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Visions for a sustainable food system

How can we create a sustainable agriculture and food system that can feed and nourish a growing population while carefully managing the Earth’s resources and reduce emission levels?
Replacing meat with plant based protein alternatives and shifting to a perennial agriculture could be one way forward.
The Pufendorf IAS Themes, The Protein Shifts and Domestication shares their visions on how we can rethink the ways we produce and consume food in the future.
wheat agriculture

The food and agricultural systemare facing urgent sustainability challenges that require dramatic shifts in ways of both producing and consuming food and thinking about sustainability in a broader perspective. We know that food and food production have a direct impact on human health, the planet's well-being, and economic development. The agro-food system is estimated to account for about 30% of our greenhouse gases, of which 80% is related to the livestock sector. We also know that agriculture today is facing a range of urgent sustainability challenges, including climate change, biodiversity loss, soil degradation, nutrient leakage, environmental pollution, rural decline and economic and social hardship for farmers.

So how can we rethink the ways we produce and consume food in the future? 

Researchers from the Pufendorf IAS Themes Domestication and The Protein Shifts shares their different ideas and visions for a more sustainable food system.

Domestication: 

perennials
The perennial cereal Kernza (to the left) is a wheat-like grass called intermediate wheatgrass which has been domesticated by The Land Institute in Kansas. Kernza is suitable for Swedish conditions and it is currently grown at Högestad Estate in Skåne.

What is your vision for a future sustainable food system?

Our vision is an agriculture that nourishes a growing population in a warmer climate while stewarding the soil and the diversity of plants and animals that sustain us. Such agriculture provides meaningful jobs moving towards a solar-based and circular economy while revitalizing rural communities and re-valuing the important work that farmers do for society. It is characterized by more localized food networks that bring producers and consumers closer together. It reduces soil disturbances and even builds soils, thus retaining nutrients and restoring the ecological integrity of agricultural lands. It relies on the use of agrochemicals – fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides – only in exceptional cases rather than as normal practice. It is also based on crop diversity in space and time and the cultivation of hardy and resilient perennial species, reducing the risks associated with extreme weather events and pest infestations. This future landscape not only protects from soil erosion and environmental pollution, it also helps mitigate climate change through decreased agricultural inputs and a significant increase in soil carbon sequestration. 

What ability do we have to make such a great transformation?

Such a vision requires fundamental shifts globally and locally. For example, it would require reducing the share of animal products (meat and milk based food) in diets to more plant-based foods, and it would require replacing the heavy reliance on agro-chemicals (fertilisers, herbicides, and pesticides) to agro-ecologically principles of growing crops. Such a dramatic transformation is hard to imagine under the current food system where the economic and political power is so dominated by a few transnational corporations. The entire food chain, from farm inputs, to international food trade, food processing, and retailing, is characterised by an extremely high concentration of market power to a few corporations. As a matter of fact, most of the environmental and many of the socio-economic problems of today’s agriculture are rooted in the heavy reliance on annual crops grown in monocultures. A successful introduction of perennial polycultures would not only solve most environmental problems, it would also challenge the oligopoly of the agro-chemical industrial complex and is perhaps the only hope of a profound change. 

What concrete positive changes within agriculture do you wish to see within the nearest future?

It will take about a decade to develop the most promising perennial grain crops to fully commercially viable alternatives, but this is of course a short time period given the millennia it took to domesticate the current annual ones. But we are very optimistic that several semi-commercial experiments already underway will lead the way to more stable and diverse funding opportunities for this research, and gradually also to new products and markets for perennial grains.

The most promising perennial cereal is a wheat-like grass called intermediate wheatgrass which has been domesticated by The Land Institute in Kansas under the name Kernza. In our Pufendorf Theme we are particularly interested in Kernza for several reasons, it is suitable for Swedish conditions and it is currently grown at Högestad Estate in Skåne. Our group has a close dialogue with the Högestad people in order to learn from their experiences of managing a perennial polyculture (Kernza is intercropped with alfalfa) compared with the traditional annual monoculture. 

What are the greatest challenges for you as researchers within this field?

The yield is still significantly lower than for conventional crops which is an obstacle due the perceived urgency of increasing food production. Many funding agencies and policymakers are overly focused on the immediate problems which poses a risk that short-term solutions become the enemies of the long-term sustainability. Therefore, we need to be extra creative in creating multiple benefits of perennial polycultures. 

Why is an interdisciplinary perspective important in this issue?

Agriculture is an interdisciplinary field in and of itself and doing research on radical changes of this field needs an even broader interdisciplinary approach. 

What are your plans for the theme in the coming year?

Writing research proposals for continued research and also applied research. In early May we will host the international conference on perennial plant breeding in Lund. 

The Protein Shifts

beans
Beans, soybeans and lentils are examples of vegetarian high protein sources

What is your vision for a future sustainable food system?

We see that a sustainable food system must also be a fair food system. We do not intend to identify any sort of ‘perfect diet’ or make claims about exactly what people should or should not eat. Instead, we recognise the importance of having a global perspective in parallel with local adaptations – in terms of climate, taste, technology, culture, and so forth. We know that the food system, as it is structured today, is unsustainable and that promising solutions exist at various entry points in the system. We also know that we need to reduce the amount of protein consumed in this part of the world (shift down), as we currently eat far too much per capita. We are also considering alternatives to animal proteins (shift over). It’s seems generally much easier for people to imagine replacing the hamburger and glass of milk with plant-based sources than it is to cut back on their protein intake entirely. This has a lot to do with norms and perceptions of need, but also the economic bottom line of actors in the global food system.  

How does the demand for vegan protein among consumers look today?

We are already noting an increased demand for vegetarian and vegan protein sources, and supermarkets are expanding their ranges of vegan and vegetarian alternatives. There are also new food policies in municipal services to reduce meat consumption and instead serve more vegetarian food in schools and elderly care facilities. This is a positive trend! But it is not without contention in society, where consumption of for example soy products is being weaved into creating political identities and divisions. 

Why is an interdisciplinary perspective important in this issue?

We see that there are few if any sustainability challenges that profit more from – and almost require – an interdisciplinary perspective than issues concerning food. Food production and consumption link together challenges regarding our utilisation and management of the Earth’s resources with our basic survival needs for constant intake of nutrients. Food production also provides a livelihood for a large part of the world’s population, and our cultures, cultural heritage and identities have extremely strong ties to food. The food system is also an arena with considerable power and influence over society. That means this question must be looked at from several different perspectives and requires an interdisciplinary approach when you, as this group is, try to identify solutions and sustainable ways forward

What are your plans for the theme in the coming year?

We will continue to create a common language and basis from our different disciplinary perspectives. We find it so important for us as a group to have freedom to think and the space to learn from each other. 

In the spring 2019 we are excited to be able to work with several invited guests including Karin Wendin from Food and Meal Science, Kristianstad University, Tony Weis from the University of Western Ontario, Canada, Donald Stull from the University of Kansas, USA and Cornelia Witthöft from the Food Science Platform, Linnaeus University.

We have done and will continue to weave in hands-on activities around protein shifts. For example we have all measured our own protein intakes to see where and how much protein we consume. We have had a ‘heat up-along’ to evaluate alternatives to the classic meatball and tested various milk-drinks and vegetarian alternatives of some common fast-food restaurants. This spring we will visit the Disgusting Food Museum in Malmö, participate in an international conference in Copenhagen and continue to critically grapple with the challenges and opportunities for significant protein shifts towards a more just and sustainable society.   

 

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