One thing underpins the food system we need

A call for policymakers to prioritize agricultural biodiversity

Vegetables sold at a market in Western Bengal. Krishnasis Ghosh, Bioversity International

By Luigi Guarino

Another day, another report telling us that the food system must change. The latest is from the U.N. Committee on World Food Security’s High Level Panel of Experts (HLPE) and, although it has been two years in the making, it includes a Special Issues Paper prepared in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The report makes a series of concrete suggestions to policymakers for meeting the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.

It makes for sobering reading. Tinkering will not do anymore. Doing the same things better will not do. What’s needed is a radical re-think of the policy underpinning the food system, top to bottom, the HLPE says. The report identifies four changes in particular, which can be summarized as relinquishing the food system’s predilection for production, silos, calories and silver bullets. 

Let me unpack that.

First, the focus of food system policy must shift from production to consumption: what and how well people are eating, particularly marginalized people, should be more important than global production statistics.

Second, the food system can no longer be seen in isolation from other sectors, be they health, the environment, or the economy at large. That has become quite clear during the pandemic, if it wasn’t before.

Third, it shouldn’t be just about hunger, but all forms of malnutrition, from obesity to micronutrient deficiencies.

And fourth, solutions must be tailored to the context. What works for rural populations won’t work in cities. And what works in Nairobi won’t necessarily work in Mexico City.

That’s a lot to take in. And a lot to do. So I’d like to propose to the policy-makers to whom the report is directed a little short-cut. There is one thing you can do that would tick all of these boxes at once.

That one thing is supporting efforts to conserve and use agricultural biodiversity. 

Just think about it.

A food system that is supportive of agrobiodiversity is one that prioritizes people having access to diverse diets, that recognizes the interconnectedness of agriculture, that delivers nutrition rather than just calories, and that is infinitely adaptable. 

It is a system that empowers the marginalized, that is better for the environment and for people’s health, that is more resilient, that can weather diverse shocks and address changing needs. 

A food system that recognizes, values and uses agricultural biodiversity is what the HLPE calls for in its report. 

It is the food system we need.

Luigi Guarino leads the Crop Trust’s Science Team and oversees the organization’s programmatic work. The author of some 30 refereed articles and more than 10 conference presentations, Luigi co-authors one of the most eminent Twitter accounts and blogs on crop diversity conservation in the world, AgroBioDiverse. Prior to his role at the Crop Trust, Luigi worked for the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (IBPGR) in the Middle East; Bioversity International’s Regional Offices in Nairobi, Kenya and Cali, Colombia; and the Secretariat of the Pacific Community in Fiji. Luigi is Italian and studied Applied Biology at the University of Cambridge, UK. He writes more on Twitter at @AgroBioDiverse.

The Crop Trust is an international organization working to support crop conservation in genebanks, forever. Through investment income generated by its endowment fund, it provides key financial support to international, regional and national genebanks, and the world’s backup facility, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. The Crop Trust’s global patron is His Royal Highness, the Prince of Wales.


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