Could it have been FitA for purpose?

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Don’t get me wrong. The Syngenta Foundation is delighted by international attention to sustainable food systems, and to healthy diets. The EAT-Lancet Commission’s recent paper on these topics is to be welcomed – at least in principle. Indeed, many readers will view “Food in the Anthropocene” (FitA) as a landmark publication. Covering some 40 pages and with almost 360 references, it provides an important and timely set of recommendations based on an impressive review and interpretation of relevant literature.

Our Foundation works to improve the livelihoods of small-scale farmers in developing countries. Many of the subjects on which FitA touches are close to our heart. As well as healthy diets, these include numerous aspects of sustainable food production – such as climate change, soil health, biodiversity and water use. Importantly, FitA also touches on topics such as international trade, and on food loss and waste. Publications that stimulate evidence-based, ideology-free debate in all these areas are to be applauded. Those that trigger beneficial action are rare treasures. How far will the laudable recommendations of the EAT-Lancet Commission - to have greater international leadership, governance, and accountability to turn science-based insights into targets and commitments - get traction? That remains to be seen.

Beefing about a luxury?

Much discussion is likely to surround the Commission’s rejection of red meat in future diets and food systems. The relevance of that advice, and the emotions it arouses vary considerably around the world. I gave up eating all meat two and a half years ago based on similar insights.  Yet, for many of the smallholders with whom we work, debate about beef is – to use a food-related expression – a bit of a red herring. (And a luxury one, at that). For cultural and/or material reasons, cows are assets. Improving field crops is more important to these farmers, and to many of the consumers they help feed. Moreover, in developing countries and at least for the time being, meat is often the only reliable source of certain vitamins and micronutrients.

Sadly, FitA devotes very little attention to smallholders. So little, in fact, that the word only appears in the list of references. To be fair, however: ‘small-scale farmers’ do appear, briefly, as the potential losers from other nations’ agricultural and trade policy, and as needing help to sustain agricultural diversity. Shifting diets to fruits and vegetables, legumes, soy, and nuts could provide substantial job and income benefits to smallholders, but at a considerable cost. Our work shows that introducing new crop rotations, sustainably intensifying input use, improving soil health and water efficiency, all need business models that are not yet proven, replicable and scalable. The mentioned needs to improve infrastructure and extension are small parts of the desired transformation. The report is silent on how adjustment costs related to local consumer behavior change and production response could be paid for.

That feeling that the report primarily serves a Global North agenda is reinforced by the list of Commission nations and organizations. The USA and Europe contribute numerous academics, on both the ‘diet’ and ‘agriculture’ sides. Encouragingly, India, Pakistan, and Indonesia are listed – but the rest of Asia is missing. A Mexican institution is the only one from Latin America. Beirut provides the sole Middle Eastern author. And the whole of Africa is represented – if that is the right word – by a single Zimbabwean.

In our view, the Commission missed some opportunities. More experts from the food chain could have added practical perspectives to those of the dominating academics. More authors from countries that depend heavily on smallholder farming could have widened the scope of thinking. (And it’s not as if there were no literature about small-scale farms!). Such authors could also increase the global acceptance of what is – let me repeat – a reasoned and well-documented summary of a hugely important topic. We hope that the meat controversies don’t distract from other important recommendations.​ We hope instead that the paper prompts much thought, and generates new forms of collaboration and commitment that can foster widespread improvements including for smallholders. 

Simon Winter, Executive Director
Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture