The Future Talks- Food Systems Transformation for a Sustainable Future
As the United Nations Food Systems Summit comes to a close, we as Healthy Caribbean Youth take this opportunity to reflect on our current regional food system and its transformation. As young health advocates, we recognise that sustainable food systems are integral to the development of the region as we “build back better” from COVID-19.
But what really does this mean? The term ‘sustainable’ has become the new buzzword for many food companies trying to appeal to a younger generation of consumers who have become far more savvy about the industry than executives could have ever imagined; we want to know what is in our food, where it was made, who made it and, above all, at what expense to our environment. Our generation of young Caribbean citizens is striving to take ‘sustainability’ from an ambiguous, idealistic marketing ploy into actionable, accountable practices which will allow us to inherit a Caribbean society that treats our natural environment and our people, our most valued resources, with the reverence they deserve.
To those reading, have you ever given much thought to where your food comes from? How heavily it was processed or how far it had to travel to get to your plate? This is all part of a network of interconnected activities related to the production, transportation and consumption of food – the food system.
A food system can be very small. For example, having a backyard garden where you grow all your salad-fix-ins: lettuce, cucumbers, and tomatoes. When preparing your salad, you take a short trip to your backyard to harvest your ingredients, which are then transported to your kitchen where you prepare and serve your salad.
A food system can also be grand and require a complex web of activities to get to your table, for example, table grapes, which are imported to the Caribbean. At the very beginning of this system, a farmer harvests tonnes of grapes. These grapes are then transported to a processing area where they are washed and packed. They are then transported to wholesale retailers, some of whom might be miles away, to then distribute the grapes to retail stores and restaurants around the world. These grapes are purchased by consumers, who then transport them to their homes.
Over the years, our regional food system has changed due to evolving palates (often to a more westernized diet pattern), technological advancement and globalisation. These changes have granted us many advantages such as increased employment, decreases in food costs in some instances and accessibility to a global food market. However, our now evolved food system has also burdened our people and planet with multiple challenges.
One of the main challenges is the cost to our environment. The Caribbean imports more than 70% of all food consumed, creating a dangerous dependence on foreign manufacturers thousands of miles away. The long distance between farm and table requires large quantities of fossil fuels to transport, which generate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that contribute to climate change. In addition, our dietary patterns have become more westernized and meat dependent. Consuming meat-centred and dairy dependent diets accounts for more than 14% of global GHG emissions, more than the entire transportation sector. Therefore, a shift towards more plant-based and indigenous foods could have a significant impact on our carbon footprint.
Secondly, there is a significant cost to the health of our people. Food imported to the region is often ultra-processed, high in salt, sugar and fat, and typically much cheaper than local food and produce. As a result, our regional food system encourages citizens to choose these foods as they are more favourably priced and heavily marketed. Unfortunately, this leads to diets that are high calorie, high fat, high sodium, and low fibre – the perfect mix for the development of obesity and non-communicable diseases (NCDs) which burden our region.
All in all, this shows that the food we consume, our health and the environment are inextricably linked. Therefore, the Caribbean could strengthen food security and mitigate the effects of both climate change and non-communicable diseases by moving towards a food system that is more sustainable.
To achieve this goal, producers, consumers, and policy makers must meet today to create a food system that is valuable to our future Caribbean. While this is a huge task, there are a few things that we, as a population, can do to be a part of the solution:
Firstly, we can become ‘locavores’, ensuring that our food comes from local and regional suppliers as much as possible. We can shop at local markets or purchase our foods directly from farmers and meat/fish markets. We can come up with ideas to make use of the diverse range of foods the Caribbean has to offer. By opting for locally made and regionally sourced products, we can lessen the carbon emissions associated with food transportation, stimulate our agricultural economy, support our local farmers and avoid the exorbitant importation taxes of the region.
Secondly, we ourselves can have a hand at food production by starting backyard and community gardens. In the 20th century, it was very common for the average citizen to use the limited space they had to grow food or rear livestock to feed their families and to earn a secondary source of income. This shifted the reliance away from external, offshore, industrial producers to the individual as we were responsible for the quality, standard and safety of our own food to great success.
Moreover, we can aim to reduce consumption of meat and dairy, which does not have to be an all-out process. We can challenge ourselves to Meatless Mondays or having at least one vegetarian one a day.
Ultimately, we must recognise that we as consumers are part and parcel of the food system. Therefore, it is up to us to advocate for the changes we wish to see. This includes demanding that our policymakers implement policies which improve the sustainability of our food system such as increased climate resilience, improving access to markets for both producers and consumers and increasing the participation of vulnerable groups.
We, at Healthy Caribbean Youth, wish for a food system that is beneficial to both our people and planet. A food system that provides foods that are nutritious, healthy, and safe. One that is resilient, productive, efficient, environmentally friendly, and tackles the issues of malnutrition, poverty, and food insecurity.
The food system will always continue to change, but we must constantly be reminded the premise of a food system is to provide healthy food and nourishing meals to our people, in a way that is in harmony with and not destructive to the planet. We must never lose focus of this goal, or we will continue to raise a population fighting NCDs and climate change.
Janea Ifill is a registered nutritionist and recent BSc Nutrition and Dietetics (Hons) graduate from University of the Southern Caribbean. She practices in a private dietitian’s office in Barbados where she guides persons to manage and prevent health conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, obesity etc. through living a healthy lifestyle. Janea is a Healthy Caribbean Youth advocate.
Jared Spencer is a recent graduate from the University of Nottingham with an integrated master’s degree in Food Science and Nutrition and he is Technical Systems Coordinator at The Addo Food Group in the UK. His academic interests include the study of novel sustainable food systems and consumer behavior change within the food industry. Jared has been a Youth Advocate with the Healthy Caribbean Coalition since 2019 and is keen on creating an enabling environment which allows for the access of safe, nutritious and affordable food for all.
Kerrie Barker is a Project Assistant on the Healthy Caribbean Coalition Childhood Obesity Prevention Project, a coordinator of Healthy Caribbean Youth and the editor of The Future Talks Series.
Main image by Daniel Dan from Pixabay