Session Themes

1.Towards net zero

Emissions of greenhouse gases from the food system have been estimated to amount to approximately one third of global anthropogenic emissions. Major emission sources from agriculture at global scale are nitrous oxide from soils and methane from ruminants, and carbon dioxide emissions from land use change, including deforestation. However, in industrialised food systems post-farm-gate emissions sources such as processing, transports and preparation also make up a substantial part. To drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the food system, a combination of mitigation options are needed on both the supply and demand side. On the supply side, solutions include halting deforestation and other types of land use change in which carbon is lost to the atmosphere, increased efficiency and implementation of new technologies to reduce emissions in agriculture, and making supply chains fossil free. Demand side mitigation options include dietary change towards more plant-based foods and reductions in overconsumption and food waste. Research is needed on reduction options and potentials in different settings and in different production systems. Suggested solutions to reduce emissions must also consider wider food system consequences, and highlight and handle trade-offs with e.g. human nutrition, biodiversity, other forms of pollution, resource use (e.g. water) and animal welfare.

2. Enhancing sustainability and resilience of food systems

Operating across levels on spatial, temporal, and jurisdictional scales, food systems are vulnerable to multiple shocks and stresses. Recent years have seen several shocks and stresses, with notable examples being the 2018-19 extreme drought in Australia, the 2017 Fipronil eggs contamination in Europe, disrupted food trade arrangements between UK and EU due to Brexit from January 2021, the massive systemic shock from COVID-19 and emerging geo-political tensions between major importing/exporting nations for agricultural commodities. These have accelerated scientific, policy and societal interest in the need to enhance food system resilience, but this is a complex and contested subject matter. Further, current methods of food supply are leading to substantial environmental degradation and GHG emissions. This theme will address how to make food systems more socially, economically and environmentally sustainable while also enhancing their resilience to future shocks and stresses.

3. Challenges of the true cost of producing food

In current food systems many of the environmental, social and health costs of food are externalized. Hence, market prices do not reflect the true cost of producing food. By failing to account for differences in the externalities of different products and methods of production, processing and distribution, the relatively more costly production of healthy, just and sustainable food is often relatively less profitable for farmers and food businesses than is production of unsustainable, unjust and/or unhealthy food that has lower direct costs but greater externalities. This has evident consequences for affordability for consumption. Internalizing these externalities is seen as a major way to deal with the root causes of unsustainable food systems. Solving the externality problems requires determining the current costs of externalities (for example through True Cost Accounting) and find feasible mechanisms to internalize those externalities in food prices (true pricing). While the current value of global food consumption is estimated to be 9 trillion USD, externalities are estimated to be more than double (19.8 trillion USD). This means that food is roughly a third cheaper than it would be if these externalities were included in market pricing. However, major challenges remain in providing more detailed, reliable estimates of externalities because of the complexity of food chains and the large variety of disciplines and data required. More research is urgently needed to better quantify environmental, health and social costs, and to evaluate the benefits of transitions to more sustainable and healthy diets. Further, few mechanisms presently exist to incorporate those estimates to revise pricing to induce shifts in investment, consumption and production towards healthier, more just and sustainable food.

4. Models and applied methodologies to study food systems dynamics and trade-offs

Food systems capture many components related to production, processing, packaging, retail environment and consumption, as well as interactions and feedbacks between components. The outcomes of food systems are multiple, and cover aspects of availability, access, utilization and stability. Another classification of outcomes refers to health and nutrition, environmental, social and economic dimensions of sustainability, as well temporal aspects related to resilience and adaptability. Synergies exist and must be targeted, but trade-offs amongst outcomes are unavoidable. Given the complexity and different aims and foci that studies may have, there are many ways to model food systems or key components thereof. An example of different aims refers to the nature of looking into the future: projection, prediction or exploration. This theme addresses these different types of future studies, using static as well as dynamic modelling approaches, and models or methods that capture multiple outcomes of food systems, as well as synergies and trade-offs between these outcomes. Studies at multiple levels (from sub-country, to country, region, continent and globe) are encouraged. We also welcome attention to data availability, data quality and model evaluation. Contributions may focus on methodological aspects, applications to specific food systems and interventions, as well as how results have been or can be used in decision making.

5. Ensuring equity and fairness across food systems

Contemporary agrifood systems are characterized by disturbingly high levels of concentrated poverty, unliveable and unfair wages, dangerous conditions for workers, discriminatory treatment of individuals based on gender, race, religion, and other identities. They are also characterized by highly unequal social, physical, and economic access to healthy and safe food environments and ultimately diverse and recommended diets. Centering equity and fairness is key to sustainable agrifood system transformation. An unjust system is intrinsically unhealthy and unsustainable. This theme welcomes research, frameworks, solutions, policy and case studies on how to center equity to form a just food system. Sample topics include wage gap and labour force participation in agrifood systems, employment conditions of workers throughout value chains, inclusive international and domestic trade, food and climate justice, indigenous agrifood systems, nutrition equity and the political economy of inclusive transformation. We welcome contributions at different spatial levels of analysis (regional, national, sub-national, local) and from countries with different income levels. More importantly, we encourage studies that offer concrete lessons learned to change business as usual post-UN Food Systems Summit.

