The Future of Food: Better Health, Better Food, Better World

08 July 2024

Many headlines are screaming about how the world is on fire, the population is getting sicker, and the hospital wait lists are getting longer.  They’re right in a way. After all, how the planet has been farmed for generations is now impacting the health and well-being of people, communities, and the planet. There is an alarming rise in chronic diseases and environmental degradation tells us that our current food production systems are failing. Forward-thinking businesses are aware of the principles of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) such as Good Health and Well-being (SDG 3) and Life on Land (SDG 15) and they are seeking out methods to help restore those systems. This pivotal juncture requires more than just minor changes from one or two elements of the food industry.  It requires a health-promoting food system driven not just by the demand of savvy consumers, but by every single element of the industry, from the soil up. 

From farm to fork.

It requires a systems thinking approach.

What is Systems Thinking & Why Does the Food Industry Need It?

Systems thinking is a holistic approach that examines the interrelationships and interactions between various components within a system – in this case, the food system. Unlike traditional methods that usually focus on the individual parts in isolation, a systems thinking approach means that any changes made in one part of the system can have ripple effects throughout, often in non-linear and unpredictable ways. This method is perfect for tackling complex issues, as it helps identify patterns, leverage points, and potential solutions that consider the entire system’s dynamics. This approach is crucial for creating a health-promoting food system, which is a complex, multi-layered, unique network involving numerous interconnected elements: farmers, scientists, transport & distribution, packaging, diverse ecosystems, consumers, policymakers, educators, and more.

In other words, a system that prioritises the well-being of people, communities, and the planet at every stage.

How do we Build a Better Food System?

Well, the good news is that it is very much underway.

With medical waitlists at an all-time high and the vast amount of information available to the public about eating your 5 a day, people are much more aware of the impact that healthier eating and food quality can have on their overall health. UK food consumer choices are currently driven by the cost of living crisis and those seeking ways to eat more healthily and sustainably. Economic pressures have made affordability a top priority, with 87% of consumers concerned about food prices. A recent study by the Food Standards Agency indicates awareness of environmental and ethical issues within the food industry, with 68% of UK consumers concerned about animal welfare, 68% prioritising sustainability in their food choices, and 73% of consumers choosing food for health benefits. This data illustrates a strong influence on purchasing behaviour. If consumers are seeking foods that are sourced ethically and sustainably from the food industry, this collective action can, in turn, give the food industry a gentle reminder about their societal responsibilities.

However, as consumers are squeezed financially, and farmers are hit by the soaring costs in a post-COVID world, it can be a balancing act to stay profitable and be responsible at the same time.

We need to rethink how we produce and consume food to foster a healthier future.

Where Does a Better Food System Start?

It has to start with people.  There are already sustainability goals set that are in place to mitigate the impact the food system has had on the planet. These goals are a UN-driven initiative designed by people.

They will be implemented by people for the people.

But it is going to take a multi-layered, multi-level systems thinking effort to meet and sustain these goals.

Human-centric initiatives include:
  • Food Education: imparting the importance of nutrition, cooking and the food system through schools, supermarkets, TV shows, restaurants and through sharing knowledge. Understanding these connections empowers people to make healthier choices and value sustainable practices (SDGs 3, 15, and 4).
  • Reduced Food Waste: Innovative packaging, ‘wonky’ produce markets, and composting initiatives can reduce waste. Less waste means less methane from landfills (SDG 15) while redirecting surplus food to those in need improves food security and nutrition for those on a low income and to those who may not have access to fresh food otherwise (SDG 3)
  • Research & Innovation: Exploring innovative methods to enhance soil health, minimise dependence on costly and harmful fertilisers, and improve both food quality and nutrition levels can ensure the food system evolves in line with our advancing understanding of health and ecology (SDGs 3 and 15).
  • Community-led Schemes: Ensuring everyone has access to nutritious food to enhance overall health; promoting community-driven initiatives like community gardens, allotments, and farmer’s markets; and streamlining governmental regulations to allow these enterprises to operate more efficiently. These can enhance local biodiversity (SDG 15) and provide opportunities for outdoor activities and community connection (SDG3)
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Creating the Demand: The Chicken and the Egg

To make the change for a health-promoting food system happen, we need to create the demand in the first place. This can be done through people’s dietary choices. When people prioritise healthy, tasty, nutritious, and sustainable food, farmers will be encouraged to grow food that meets this demand.

