For the first time in the history of COP, food systems were put centre stage in the climate negotiations. Different pavilions and events focused on crucial aspects of the complex food systems and climate interactions. These events and pavilions reminded us of the vulnerability of agrifood systems in our climate context and reiterated the importance of driving sustainable food system transformation, as food systems and the environment are inextricably linked.
The food system is both a contributor and a victim of environmental degradation. About a third of the human induced GHG emissions are derived from the food systems 1. At the same time, climate change and environmental degradation continue to pose a threat to the accessibility and affordability of nutritious food. Therefore, food systems are a crucial piece of the puzzle to achieve a more sustainable future, while at the same time enhancing nutrition. GAIN increasingly seeks to advance a joint focus on the environment and nutrition to successfully alleviate malnutrition in a sustainable manner.
As the dust settles from COP27, the question that arises is how we can start to walk the talk. A Master student consultancy team from Wageningen University & Research (WUR) has researched the most promising approaches to achieve both environmental and nutrition goals in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). In order to move forward, the consultancy team advised GAIN to take various interlinked approaches with co-benefits for nutrition and the environment.
Meals at school and work:
Meals at school and work aim to change the demand for sustainable and nutritious food through the procurement of sustainably produced foods in the private and public sector 2,3. For instance, in LMICs, school meals have been proven effective to combat both macronutrient and micronutrient deficiencies, and at the same time enhance educational performance, school enrolment rates and poverty 2. These approaches directly improve the utilisation and access to food, ensuring access to nutritious and safely prepared food, thereby decreasing both macro- and micronutrient deficiencies. Furthermore, these programmes serve as springboards for food system transformations. By creating reliable sales channels, producers are incentivized to produce both sustainable and nutritious food. Moreover, the procurement of sustainable produced foods leads to positive effects on different environmental elements such as reducing GHG emissions by using local and if possible, mainly plant-based products, or by using foods that would not be sold in supermarkets 2,3.
Market infrastructure improvements
Improving market infrastructure is a promising approach with co-benefits for nutrition and the environment in both rural and urban areas in LMICs. Informal food markets serve as the link between consumers and producers, especially in rural areas 4. They continue to be of major importance to enable easy access to food, as local wholesale markets still account for the provision of between 50-80% of fresh produce in LMICs 4,5. However, there are many challenges related to local food markets, including poor waste management, sanitation issues and ageing infrastructure 4,6. In certain contexts, local markets are often inefficient and fragmented, causing higher prices, more food losses and less access for the poorest households 4,7. GAIN’s work on rebuilding fresh food markets in Mozambique, which aimed to create long-term sustainable change in the safety, hygiene and resilience of food markets, has already demonstrated that improving market infrastructure proves to be a useful approach to ensure that consumers have access to sufficient amounts of safe and nutritious foods, while at the same time benefiting the environment. The markets in Mozambique now have improved sanitation facilities, water supply infrastructure, an electricity system, solar-powered cold rooms and improved waste collection, all reducing the perishability of fresh foods while contributing to a safer working environment 4,6. The upgrade of the market in Mozambique also resulted in room to construct new stalls for selling fresh foods, thereby contributing to increased access of nutritious and safe foods in target neighbourhoods.
High yielding varieties and increased nutritional content
The use of high-yielding and nutrient dense varieties of staple crops can be beneficial to both nutrition and the environment, by increasing production while, at the same time, decreasing emissions. In LMICs, many people, including small-holder farmers, are not able to meet the caloric requirement needed to feed their families 8. In this sense, the use of better performing seed varieties might be promising. If farmers would have access to improved seeds of the traditional crops that perform best under their local production environments, the farmers will be able to obtain higher yields to meet their food needs. This has a positive effect on the stability of food supply as the crops would be more resilient to nature caused disruptions. Another great win for nutrition is biofortification. Evidence shows that biofortification is a highly efficient, climate-neutral and cost-effective way to improve the overall quality of the diet, especially for populations who might have limited access to diverse diets and where micronutrient deficiencies remain persistent 9. As such, promoting high yielding, nutrient dense and biofortified crops might be a very effective way to increase the access and availability of nutritious and sustainable food at the same time.
