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The future of food systems and biodiversity regeneration

Pictet Asset Management at The Klosters Forum

Future of food

Global nutrition: “Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is”

The challenge of feeding the world’s eight billion people while also preserving biodiversity provoked lively discussion at this year’s Klosters Forum in June on the ‘Future of Food Systems and Biodiversity Regeneration’. 

“There is trickery in food, especially when food is produced in ways that destroy the relationships that are a prerequisite for sustainable food in the future,” said writer-educator Nora Bateson. 

“People don’t eat nutrition, they eat food. So, what is food?” Bateson asked. Her answer was that it isn’t just agriculture, but also “about culture, about relationships, about the soil, about the generations that have worked the soil.” She proposed “warm” data as a way of reconciling these various issues. Warm data, Bateson explained, was about “mixing stories, biodiversity, ecology of ideas and education to perceive the interconnectedness of things, sharing information across contexts from chemistry to politics.” This meant recognising that “how the relationship between culture and identity plays out in food is very important.” Warm data “is fun”, she explained, “because it is connected to memories, to your own life.”

What do you think is the biggest environmental challenge on the future of food?

Another forum participant suggested we look more seriously at how to get diverse, nutritious food to the world’s 600 million people who do not have access to secure food sources. But apart from the traditional question of undernourishment, according to her, there’s also the fast-growing issue of obesity, as well as other problems linked to nutrition, including heart disease, diabetes and forms of cancer. The solution, she said, was to prioritise access to diverse, more nutritious food and to resist the fashionable view of “food as medicine” in favour of an approach based on “food as health.”

There’s a complex challenge in measuring agricultural ‘progress’ or scientific advances while also taking account of the risk of collateral damage if we accept the US-based Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Education’s definition of a food system as “the interrelationship of agricultural systems, their economic, social, cultural, and technological support systems, and systems of food distribution and consumption.”

We still need a common language to define environmental biodiversity and then measure it.

The director of a major conservation organisation at the forum warned that science had its limitations and was often open to the charge of reductionism. “We can all use the same science and come to different solutions. Science can be the truth at a certain point of time, but it is the whole truth throughout time,” he said. While acknowledging he was “not sure we can feed the whole world through an ecological agricultural approach,” he argued that science had to change. “It is quite uncomfortable for scientists to emerge from their silos,” he said, “but the most interesting transformational ideas have come from those scientists that have done different things.”

“Nature has historically been viewed as priceless, so we have never priced it. Now we have to price it, we don’t know how,” one forum participant said. “What has been the effect of attempts to intensify agriculture on the natural capital of a country like Zimbabwe, for example? We just don’t know because farming sustainability is not adequately measured,” he said. Even more fundamentally, we still “need a common language to define environmental biodiversity and then measure it,” he said. For example, what is the real meaning of “sustainable intensification,” which is described by one international body as “an approach using innovations to increase productivity on existing agricultural land with positive environmental and social impacts.” He argued the term was “inadequately defined.”

Another participant thought that a bridge between science, with its fixation on tangible results, and sustainability could be found in the writings of Rudolf Steiner, the so-called ‘Scientist of the Invisible’, who rejected the division between scientific enquiry and dimensions of reality at the periphery of science such as emotional chemistry. “Science is good at coarse matter and energy, less good at fine measures,” he said.

We have failed to help the young make sense of the world in which we find themselves.

Integrating the human element into discussion about biodiversity and food production could contribute to those “fine measures” one United Nations representative suggested. We need to frame the question of food sustainability in emerging markets and elsewhere in terms of “how to help farmers make a bit of money and support broader communities at the same time,” he said. “If you frame the question in terms of empathy and ways of doing business, you can get a better outcome,” he argued. He pointed to India, where pressure to produce more food per square metre of land led to a spike in suicides before a move away from pure productivism was found to produce better food more profitably. 

The UN official thought youth and its aspirations would be key in the struggle for a sustainable food system. “Up to now,” he said “we have failed to help the young make sense of the world in which they find themselves. This has got to change. Interconnections between generations and disciplines is the key.” 

Lamenting the “vested interests” which he felt continued to dominate various international food summits and the lack of consensus on food sustainability, another forum participant also placed his faith in youth, among whom he detected an underlying, if hard-to-define, “shift of consciousness.” He quoted Bob Dylan: “And something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is.”

