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Food sustainability requires systemic thinking and action

Food sustainability requires systemic thinking and action

• Today's global security challenges such as food, water and energy are inextricably linked
• We need to find ways to change whole systems in order to live more sustainably

I don't know about you, but the closest I ever got to a Rubik's Cube, shortly after it was first launched in 1974, was to handle one in a toy store. For me, it seemed insoluble – and many assumed it was, until persistent cubers discovered not just one way to crack the puzzle, but many. And the cube came to mind as I thought recently about the astonishingly complex global security challenge we now face.

Back in the seventies we were challenged by a series of energy (or at least oil) crises, but now we see the energy security issue linking ever more tightly to food security, water security, climate security and so on. Indeed, when I sat down with Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute in Washington DC recently, he argued that the biggest mistake the founders of the sustainability movement made was framing the agenda as one for future generations. That was true enough then, he suggested, but today we are living through the early stages of the potential system crash the Brundtland Commission warned us about.

And all of this came to mind as I trawled through Appetite for Change, a new report from SustainAbility, backed by Nestlé, IBM and Sodexo. Apart from suggesting the title some time back, I was not part of the project team, so came to the analysis as an outsider. But the conclusions generally resonated powerfully with Lester Brown's – and indeed my own – in terms of the growing need for system change.

By way of an aperitif, SustainAbility notes that "in just the past couple of weeks, one of the worst E coli outbreaks in history has killed 37 people and made more than 2,600 ill, academics concluded that climate change will have more negative consequences for agriculture than expected, and the UN's Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organisation released a guide warning world farming needs a major shift to more sustainable practices as intensive crop production since the 1960s has degraded soils, depleted ground water and caused pest outbreaks."