Nestlé has been in business for 150 years and it knows that it faces some huge problems, both in terms of the environmental impact of the way it sources its raw materials and the health impacts related to its products (including under nutrition, obesity and diabetes). These are certainly interesting times to be part of a global food system under serious pressure.
As we explored during last week's episode on Hampton Creek, while it's harsh to describe the world’s current food system as being "broken" it is fair to say that the challenges it is already facing are huge.
In a nutshell, it will need to meet the nutritional needs of a growing population which will reach 10 billion by 2050; some say, our farmers will need to double the amount of food being grown by then.
And this food must be healthier, containing more protein and nutrition.
Then there's the stark reality of the environmental impact of agriculture, a sector responsible for some 10% of all greenhouse gas emissions. And then there’s the strain being place on farmers everywhere by climate change which, in case you were in any doubt, is massive – including the pressure on water supplies, the more erratic and hard to predict weather patterns, and the increase instances of drought or heavy rainfall.
And during the first session of the conference the always brilliant Tony Juniper set the scene beautifully, pointing to the soil beneath our feet as being both the problem and potential solution to the world’s impending food crisis.
Take a tablespoon of soil in the East of England, said Tony. There you will will find six billion organisms. "Soil is where we find organic material, it holds water, it stores carbon, keeping it from entering the atmosphere. The organisms working with the organic material means it is recycling nutrients, fostering new plant growth."
So, when soils get damaged, eroded, over-farmed, you get a depletion of organic matter and the soils just won’t produce plants, crops, raw materials in the same way. And that, he says, poses a major threat to food security.
Amazingly, one third of all agricultural soils have been degraded around the world.
At a cost
And so that biological recycling process has been replaced with chemicals and fertilisers, helping to keep pace with global food demand. But that has come at a cost.
We are all aware of the decline in bee populations. In fact, two thirds of all pollinators are under threat because of a loss of biodiversity on land everywhere. Agricultural technology and the use of chemicals has managed to damage the underpinning of agriculture. And that needs to change.
But is it possible for farming systems to adapt to become more sustainable while having the productive capacity to match consumer demand for healthy and sustainable diets? We know chemicals work, that’s why farmers use them everywhere.
The need to produce more with less, the need to protect soils, the need to reduce water consumption, the need to treat farmers well and help them to thrive, the need to move from a system based on chemistry to one that is based on biology. These were the dominant themes to emerge from the two day event.
Rice, rice baby
And we heard some really interesting examples of technology and collaboration that is helping to solve some of these challenges.
James Lomax at the UN Environment Programme told us about the Sustainable Rice Platform.
Rice is the daily staple for more than 3.5 billion people, accounting for 19% of dietary energy globally. It is a crop that provides livelihoods for more than 1 billion people and it is produced on 160 million hectares, by 144 million smallholders.
And the most incredible thing is that rice uses 34-43% of the world’s irrigation water for production and its responsible for up to 10% of global methane emissions.
James talked about methods that can save up to 30% of water in the production process, and incentivising those farmers that are taking things seriously. Of course, there’s a need to scale things up so that all big food companies engage in the programme and start finding the same sort of efficiencies. There was certainly a call for Nestlé to follow in the footsteps of Mars which recently committed to ensure all of its Uncle Ben’s rice is produced using some of the methods encouraged by the platform.
There’s also some interesting work being done by the likes of Google, as one might expect. For example, using its GPS and mapping capability to track deforestation by food companies, and how comsummables and swallowables that can aid healthier eating.
The second day kicked off by focusing on the importance of nutrition, not only when it comes to farmers and food companies producing and selling more food that is actually good for us, but also in relieving the pressure on the environmental impact of the entire system on the planet and our ecosystems.
But it is also about considering how our food system actually gets the right nutrition to the people that need it the most. Far too many people just aren’t getting anywhere near the right amount of the good stuff which has so many far reaching problems – from pressure on healthcare systems, education and economic development.
Heiko Schipper, Nestle’s head of nutrition said that the focus on nutrition was how Nestle started 150 years ago when Switzerland was a poor country with high infant mortality rates. Along came pharmacist Henri Nestlé who wanted to use his knowledge to save kids around him. He came up with a solution to help kids that could not be breast fed and developed the first combination of milk from the alps, and cereals and nutrients, an easy to digest solution to save the lives of infants.
He added that Nestlé’s purpose has shifted in recent years – from being the world’s biggest food and drinks company, to being a nutrition, health and wellness company. At the heart of this is a nutrition profiling system which Nestle puts all of its products through to establish just how good or bad they are.
And it has also boosted its investment in R&D – from 1.5% to 1.9% – to find ways to make all of its products more healthy, reducing sugar, salt and saturated fats, while at the same time making each product still taste great. It is no mean feat but an absolute necessity given the huge challenge the world faces.
The focus on the consumer is an interesting one. Farmers, producers, retailers are not going to be incentivised to adopt more sustainable approaches to agriculture unless the consumer market is excited by it. We know the new generation are interested in food. They want to know what they are eating, they want to know where its come from, they want to know what’s in it, and they want to feel good about it. They’ll probably snap it and post on Instagram too.
But how do you really change mindets and behaviours at the scale needed to transform the food system?
Courage is needed
This two-day event was filled with numbers; big challenging numbers about the sheer size of the challenge that lies ahead. And it’s scary, and feels so big.
There’s no doubt about it, these types of events are crucial. People need to meet, work together, provide evidence, grab funding and scale projects up.
There is a huge need for courage. When you start to consider the need to feed the world’s 7 billion people, you can’t just turn the system off and reboot it when you’ve figured out the way forward – the wheels must continue to turn. So making the transition just seems that much more difficult.
If the world is still talking about the same numbers and challenges in 5, 10 or 15 years time, we're in trouble.