4 Sectors That Can Activate Sustainable Food Systems

February 15, 2022 3 minute read

A wheat field as a part of a sustainable food system.

Sustainable food systems are the keystone that most tightly connects our environment, society, and economy. We cannot achieve the ambitious UN Sustainable Development Goals without transforming our food system. Today’s sustainable food system is a marvel: there are over 200 million fewer hungry people today than in 1990 despite a two billion increase in global population. But it will not be able to sustainably support us tomorrow. 

Resonance has been working with the Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy (PACE) community to develop and launch a Circular Economy Action Agenda for Food. The “circular economy” provides a vision of an economic system that is restorative, regenerative, and resilient by design – moving from extractive to renewable resource use, keeping materials in use, and repurposing waste.

To help inspire food system transformation, we have identified specific actions stakeholders from every sector can take today to infuse their sustainable food systems with circular thinking. Organizations that pursue these actions will build the momentum toward a sustainable food system in which food is produced in nature-positive ways, the food farmers grow is not lost or wasted along supply chains, and previously wasted nutrients and materials are kept in use or returned to the soil to regenerate our farms and natural systems.

From businesses to financial institutions, here are the four sectors that can activate sustainable food systems. 

How Businesses Can Activate Sustainable Food Systems

The role of individual businesses for sustainable food systems will depend on their position in the value chain. Here are a few starting points for important business segments:

  • Retailers are the link to customers and can use their leverage to incentivize brands to reduce food waste and increase the sustainability of food production in their supply chains.
  • Food brands can develop stronger contractual relationships with their suppliers to help finance their transition to sustainable production practices. Brands can also design new recipes that use regeneratively-grown ingredients or that incorporate by-products that were formerly considered waste.
  • Input suppliers can develop new technology and infrastructure to ease farm transitions away from extractive methods. This might include upgrading to equipment that supports multi-crop systems such as agroforestry and replacing unsustainable pesticides and fertilizers with biological-based additives.

Importantly, businesses across food value chains need to do their part to equitably share the risks and rewards of this transition with farmers. Farmers are the backbone of the food system, and they too frequently shoulder an inequitable share of the risk with too little input in the decision-making about the future of the food system.

How Donors and Civil Society Can Activate Sustainable Food Systems

Donors and civil society should embrace and articulate the value of the circular economy as a key component of food system transformation and therefore critical to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Climate Accord. Key actions donors and civil society can take for sustainable food systems starting today include:

  • Convening diverse stakeholders to develop coordinated circular transition strategies.
  • Funding research and innovation in critical areas like nature-positive production, reducing food loss, and waste and nutrient cycling.
  • Building circular economy principles into existing global development projects, and making changes to avoid locking-in regressive linear strategies and unsustainable infrastructure.
  • Designing new global development projects that help spur the transition to a circular food system.

How Financial Institutions Can Activate Sustainable Food Systems

The flow of capital toward circular strategies is increasing, however, a vastly greater sum will be needed to finance the transition to a circular food system. Different types of financial institutions can play a range of pivotal enabling roles to activate sustainable food systems:

  • Banks, private investors, and NGOs can engage in cross-sector collaboration to develop innovative financing mechanisms that unlock needed capital across entire value chains – financing, for example, agroforestry transitions, food waste reduction technologies, cold chain infrastructure, and distributed waste processing.
  • Asset managers and impact investors can commit capital to circular strategies and develop circular food system-oriented impact funds.
  • Institutional investors can engage their investees to promote business model transitions.
  • Risk managers across financial institutions can rethink risk models to price in the risks and hidden costs of a “linear” food system while valuing the risk mitigation offered by circular strategies (e.g., increased supply chain resilience and increased long-term health and productivity of agricultural lands).

How Government Can Activate Sustainable Food Systems

The foundational action for governments and international development agencies is to increase their coordination and collaboration across ministries and departments that touch on agriculture, environment, health, trade, and business aspects of the food system. A few examples of actions a well-coordinated government can take for activating sustainable food systems include:

  • Reorienting agricultural subsidies toward nature-positive and nutritious production.
  • Creating binding food waste reduction targets.
  • Strengthening land governance mechanisms.
  • Implementing nutrient management regulations.
  • Using circular-conscious public procurement for food.

Collaborating to Create a More Sustainable Food System  

Our existing global sustainable food system has accomplished extraordinary things. But with a rising number of mouths to feed from an increasingly degraded environment, we must transform this system to feed 10 billion people in the coming decades. Stakeholders from every sector must act now and collaborate to create a more efficient, sustainable, nutritious, and equitable food system.

Companies, governments, financial institutions, and donors should consult with experienced partnership development experts to discuss how they can activate sustainable food systems through cross-sector collaboration. 

Want to learn more about incorporating circular economy principles into your sustainable food system strategy? Here are some additional resources: 

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on November 23, 2020, and has been updated for accuracy and current best practices.

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If you are a corporate leader and would like to be a part of a discussion about these and other issues in the presidential transition, contact Resonance Strategic Partnerships Manager, Seth Olson.

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