Reflecting on my experience and my hopes for future food systems

This blog from Maggie Hamilton is the fifth in a student series. The aim is to share perspectives and reflections while she provides support to Nutrition Connect, and how global conversations around nutrition and food systems connect to her studies and future ahead.

As my time supporting Nutrition Connect concludes and a new year brings different adventures and opportunities, I have been reflecting. Reflecting on the progress made in the year 2021 while also looking forward to the work yet to be done. Like the general tone of the past few years, there have been some big ups and downs within food systems work and all pursuits for justice everywhere in 2021. As a young person invested in sustainable food systems and the myriad of intersections that term encompasses, it is easy to get bogged down in all that needs to be reworked, rethought, or torn down. But in this last blog of the series, I want to take time to share some highlights that give me hope for the future of our food systems.

In 2021, food systems received some much-needed attention with the first ever United Nations Food Systems Summit (UNFSS). Corporations, farmers, member states, youth and other stakeholders from around the world gathered to review progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals that are linked to our food systems, and inspire action to achieve them by 2030. It was encouraging to see such varied and diverse stakeholders sharing thoughts and ideas while also understanding that there is a lot to be done. It’s important to note that this ‘People’s Summit’ was criticised by many for relying too heavily on the participation of powerful corporations which control the global supply of seeds, agricultural inputs, food processing and distribution. And while it is important to be critical of such gatherings and understand motivations, conflicts of interest and other complexities related to our food, we must also agree – at least on some level – that these international dialogues are a necessity.

As a young person I know I can embody a somewhat bright-eyed, academic naivete. I wish for radical changes within our food systems; I hope for a food system that supports both proper nutrition and planetary regeneration. But I know we can’t just blink our eyes and wake up to a radically different food system. Understanding an overnight paradigm shift isn’t realistic, something that has given me hope in our current system has been businesses stepping up and taking ownership and responsibility for their role in justly feeding the world. Over the last year, I have heard statements from leaders of big and small businesses commit to practices that will improve nutrition and reduce environmental impacts of their products. Oatly, for example, provides plant-based dairy milk alternative that has a small ecological footprint. While oatmilk may not be an option or solution for everyone, companies like this – which are willing to critically analyse the impact of their product, both on human and planet health – can help create a world that shines a little brighter. But companies can’t do this alone. All sectors, i.e. the government, civil society organisations and private companies, need to come together and develop an integrated approach to some of our most pressing issues and create solutions that are realistic and implementable.

Through Act4Food Act4Change I have been able to have honest conversations with corporate representatives from all over the world. With Bayer, for example, I listened to their current practices and then was able question how they can be more just, equitable and sustainable in the future. It has been extremely encouraging to have these conversations with different players in the food system. I have much to learn about this ever-evolving space and global system, and it has been such a joy to have open, intentional and productive conversations with those dedicated to creating a tomorrow that is more nutritious, accessible and sustainable.

Before this experience with Nutrition Connect, I did not have a true grasp on how complex, nuanced and varied the players and the relationships are within our food systems. Primary producers, governmental bodies, nonprofit organisations, market retailers and consumers, all dance a weird tango together that creates the food system as we know it. With obesity on the rise, soil nutrients on the decline, exacerbated climate change and finite natural resources, food systems challenges are daunting. But at least now we are talking about some of the problems, which is so important because it’s impossible to fix something if we don’t acknowledge that it’s broken. Through education, dialogue, research, and community action we can strive toward a better, tastier food future.

I am looking forward to living and learning - in and out of the classroom - about what it will take to fix our food systems as I engage with organisations and businesses across the food system, and strive to be a conscious consumer. And while I know individual action is powerful, I am ready to be part of the collective, all-encompassing, systemic change that is necessary to make our food systems more nutritious, sustainable and equitable.