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Unilever: Reconnecting with Nature to Build Better Food Systems

Image Credit: Cool Hunting

The Farm to Fork Disconnect

Nowhere is the disconnect between people and planet more evident than in our broken food system. For the vast majority of human history, people lived in rural communities shaped by the natural environment. The ebb and flow of seasons, the right amount of rainfall and its impact on the all-important harvest, dominated lives and livelihoods. But today, over half the world’s population lives in an urban dwelling and by 2050 this is predicted to increase to 70 percent. With the rise of sprawling mega cities comes obesity and its related health problems; with a shrinking and aging rural population comes poverty and malnutrition; in the meantime, the gap between the farm and our forks grows ever wider.

The environmental cost of agriculture on our finite resources is huge. Farming uses up to three-quarters of the world’s available freshwater and agriculture-related deforestation, livestock emissions and soil degradation contribute to climate change. But the disconnect between what we grow and what we eat has an even greater impact. Research conducted by the British Nutrition Foundation reveals that nearly a third of British primary school children interviewed believed that cheese came from a plant and one in five had never visited a farm. Without any connection to nature, it is not surprising that we reject ‘wonky’ vegetables or throw away perfectly good food that could be made into nutritious meals. While around 800 million people don’t have enough to eat, roughly 1.3 billion tonnes of food is lost or wasted every year.

Reasons to Be Hopeful

Technology is playing a big role in changing the food value chain for the better, improving techniques and logistics to transform how we grow and transport food. And innovation in urban agriculture – such as the rise in technology-driven vertical farming – may soon give more city dwellers access to locally grown produce. Consumers are also becoming more aware, embracing local food waste initiatives and shifting to ‘flexitarian’ diets that are higher in plant-based foods, grown with less impact on the planet. But if we are to truly bridge the gap between farm and fork, we need change on a much larger scale.

The theme of World Environment Day 2017 is ‘Connecting People to Nature.’ It’s a call to re-engage with the earth – its bounty and its boundaries – something Unilever’s focus on sustainable living brands has made us well placed to support. That’s why we have chosen World Environment Day to launch our Sustainable Nutrition Manifesto – our roadmap to becoming a progressive food company, and our commitment to food that tastes good, does good and doesn’t cost the earth. Key points from our Manifesto include:

  • The current food system cannot continue as it is. Finite resources and food wastage are increasing the strain.
  • Responsibility for bringing about this change needs to be widespread. Governments, consumers, businesses and producers need to be more accountable and effect change.
  • For Unilever, we have been thinking for some time about what a progressive food company is. Our new sustainable nutrition strategy sets out how we can play our part and contribute towards a sustainable global food system from farm to fork – this will involve helping to ensure ingredients are widely available, affordable and grown sustainably.
  • An approach needs to look beyond the farm gate as well – the energy, water and other natural resources used when food is transported, stored and consumed.
  • Our aim is that food continues to bring health and wellbeing to people. One example of our approach is to increase nutritional content in our foods – with a long-term view that we can inspire people to cook delicious, nutritious meals from ingredients that are good both for them and the planet.

Collective Action

Today, we are also kicking off our Farm to Fork series – a collection of blogs, videos and infographics in partnership with other organisations and individuals – calling for large-scale change to the food system.

Over the next few months, a number of expert voices will give their perspectives on what’s needed to fix the broken food system, culminating in a global ‘call to action’ on World Food Day, 16 October 2017. This month, we focus on the total food system. Dr. Jason Clay, Senior VP of Food & Markets and Executive Director of the Markets Institute at World Wildlife Fund, has spent his career bringing business, governments and NGOs together to improve environmentally sensitive practices in agriculture. Here, Dr. Clay gives us his five key steps to a sustainable food system.

We know we can’t effect global change of the scale that is needed on our own. If we want to achieve Sustainable Nutrition for all, we need to work with others in the food and related industries – NGOs, governments, farmers, suppliers and importantly, consumers – to change the relationship between the production and consumption of food. Only by reconnecting the farm to our forks – at every step along the food value chain – will we build a new system that supports the health of future populations and the planet.

A version of this post first appeared on the Unilever website.

Amanda Sourry is Unilever's President of Foods and a member of the Unilever Leadership Executive. She is passionate about food and nutrition, and proud to lead Unilever's global Foods business where its purpose is ‘food that tastes good, does good… [Read more about Amanda Sourry]

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