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Published 2022-07-07

Researchers: Stop patching up an unsustainable food system

The pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have placed a spotlight on the issue of our current food system and access to commodities. Instead of patching up an unsustainable system with short-term solutions and grants, politicians must now seize this opportunity to think about sustainability and preparedness as a single thing, to deal with the climate and environment crises, as well as others, collectively.

We are currently experiencing multiple crises – the climate and environment, a global pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Societies’ immediate vulnerabilities associated with food and commodities are becoming apparent, prices are rising and state subsidies to deal with rising costs risk locking us into old systems. During the Almedalen Week, Mistra organised a seminar on In times of crisis – how do we hold steady towards sustainable food, water an forestry? The expert panel comprised representatives from the Mistra Food Futures, Mistra InfraMaint and Mistra Digital Forest research programmes, as well as the Swedish Government’s Special Investigator for the A New Food Preparedness Commission, Ingrid Petersson.

Helena Hansson, Programme Director for Mistra Food Futures, highlights how the major problems we are experiencing in the food system are fundamentally due to us having an unsustainable system. Sustainability and preparedness are linked, she states.

“We need to ask what the system must be able to produce. We talk about an increased level of self-sufficiency, but for what and for whom? Self-sufficiency for the dietary habits we have now? Or for a shift towards a more plant-based diet that allows us to increase our level of self-sufficiency? Now that we are seeing urgent crises there is a risk that we lose sight of the long-term aim. It scares me sometimes, when I see proposals that lock the system into the old ruts. We are patching things up rather than thinking about what a new, more sustainable and resilient system could look like,” says Hansson.

Her colleague Therese Lindahl, a researcher with Mistra Food Futures, says that what we need now is brave politicians who dare to think beyond current policy instruments and who take the chance to contribute to a sustainable transition. She emphasises the importance of reviewing subsidies and how public procurement can be used, and that there is broad acceptance for the instruments that are used.

Sweden’s maintenance debt

Ingrid Petersson, Special Investigator for the A New Food Preparedness Commission, also sees the risk that the climate crisis will be overshadowed by what may appear to be more pressing crises. She also points out that many people who work with food preparedness are nostalgic and refer to the situation as it was in the 1980s and 90s, which is not comparable with today’s circumstances – the Swedish population has almost doubled and is less homogeneous, we were not in the EU and the climate was not in the spotlight.

“It is incredibly important to take account of the research being done now. We need both the long-term thinking and the short-term action,” says Petersson.

Magnus Arnell, Deputy Programme Director for the Mistra InfraMaint research programme, also focuses on the issue of water and Sweden’s huge maintenance debt for water and sewerage infrastructure. This is also an issue that will become even more pressing as the climate changes.

“The Geological Survey of Sweden’s warnings about low water levels are as frequent as the weather forecast; it is a challenge every summer, not least here on Gotland. Industry consumes 70 per cent of our water and many sectors have huge potential for saving and reuse, where the right water quality is used for the right purpose.”

He also highlights the reuse of nutrients and discussions about cleaning wastewater and utilising nutrients. Public acceptance is important here.

“We need to look after infrastructure to maintain the functions we are accustomed to. More money is necessary, as well as organisational expertise, knowledge and institutional capacity for dealing with the maintenance debt. There is a need for political capacity, especially at municipal level, where administrative units and companies are commissioned to deal with this,” says Arnell.

“Telepathy is a vastly overestimated means of communication”

Timber commodities and forestry’s role in and for a changing climate is the subject of intense debate. Sverker Danielsson, Programme Director for Mistra Digital Forest, emphasises the societally important products that come from forests – everything from hygiene products to food packaging and construction materials. He brings up the idea of contingency supplies for the types of products we know we need now and in the future. From a more long-term perspective, Danielsson talks about the value provided by forests, not least for the climate and biodiversity, and that we need new perspectives.

“If we look at farmed and non-farmed forests, growth will increase and therefore carbon capture. The forest is an incredibly vast CCS machine that we should value more and develop further. One personal reflection is that we should set national climate goals where, instead of looking at the percentage that non-farmed forest represents, we should look at the value we should deliver and how we achieve this,” says Danielsson.

Maria Wetterstrand, CEO for Miltton Europe and a board member of Mistra Digital Forest, highlights goals and goal conflicts for forestry and timber commodities. She sees that the focus on forests is moving from processing, more growth and more production, to forests as carbon sinks. Here, she believes that the simple solution is to work for a greater proportion of the timber ending up in more products with longer lifespans. Instead of becoming a major conflict, she sees the importance of bringing together forestry interests – carbon sinks, preserving biodiversity, indigenous peoples, wind power expansion and the circularity of commodities and nutrients.

Wetterstrand has a background in politics and believes that researchers are not involved enough in politics – particularly researchers in the natural sciences, environment and climate.

“Telepathy is a vastly overestimated means of communication. Tell us what you know. There are no guarantees that politicians will do exactly what you want, but they will at least bear it in mind when they shape their political proposals, and that is worth a great deal.”

The panel participants also sent messages to the politicians. Magnus Anrell highlighted the importance of prioritising infrastructure maintenance. Sverker Danielsson stated that politicians should not overregulate Sweden’s forest-owners, but allow them to farm their forest because they are best suited for this.

Helena Hansson emphasised that now is the time to open up for a new type of food system, rather than patching up the present, unsustainable one. Therese Lindahl’s message was to provide more support for agriculture and think in the long term, where policy includes some sort of compensation to promote behavioural change.

The Swedish foundation for strategic environmental research supports research of strategic importance for a good living environment and sustainable development.