Sustainability expert lists ’worst food stories’: ‘We need to be part of a paradigm shift’

By Flora Southey

- Last updated on GMT

Generating three centimetres of top soil takes 1,000 years, says sustainability exert Roberta Iley ©GettyImages/Petar Mulaj
Generating three centimetres of top soil takes 1,000 years, says sustainability exert Roberta Iley ©GettyImages/Petar Mulaj

Related tags biodiversity Climate change Sustainability

Frustrated by the lack of attention given to today’s food challenges in the mainstream media, sustainability expert Roberta Iley has listed nine of the ‘worst food stories’ she believes should be making headlines.

Our current food system does a great job at what it was designed to do – produce as much food, for as little money, as possible. But that is no longer enough, according to Roberta Iley, principle change designer at sustainability non-profit Forum for the Future.

“There needs to be a radical shift to a system that is guided by what nutrition we can produce sustainably on existing agricultural land if we are to meet the needs of 10bn people by 2050 in a way that doesn’t bring us way over our carbon targets.”

Some progress in the sector is being made. Earlier this year, for example, the EAT-Lancet Commission issued the world’s first scientific targets for a healthy diet inextricably linked to the health of the planet.

“The EAT-Lancet report did find that fundamentally it is possible to have a food system on the planet that feeds 10bn people in a way that is healthy, and in a way that keeps us within some of these key planetary boundaries,” ​Iley told entrepreneurs at the EIT Food Change Makers Food and Environment Meetup last week.

“Changing from our current diets to [this] reference diet could avert around 11m deaths per year,” ​she continued.

However, to do so will require us to halve global food waste, move towards a plant-based diet, and focus on regenerative agricultural production. “We need to be part of delivering a paradigm shift.”

Raising awareness and educating consumers about the severity of the current situation will be instrumental in making this change, yet the mainstream media appears to have other priorities, she suggested.

“When you go on news websites, it can be pretty depressing [looking] at the kind of new stories that we get, and how little attention there is on some of these issues,” ​said Iley. Frustrated by the lack of attention given to these issues, the principle change designer listed the ‘worst food stories’ she says should be hitting the headlines.

#1. Low resilience

Seventy-five percent of food intended for human consumption comes from just 12 plant and five animal species.

In fact, just three of the world’s edible plants – rice, maize and wheat – provide 60% of the world’s food energy intake. “We have super low resilience in our food system,” ​Iley told delegates.

#2. Soil loss

Generating three centimetres of top soil takes 1,000 years. “Soil is becoming a non-renewable resource,” ​said the sustainability expert, adding that at current rates of soil loss, we have just 60 years of harvests left. “We are already seeing productivity declining on 20% of cropland.”

Indeed, Ily argued that even without the other challenges, we would still be forced to rethink our food system. “Because in 60 years, we might not have any soil to play with.”

#3.  Fisheries collapse

The challenges do not all concern land-based agriculture: more than 30% of global fish stores are at biologically unsustainable levels.

fisheries JoeDunckley
Thirty percent of fisheries are fished at unsustainable levels ©GettyImages/JoeDunckley

“Up to 2bn people rely on fisheries for their livelihoods and for food, and we know that almost one-third of fisheries are fished at unsustainable levels.

“One of the most depressing facts about this is that almost 70% of that wild-caught catch doesn’t go to human food at all. It goes to feed other fish in our supply chains,” ​said Iley. Indeed, 69% of wild-caught fish is used as fishmeal.

#4. Biodiversity loss

A single spoonful of soil – which ultimately provides 90% of all food – contains between 10,000 and 50,000 different types of bacteria, the sustainability expert told delegates.

“Yet when you consider all of the pesticides, insecticides, and all of the things we’re putting into our farming systems, what might be considered a beautiful agricultural landscape [becomes] a desert.”

Citing an example of dramatic biodiversity loss in Germany, Iley said that its nature reserves have experienced a 76% decline in flying insects over the last 27 years.

#5. Land conversion

Every second, more than one hectare of tropical forests is destroyed or dramatically degraded. This is of particular concern in the tropics, where commodities such as palm oil and soya is produced.

#6. Pollution

While deforestation has made it into the news ‘a fair amount’ of late, Iley argued that ocean dead zones ‘really don’t’.

'Dead zones' with zero oxygen have quadrupled in size ©GettyImages/NERYX

However, these zones with zero oxygen have quadrupled in size since 1950, principally due to agricultural run-off. “A lot of what we are putting into our agricultural systems – such as fertilisers – run off into the oceans and cause algal blooms. This eventually leads to a depletion in oxygen levels, to the point where, in certain places, you get…zero oxygen [in the water]. Well, there is very little [marine] life left at that point.”

#7. Water stress

The term ‘water stress’ refers to the ratio of total water withdrawals to available renewable supply in an area. A ‘high-risk’ area – where 40% or more of the available supply is withdrawn every year – means more water users are competing for limited supplies.

“Agriculture uses 70% of our fresh water and despite being a plant that is [largely] blue, we actually have very little fresh water to play with,” ​said Iley. “And we are increasingly using irrigation for our agriculture to help cope with other stresses such as climate change.”

This means that demand for freshwater is projected to outstrip supply by 2030.

#8. Climate change

Climate change will exacerbate all of these problems, said Iley. Latest data shows atmospheric carbon loading is higher in 2019 than 2018, marking the seventh consecutive year of increasing CO₂ levels.

There are, however, some signs of hope, she told delegates, citing the UK government’s declaration of a climate emergency, and commitment to net zero carbon emissions by 2050. If successful, Britain will become the first major economy to achieve this.

#9. A broken system

obesity af istocker
Obesity levels are on the rise ©GettyImages/af istocker

“And all of this to achieve what? Who is our food system serving?” ​asked Iley. With non-communicable disease responsible for more ill-health
than any other cause, and accounting for 71% of death globally, she makes a strong point.

“We currently produce enough food to feed everyone, but poor distribution and waste means that 815m people are hungry while two billion are overweight or obese.

“So you have to ask: what are we doing this all for? What is our system generating?”

The EIT Food Change Makers Programme is a new, collaborative initiative between EIT Food, diversity organisation YSYS (Your Startup, Your Story) and King’s Cross Impact Hub, London. The initiative gives diverse talent the chance to become agrifood-tech innovators and entrepreneurs through a series of events, mentorship and training.

Entrepreneurs can apply for one of the limited spaces at the Change Makers Startup Weekend on 4-6th October at King’s Cross Impact Hub, London. Here they can learn more about food system issues, develop viable business ideas, find potential co-founders and pitch for €10,000 worth of support. The application deadline is 1st September 2019. Find out more here​.

Related news

Show more

Follow us


View more