Food Security Discussion SeriesProf. Bill Bellotti
Summary by Dr Jane O'Sullivan

Thursday, 6 October 2016
Professor Bill Bellotti
GCI Food Systems Director

“Food and Nutrition Security through a Food Systems Lens”

Since the start of 2016, Professor Bill Bellotti has been the manager of Global Change Institute’s Food Systems Program. In this talk, he explored what food systems mean, how a systems perspective can add value in this space, and how the GCI program plans to pursue work in this area. The University of Queensland has a great depth and breadth of activity relating to food, across a wide range of departments. The GCI program aims to add value to existing research by promoting a food systems approach.

The challenge of meeting future demand for food is no longer focused on calorie production alone. In addition to the near-1 billion undernourished people, there are around 2 billion who are malnourished, not having access to enough of each category of essential nutrients. Three complementary strategies may be employed: in addition to increasing production, reducing waste/avoiding losses, and reducing demand through changes in dietary composition, can all contribute.

A food systems approach considers all activities and outcomes, from production to consumption, involving a wide diversity of stakeholders and areas of expertise. It acknowledges that information and decision impacts can flow both ways – consumers are increasingly empowered to shape the food system. It may further consider the recycling of water and organic material toward a closed-loop economy. It considers a spectrum of outcomes including social, environmental, public health and ethical. Its focus on interconnectedness can help avoid unintended consequences and identify novel approaches through cross-disciplinary collaboration.

The Australian food system reveals a major bottleneck in decision-making power: only 2-3 large retailers stand between 24 million consumers and around 135,000 farmers and fishers, and a diminishing number of large processors (around 150) who increasingly process imported ingredients. This retail bottleneck has significant implications for both positive or negative change.

Any systemic analysis requires us to draw boundaries, and where we draw them is critical. The power of the approach is in its synthesis of data, but value judgements are inevitable in setting boundaries and determining interventions.

The Global Change Institute is pursuing three initial streams of inquiry to elucidate the utility of a systems approach:

  • Field-testing Ingram’s food systems model in different settings: community participatory projects to map how food system is, how it aught to be and what interventions might achieve desired change. What metrics are useful, given data limitations, and how does scale affect the model?
  • Sustainable diets: it is a happy coincidence that healthy eating largely coincides with lower environmental impact. However, suggestions for environmental criteria on food labelling have been opposed by industry. How can consumer behaviour be ‘nudged’ in the right direction?

Governance of Australia’s food systems: governance is defined as the interaction of public and private entities to achieve collective goals. It is increasingly necessary to juggle conflicting goals, as the food system is a major contributor to environmental unsustainability, illustrated by the concept of planetary boundaries, where food production is a major contributor to each of the boundaries we are exceeding.

Our discussion explored the erosion of trust between consumers and ‘experts’ leading to many disparate, and often emotive and ill-informed, voices in the field of dietary advice. Can systems interventions help build trust? Concern was expressed that decision-makers over-emphasise economic efficiency, at the expense of social and environmental trade-offs. The difficulty in investing in agriculture, and to convince fund managers to consider what they see as too complex and risky, constrains development in this field.

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