Sustainable agriculture

Sustainable agriculture: thinking big and small

Both relatively small organic dairy farms in Wales and giant cereal operations in Iowa have a role to play in the ‘future of food systems and biodiversity regeneration’ that formed the theme of this year’s Klosters Forum. Of course, their approach to this future is slightly different. 

Patrick Holden, who is CEO of the Sustainable Food Trust in the UK and runs Holden Farm Dairy in west Wales, tries to be self sufficient when it comes to feeding the 80 cows whose milk produces the dairy’s organic hard cheeses. 

As CEO of the Sustainable Food Trust and on his own farm, Holden said that he aimed for a form of biodiversity “that can coexist with a working, sustainable farm, using native breeds bred in closed systems and using native seeds.” His efforts include using local water springs for water and avoiding the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Self-sufficiency on Holden’s farm extends to animal feed, bedding (and even semen).

Holden relies on what he calls “holistic grazing,” which he defines as “transforming pasture without sacrificing biodiversity.” He is a believer in the notion of behavioural epigenetics, claiming his humane approach to nurturing his cattle shapes their behaviour, leading to better outcomes. With his herd adapted “epigenentically” to the local environment, he said, “you gain maximum health benefits for cows that all feed on grass and grain grown on the farm.”

Holden admitted that there was a certain amount of divergence within the movement for greater sustainability—for example, on the role of livestock, which he believes are essential to soil revival. But he said that “much food can be produced without diminishing natural capital. Indeed, the evidence is there that rewilding and biodiversity produce healthy, nutritionally dense food.” Lamenting the use of commercial nutrients and animal feed, Holden is against productivism, arguing that its “hidden costs” in terms of damage to public health and natural capital do not appear in any statistics. Instead, he argued that avoiding waste, changing distribution and feeding populations differently could achieve better outcomes for the common good. 

Did you know? Food systems are responsible for more than
of global greenhouse gas emissions
Source: UN, March 2021

Industrialisation not a dirty word

Benjamin Riensche, owner and manager of Blue Diamond Farming Company, farms 18,000 acres of cropland in Northeast Iowa. Deprived of European-style subsidies, Riensche has to respond to market forces. But he argued there was not necessarily a contradiction between the huge industrial-sized operation he runs and the aspirations of those seeking a food system producing nutritious food in a sustainable way. “I can feel when the market will reward me for being more sustainable,” he said. For him to respond to the demand for better nutrition and sustainable food, Riensche said he needed “a pathway for consumer preferences in my market system. But at the end of the day, I just need to be paid.” 

Riensche felt that technology and a degree of serendipity might help. For example, he thought that research into carbon sequestration was an interesting avenue worth exploring, helping both productivity and farmers’ incomes through practices that reduce soil disturbance. And by linking farms like his directly with consumers, Riensche believe digitalisation could be a way toward responding faster and more effectively to the demand for sustainable food. 

Digitalisation could be a way toward responding faster and more effectively to the demand for sustainable food.

Riensche said that 20 per cent of the land he farmed had already “transitioned,” and while he said he could not overhaul his farming system overnight, he admitted the model of largescale production has to change. He pinned more hope on technology than on government policy to effect incremental change in this direction. Since “most farmers want to pass their farm onto the next generation,” any move toward food sustainability that increases the odds this happens had his blessing, he said. Yet with a big-farm approach world far removed from that of small-scale organic farmers in Europe, Riensche was adamant: “I’m not a gardener and I don’t keep pets.”

Farming within planetary boundaries

Holden, who calls himself “a gardener from Wales and a pet owner,” argued that “we need to get farmers into planetary boundaries” that gauge the sustainability of different forms of agriculture. As an alternative to the multiple audits – “all measuring similar things in a slightly different ways” – Holden explained that the Sustainable Food Trust was aiming to find agreement on a number of metrics that would help establish those planetary boundaries. These could be used as a “toolkit to work towards regenerative agriculture” for use not only by farmers, but also by food companies and governments, as well as by investors to inform their investment decisions.

