert in sustainable food systems at the University of Barcelona, ​​highlights the efforts that have been made to establish specific transformative actions. “We often talk about big, abstract concepts such as sustainability but then struggle when trying to arrange partnerships, because each organisation has its own idea or perception of the problem. The aim of this handbook is to provide a common and accessible definition of sustainable food, together with a set of specific actions based on scientific evidence enabling the various social players to work in a coordinated manner to achieve actual change in the food system,” she explains.

Moragues also points out the importance of cities leading this change in the food system. “Cities play a key role in this, as they are home to an increasing number of people, they generate 70% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, they produce about 80% of the world’s GDP and they consume over 70% of the food produced in the world,” she explains. “Furthermore, they are able to influence what foods we produce and how they reach our tables, and they can commit to sustainable food to improve the health of both people and the planet. Many of the impacts relating to the current food system can also be seen in cities, because urban environments promote unhealthy food habits, which in turn increase the rate of malnutrition among children,” she adds.

In relation to this, Barcelona has been one of the first cities to sign and promote the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact, an agreement involving over two hundred cities to develop sustainable, inclusive, resilient, safe and diversified food systems. In addition, the city is part of the Spanish network of cities for ecological agriculture and has signed the declaration of the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, committing to encourage planetary health diets aimed at reducing the consumption of industrial meat and cutting waste by half by 2030.

Sustainable Food: A Handbook for Cities is aimed primarily at public bodies and those wishing to include a focus on sustainability and food in their field of work. However, the author insists that the change in model must not come solely from the food sector. “The handbook shows that some actions can be taken, for example, in the fields of education, urban planning or neighbourhood movements. It therefore transcends the purely technical field and can also be used as a tool for training and awareness in society as a whole”, explains Moragues.