Food processing for conservation
In precarious landscapes where access to food is unpredictable, creative and user-friendly innovations bring security by conservation of food products, through solar processing or the implementation of home processing kits. Solar processing refers to the drying of the product in order to reduce the moisture content and increase the storability of the product. Overall availability of food increases as food loss is minimised, and stability increases as preservation provides supply during off-seasons 10.
Home food processing kits allow individuals, households and communities to process available agricultural nutritious products into different food products 11. For instance, soybeans into milk, yoghurt and tofu. These kits help individuals produce foods that are otherwise too expensive, therefore allowing them to diversify their diets. Home processing kits can reduce post-harvest losses, food waste and GHG emissions. As it closes rural and urban links, allowing users to process food products at home, it also reduces transportation emissions. Furthermore, it can reduce environmental degradation as food loss and waste are inherently linked to water and land pollution 12.
Community cooling hubs
Relying on unstable energy can lead to considerable food losses. Therefore, implementing different sources of energy could potentially have a positive impact in food accessibility, stability and affordability 13,14. Clean energy encompasses and covers different aspects of the value chain, transitioning to a just and affordable source of energy has positive impacts on nutrition and health.
One initiative implements sustainable cold chain technologies, an approach to meet the cooling requirements of the rural communities in food, health and working environments. Community cooling hubs aim at meeting the community needs by aggregating the cooling to reduce the overall cooling demand and thereby increase the economic accessibility for the rural communities. Cooling hubs at the community level can decrease food waste. This is especially significant in LMICs, where lack of cold chains is the major reason for food loss between farms and market 14. Through cold chain technology, food losses can be prevented, increasing the availability of food. Most importantly, diseases resulting from the consumption of contaminated food can be prevented through storage in cool and hygienic conditions.
At the same time, it implies that resources that would have been wasted can be used more efficiently. Hence, Community cooling hubs have the potential to reduce GHG emissions 14. However, the technology should be based on renewable energy such as solar energy and clean fuels. Moreover, cold chain technology leads to less land and water use and mitigates depletion of resources. The applicability of this technology in the face of climate change is immense, as problems caused by high temperatures and humidity can be overcome.
Additional sustainable protein sources
With the continuous growth of the global population, there is an increasing need for sustainable protein sources to ensure nutritious diets for all, while preserving human and planetary health 15,16. Populations such as women and children, who are particularly vulnerable to protein-energy malnutrition are not advised to reduce their already low intake of animal-based proteins, but rather to complement it with additional, more sustainable sources, namely pulses and water lentils (duckweed). Pulses require very low transformation and technological change compared to other plant-based protein sources, while at the same time contributing to nutrition security as these protein sources contain a high percentage of proteins, fibers, vitamins and minerals 17,18. Furthermore, their low water requirements for production make pulses a climate change resistant crop 18.
Water lentils, an exponentially growing freshwater plant, can be cultivated as an additional protein source. Water lentils have the potential to purify eutrophic water, thereby contributing to water quality improvements and water use reduction 19,20. At the same time, water lentils are rich in micronutrients and proteins, and can therefore reduce the strain on land use for agriculture, as one hectare of water lentils produce as much protein as ten hectares of soy 21.
To sum up, these approaches serve as a starting point for catalysing change. It is important to note that these initiatives and innovations that tackle different aspects within the complex food system should be contextualized and adapted to different situations and environments. Engaging different actors within the food system is also crucial for further advancing change.
This blog by Anchu Regi, Carlijn Stam, Esmee van Schuppen, Maria Emilia di Giampaolo, Miriam Burnand, Ruby Hazewinkel, Vera Woerner synthesizes insights from the WUR Academic Consultancy Training (ACT) project, in which the students provided GAIN with academic consultancy advice on win-win situations for both nutrition and the environment.
The Academic Consultancy Training (ACT) programme at Wageningen University & Research links Masters students to organisations to find a solution to real world problems they’re facing. On this project, GAIN partnered with Anchu Regi, Carlijn Stam, Esmee van Schuppen, Maria Emilia di Giampaolo, Miriam Burnand, Ruby Hazewinkel and Vera Woerne to identify win-win situations for both nutrition and the environment.