Rising from the Ranks to Fix Food

Bonnie McClafferty, GAIN’s Director of Agriculture for Nutrition, shares her thoughts on the recently released Fixing Food report and explains why we need collective action to build sustainable food systems.

In early December, the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition, in collaboration with The Economist Intelligence Unit published a report titled, Fixing Food, which presented a pretty straightforward Food Sustainability Index. The index ranks 25 countries according to the sustainability of their food system.  While the ranking is a clean list to view global leadership and ingenuity in agricultural production, nutrition, and food loss and waste, the complex methods used to assign weight, analyze the 58 indicators and then place countries on a scale from zero to 100 (100 being the most sustainable), was anything but easy.  If you feel compelled, you can dig into the indicators and analysis at www.foodsustainability.eiu.com.

All in all, the message of the report, like most benchmarking exercises, was quite useful, and while we celebrate the winners and bemoan those closer to single digits, we need to keep in mind that when aggregating their three pillars of sustainable food systems, no one country exceeded 70 out of 100.  In short, two important takeaways come to mind. First, there is room for improvement in every country and second, it is essential to shine a strong spotlight on these indices and avoid the “series of one” dilemma. In other words, we need to ensure a follow-on index to best demonstrate the exercise’s most significant contribution to fixing food…unleashing the power of imitation and maybe even competition.  We know that global rankings can confer strength, but they also can impose an enormous drive to move to the top.

In the first instance, and collectively, the report presents a list of the top countries across the three categories and the winners to trumpet include France (67.53), Japan (66.66) and Canada (64.86).  These frontrunners scored well for various reasons, but most attributed their high ranking to their holistic approaches to sustainable and environmentally friendly food production practices, coupled with laudable nutrition stats, and policy commitments to reduce food loss and waste.

Breaking the rankings into their elements, we see that the list of the most sustainable agriculture includes: Germany (65.50), Canada (62.35), and Japan (60.56).  At the bottom of the list, India (40.51), United Arab Emirates (41.39), and Egypt (44.83) ranked 25th, 24th and 23rd respectively – tainted by the unsustainable use of water and pesticides.

When it comes to nutrition challenges, France (72.05) is at the top of the list, selected because of their balanced and adequate diet, low micronutrient deficiency, and low obesity rate.  Similarly, Japan (70.27) scaled the ranks with their model diets, but according to the report there is a noticeable emerging trend toward overweight children. South Korea ranks third on the list (69.60) and should be commended for using policy as a lever to ensure that foods are nutritious and are labeled as such.  On the low end of the list it is worth mentioning five countries because there is little difference (with the exception of India) among the four of them; India (45.04) is at the bottom followed by Nigeria (52.91), South Africa (53.22), Mexico (53.33) and Egypt (54.57). In all of these countries, the combination of stunting, micronutrient deficiencies, underweight and obesity are creating a nutritional disaster where these middle income economies find themselves at a serious intersection having to align national policies to tackle under and over nutrition, simultaneously.

Food loss and waste is included as the third central challenge facing the global food system. The report estimates (or quotes other’s estimates) that every year one third of food production is lost and for nutritious perishable foods, that number rises to 50%. However, that loss and waste looks vastly different from developed nations where outrageous amounts of food are simply thrown away close to the table. In developing economies, loss and waste occurs all along loosely knit supply chains.  According to the report, again, France (80.25) leads the way, followed by Australia (76.30) and then South Africa (75.70) as the best performers. Saudi Arabia (27.56), Indonesia (32.53) and United Arab Emirates (32.55) rank 25th, 24th and 23rd in that order.  Saudi Arabia simply wastes foods (at retail) more than most and all three lose food between the farm gate and consumption, emphasizing the need for stronger cold chains, logistics and packaging and crating. It is worth mentioning that the USA ranks surprisingly high as a non-offender (6th). Despite significant waste at retail and consumption, the U.S.’s relatively high ranking is thought to be attributed to strong policy responses, often at the municipal level, to solve the problem.

Can governments sustain their rankings over time? Can we mimic best practices across countries with the host of actors needed to make change? To make the most of rankings we need collective action and coordinated goals with strong metrics behind them. The Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, as its title suggests, is an alliance of alliances and it relies on the momentum generated by collective action including voice from government, business, academia and finance to drive changes in the food system. Whether through its Postharvest Loss Alliance for Nutrition or the Large Scale Food Fortification Alliances it has set up around the globe, GAIN and alliance members recognize that no single organization can tackle the challenges or capitalize on opportunities that plague the food system, but we can creatively, pinpoint weaknesses and copycat best practices to crowd the top of the rankings and challenge more countries to rise within the ranks to fix the food system.

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Published 22 December 2016