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Unilever's Sustainable Food Manifesto

By Jan Lee

How do we ensure that there's enough nutritious food produced to feed the whole planet? That's a question that companies, governments and NGOs have been wrestling with for decades. Some say that it necessitates changing how we farm; others suggest that increasing social development is the key. Yet others see it as a problem of quantity.

But unlike many social and economic questions these days, there's one interesting commonality: Pretty much everyone who weighs in on this issue says it can be done.

In 2016, the World Resources Institute published a summary of what it would take to ensure that food production was not only sustainable but satisfactory for feeding the world's population in 2050. It pointed out that producing food wasn't the be-all, end-all of feeding the world's growing population. Nutritional sustenance was.

"New analysis shows that we’ll need about 70 percent more food calories in 2050 than in 2006 if global demand continues on its current trajectory," say the authors. That 70 percent though, say nutritionists, must be able to address the nutritional needs of a balanced diet, the missing link that contributes to malnutrition. And addressing that challenge for a global population takes not just innovation, but cooperative approaches that can increase production, but ensure what is sold is both nutritious and environmentally sustainable.

One company that has been at the forefront of this discussion is Unilever. The company, which has a global revenue of almost $60 billion (half of which is in the food sector) is using World Environment Day to launch a new set of initiatives it hopes will inspire more focus on sustainable food production.

Unilever has developed a Sustainable Nutrition Manifesto, a roadmap to becoming a progressive food company. Guided by the vision of ‘Food that Tastes Good, Does Good and Doesn’t Cost the Earth’, the manifesto sets out a number of commitments from Unilever to accelerate progress towards a sustainable food system, from reassessing our relationship with food to supporting sustainable farming.

This week Unilever also launched its "Farm to Fork"  initiative, a series of blog posts, videos and other presentations in an effort to engage readers and other companies in a broader discussion of how the world can retool the way food is produced globally. To get the program going, it has partnered with Dr. Jason Clay of the World Wildlife Fund, an expert who is well known for his advocacy in sustainable food production. as he set out his five key steps to a sustainable food system:

  1. It's time to recognize the need for change in how food is produced. " In the course of his or her lifetime, successful producers will have to adapt and produce more different crops than their ancestors," says Unilever, which points out that climate change is forcing food producers to modify the way they farm and manufacture -- in amidst the demand for faster, better procedures.

  2. Sustainable food isn't a competitive business issue. How companies sell and what they sell may be driven by competition, but "whether there is food or not, and how sustainably it is produced, is [a] pre-competitive issue." Sustainable food production demands cooperation and innovation together, for it to succeed.

  3. "Sustainable food systems must address [environmental] costs, not just farming and manufacturing costs." They need to ensure a living wage for small farm holders, as well as the cost of ensuring the environment remains resilient. "When half of producers globally can't feed their families ... the global food system is broken."

  4. How we finance food production must change. Short-term investments from venture capital doesn't guarantee sustained global food production. "We need long-term investments to create and maintain viable food systems" that can address not only population increases but the environmental and social challenges of the 21st century.

  5. We need to "move the bottom" by focusing on reforming the way that a segment of smaller food producers operate. A quarter of the world's food producers produce up to 50 percent of the impacts but only 10 percent of the product." Making sure that supply chains are sustainable and support environmental sustainability initiatives will ensure that the brands they support can, as well.

Unilever is also partnering with companies and experts for a "Call to Action" that will culminate on World Food Day on October 16, 2017.

"As the wider debate on the food value chain continues, we know we have a key role to play. We cannot fix a broken food system on our own. Collaboration and partnership is key across the value chain. This will be even more important as we take steps towards developing a new global food system that provides universal access to healthy food that is grown sustainably – whilst also protecting the environment, improving livelihoods of food producers and the health of people as well," said Unilever in a recent statement. The company hopes by linking what we eat with how we grow, produce, distribute and sell on a global scale, "we can start to create change at a larger scale [by] building sustainable growth and a new system that supports the health of future populations and the planet."

Flickr image: Amitava Chandra/Global Landscapes Forum; Elmer Ayala Hinojosa/Global Landscapes Forum

Jan Lee headshot

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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