People can’t have the food without the farmers. They want a pesticide-free farm and responsibly raised meat.

The farmers can’t grow the food without the money from the consumers.

Therefore, much like the chicken and the egg, one cannot exist without the other. Until this balance is achieved and knowledge is effectively shared within the food system, farmers will continue to grow food using traditional methods, and people will continue to grow sicker.

The time for change is now.

This behaviour shift starts with individual and community action, creating a feedback loop that transforms the entire system.

People feel good knowing their choices support their health, their community’s well-being, and the planet’s future. This is the power of a truly health-promoting food system.

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Growing a Health-Promoting Food System

Farming Through the Lens of Systems Thinking

It isn’t just the consumers that can create an impact.  The farming community hold a critical responsibility towards people and the planet whilst trying to make a profit in a world with soaring costs. These decisions are pivotal as they contribute to a resilient food system capable of withstanding climate change, societal changes, governmental shifts and other global challenges. By adopting a systems thinking approach, farmers can better understand the interconnectedness of their practices with the broader food system.

Adopting sustainable farming practices such as:
  1. Regenerative Agriculture: Farmers can use practices like crop rotation, cover cropping, and minimal tilling to improve soil health (SDG 15). Healthier soils lead to more nutrient-dense crops and sequester more carbon, mitigating climate change impacts on both ecosystems and human health (SDG 3).
  2. Biodiversity in Farming: Instead of monocultures, farms can cultivate a variety of crops and integrate livestock in balanced ways. This biodiversity (SDG 15) makes farms more resilient and provides a diverse range of nutrients in our diets, reducing risks of malnutrition and diet-related diseases (SDG 3).
  3. Natural Pest Management: Farms can use natural predators, companion planting, and barriers instead of harmful and expensive chemical pesticides. This approach protects beneficial insects (SDG 15), reduces toxic residues in food and water, and safeguards the health of farmworkers and consumers (SDG 3).
  4. Water Stewardship: Investing in water conservation and purification technologies is essential. Clean water is crucial for ecosystem health (SDG 15) and directly impacts human health by reducing waterborne diseases and ensuring hydration (SDG 3).
  5. Animal Welfare: In systems that include animal products, treating animals humanely reduces stress on animals, which can decrease the need for antibiotics, lowering risks of antibiotic-resistant bacteria (SDG 3).

By making these sustainable choices, farmers not only preserve the environment but also ensure the health and well-being of future farming generations.  These practices maintain & restore soil health (depleted through aggressive farming due to the exploding global population and unprecedented food demand in the last 80 years) and slow down environmental degradation, as well as producing quality and nutritious food. Their sustainable actions can create positive ripple effects throughout the entire food chain, from improving ecosystem health to enhancing community well-being, thereby fostering a holistic and health-promoting food system.

The Final Thought

We know that we have to make changes.  Much like when a giant ship must change course, it requires time to work in a different direction and a different approach to the work is required for those changes to take effect. We have to consider the immediate health concerns of people but also our planet whilst being mindful of our business profit margins.

Our diets are going to change significantly again in the next decade as we move towards our sustainability goals. Regenerative and sustainable practices are key to a healthier, more resilient future for us all.

By adopting a systems thinking approach, the food industry can build a health-promoting food system that prioritises the well-being of people, communities, and the planet.

Systems Thinking in Action

At Seeds To Thrive, systems thinking is at the core of how we operate across all our services. Due to the complexity of the food system, it is often necessary to make changes in one place which then invariably impacts the chain somewhere else. Therefore, our integrated, multilevel, systems thinking approach means that we look at the operation at each level as well as a whole entity. This proven method includes one-on-one coaching, team workshops, stakeholder group training, and consultancy/facilitation for the businesses that we work with.

Our approach not only builds resilience, promotes sustainability and boosts productivity but also carefully balances profitability with ecological mindfulness.

We are proud to work with a dedicated focus on people, places and the planet.

For more information & to see if you’re ready to make the transformative changes, please contact us HERE

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