6. Food politics, governance and accountability of food system actors

Food and agricultural policies continue to be subject to lobbying, pressure from interest groups, and economic and political incentives of decision makers. As such, it is critical to understand and implement effective political pathways for food system reform by influencing high level leaders – including through rigorous evidence – as well as grassroots pressure. Studies that relate food system policies to the nature of political decision-making are still relatively scarce. Transforming food systems for both human and planetary health will require some re-imagining of governance of the agri-food system. Traditionally, ministries of agriculture focus on the farm and are quite siloed from other ministries relevant to the food system, including commerce and trade, environment, water, infrastructure, energy and nutrition. Fostering new food systems requires concerted actions in all these domains. This theme welcomes research with a focus on food politics, governance and accountability of food system actors. For example, we welcome research on motivations and hurdles moving towards more sustainable food systems, as perceived by e.g. multinational corporations, food retail and environmental groups. Also, we open this theme for research on the impact and implementation of coherent food strategies which are launched at all political levels.

7. Addressing changing dietary demands and inequities in an interconnected world

The latest FAO data suggest that almost 3.1 billion people cannot afford a healthy diet. Nutritious foods are more expensive relative to staples, with leafy green vegetables, vitamin A-rich fruits and other vegetables, and many animal-source foods being especially expensive in many parts of the world. Meanwhile, lower-cost ultra-processed foods, including sugar-sweetened beverages, processed and packaged snacks, and processed meats, have become more present in our diets contributing to lowering diet quality and impacts to human health. By 2050, food production would need to increase by roughly 50% to meet the surge in demand for more diverse foods and the feed necessary for increasing demand for animal-sourced foods. With migration and urbanization, the availability, accessibility, and affordability of foods is already changing along with food habits and dietary preferences. Data suggest that in many parts of the world, the growth of supermarkets, multi-national as well as small- and medium-enterprise food processors, and fast-food chains are influencing the consumption of nutrient-poor, ultra- processed foods, and purchases of foods away from home. Consumer-oriented technologies such as digital technology interfaces, social media, and personalized nutrition will continue to sway dietary aspirations, demand, and choice. Cellular agriculture—foods created by tissue engineering, synthetic biology, and fermentation—are considered future solutions to mitigate climate change and improve the environment and animal welfare. The challenge will be to scale these technologies along with other technological solutions, and ensure their reach to all populations. This theme welcomes contributions that address these topics, preferably in an integrated manner.

8. Novel food sources and technologies: Upscaling and acceptability

Anticipated growth in food demand in the coming decades far exceeds what can be produced within planetary boundaries using existing technologies. The productivity-reducing effects of climate change further complicate the challenge of meeting the food security needs of a larger, wealthier, more urbanised human population. That reality has induced the exploration of a wide range of innovations in production, processing, storage, distribution, food service, and waste recovery. These innovations, from new digital, genetic and mechanical technologies to sociocultural, institutional and policy changes, are intended to accelerate agri-food systems transformation. Understanding these technologies’ challenges, diffusion potential, impact pathways, and consumer and societal acceptability becomes crucial to transition towards healthy, equitable, resilient and sustainable future agri-food systems. This understanding requires research on the emergence and upscaling of technologies for future agri-food systems – including cultivated animal source foods, plant-based substitutes, and novel foods like algae- or insect-based products or those produced from by-products of food processing.

9. The future of farms, farmers and farming

Farms, farmers and farming in every region of the world are different, and they will evolve in very different socio-economic, political, technological and climate contexts. However, they are all part of a globalised market to which they are exposed to different extents. While smallholder farms produce the major share of the food in rural areas and are critical to the food security of a large proportion of the world’s population, the relevance of large-scale farming in global food production increases consistently. The rural population in Africa doubles every 20 years, reducing farm size even further. In contrast, the number of farms and rural populations in developed countries continuously decreases and the scale and intensity of agriculture increase. These pose very different challenges to environmental degradation and the relationship between agriculture and nature. At the same time, in many countries, the average age of farmers is high, and opportunities for the next generation to continue farming are under pressure. The diversity of existing and future farms and farming systems reinforces the need for various approaches and strategies for sustainable agriculture. Our challenge is to contribute to a future of farms, farmers and farming that increases food production and quality while solving the problems of rural poverty, farm succession, environmental degradation, biodiversity loss, and dependence on non-renewable resources. We invite historical analyses, as well as future-oriented contributions based on process knowledge, interdisciplinarity and multiple-level assessments.

10 . Robust sustainable food systems to reduce losses and food waste

Recent system shocks such as COVID-19, the war in Ukraine, the energy crises, political instability and global warming have shifted the goal posts of achieving the UN SDG target 12.3 to halve food waste by 2030. Globally, FAO indicates that about 14% of the world's food, valued at $400 billion is lost on an annual basis between harvest and the retail market and an estimated 17 % of food is wasted at the retail and consumer levels (UNEP). In total this is enough to feed about 3 billion people. This persistent and growing challenge should be seen against the backdrop of nearly two billion people in the world that are malnourished and an anticipated increase in food demand by 2050 of roughly 50%. Reducing food loss and transforming food waste is a significant lever for broader improvements in global food systems. Innovative technologies can reduce and transform waste and losses for a resilient food system and this theme will focus on novel technologies, innovation and systems to address SDG 12 for people, planet and prosperity. Therefore, contributions are welcomed on innovative research, strategies and tools to reduce and transform waste and losses from farm to plate to enhance food security. This theme is on (practical) approaches to address value chain losses and waste and efficiencies in the global food system and sustainable, scalable methods to produce, harvest, package, preserve, process, and transport nutritious safe foods without compromising food integrity.

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