But it was not a case of never the twain shall meet. Inviting people to come and visit (or even work!) on his farm, Riensche suggested more modest farms were perfect avenues for innovation that could be scaled up by bigger operations like his, and that a lot could be gained if farmers from different regions shared their ideas.

Planetary Boundaries: beyond climate change

November 2019


No one solution fits all nutrition problems

Solutions-based management of the food system is “one of the biggest levers we have to address major global social and environmental challenges in one go,” as Gillian Diesen of Pictet Asset Management’ Thematic Equities team told her audience at this year’s Klosters Forum. But forum participants had various views of what those solutions should be. 

Diesen argued that, first, three key questions need answering. How can we convince people to stop consuming food products that were bad for them? Can technology investments in areas such as lab-grown meat and plant-based food be a solution to food resource problems? And how can one guarantee food security while preserving biodiversity and the environment. 

Forum participants identified several problems contributing to demand for unhealthy food. People’s ‘sweet tooth’ and social pressure – ie “if all other kids are eating candy, it is hard to prevent your own from doing so” – meant nutrition and nutritiousness have long been thorny issues in the western world. Even food advertised as vegan contained a lot of additives, participants pointed out. And then there was the problem of conflicting messages – not least because some products have developed a reputation for healthiness even though they’re not. 

How can capital best serve transformation of the food system?

The role of governments came up for scrutiny. “The question arises whether government should interfere with food choices the same way as they do in drugs,” said one. Admittedly, governments face a conundrum: how to reconcile cheap food for urban dwellers while ensuring a decent income for farmers. And where does responsibility for ensuring nutritious food is available and accessible “in an epoch where people have less time to cook?” asked one participant. 

The practical solutions participants proposed ranged from cutting down the packet size of sugary and processed foods to making bigger efforts to educate consumers on nutrition. Some went so far to advocate the same kind of clampdown on advertising sugar products as the one on tobacco. Some participants said governments also had a role ensuring technology-based food solutions were made more investable by providing more guarantees and ensuring genuine traceability.

The cost of outsourcing our diet
Average caloric and nutrient intakes for US individuals 2 years of age and older

Source: USDA, Nutritional Quality of Food Prepared at Home and Away From Home, 1977-2008, December 2012

As for the question of new technologies’ role in ensuring food security, there was broad recognition among the forum’s participants that while more economic incentives were needed for farmers to provide more nutritious food, there’s also the risk of over-dependence on some technologies. In any case, one participant pointed out, “nothing can mimic natural photosynthesis.” There was also recognition of the need for a “common language” consisting of globally accepted standards, protocols and metrics to advance the cause of food security and sustainability. 

Other participants questioned the idea of understanding food resources as a single problem. “Just as in climate change, perhaps by considering the issue of food resources too narrowly, we may be forgetting other issues. We might even be creating problems,” one suggested. Yes, climate change and population growth are concerns, but the technologies that enabled the likes of lab-grown meat were seen as “linear monoline solutions to multilateral, non-linear problems,” she said.

The Klosters Forum

What is The Klosters Forum?

The Klosters Forum is a not-for-profit organisation, offering a neutral platform for disruptive and inspirational minds to tackle some of the world’s most pressing environmental challenges. Its mission is to accelerate positive environmental change by developing and nurturing a growing community of leading thinkers and doers and by fostering cross-disciplinary exchange and collaborations.

Every year, the Forum hosts an environmental annual event connecting high-profile participants from the fields of science, business, politics and industry, as well as NGOs, creative minds and sustainability experts in a neutral and discreet environment. This year, the annual forum took place on 22-24 June 2021 with the theme “The future of agrifood systems in the context of biodiversity regeneration.”

Click here to find out more.

Pictet’s partnership with The Klosters Forum

Pictet Asset Management is pleased to partner with The Klosters Forum to draw attention to the impact the global food system has on biodiversity and society at large.

As stewards of global capital, we have the power to withhold or withdraw capital from businesses that fail to take their environmental responsibilities seriously. Governments, companies and their shareholders need to pay as much attention to humanity’s impact on biodiversity as they do to their carbon footprint.

Our partnership with The Klosters Forum aims to share knowledge by participating in open conversations and seeking solutions together.

Laurent Ramsey
Laurent Ramsey Group Managing Partner and co-CEO, Pictet Asset Management