Jorge Jorge Fonseca (FAO): “The consumer has the power to change the unsustainability of the food system”

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Jorge Fonseca is Programme Adviser of Food Systems Strategic Programme at Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). He’s an expert in food science and technology, packaging science, horticulture, agronomy, business administration, marketing and food governance and society. He has authored over 150 scientific and technical publications that address different aspects of food systems, particularly targeting issues of interest for the agri-food industries with one publication receiving a US national press award.

His latest work focuses on assisting United Nation member countries with developing sustainable, efficient and inclusive mechanisms to produce, transform and deliver healthy and safe food to consumers, both in rural and urban areas. He has a passion for contributing to solve food security and nutrition issues in a systematic way, emphasizing on the need to reach all with feasible elements to adopt diversified diets with the lowest environmental impact possible, and a balanced rural-urban economic growth.

Fonseca has been one of the professors of the two-week PhD Autumn school on Sustainable Land Use that had taken place in Budapest and Valencia.

Short food supply chains have positive economic, social and environmental impacts which contribute to the wellbeing of stakeholders by creating secure jobs and stable incomes for farmers, limiting waste within the food chain and negative impacts on the environment while providing healthy, nutrient-rich food to communities. Through analyzing real-life case studies, you will have the opportunity to explore the links within a short food supply chain, identify barriers and solutions for overcoming them.

This autumn EIT Climate-KIC school has enabled students from all over the world to analyse real-life cases, explore the links within a short food supply chain, and identify barriers and solutions to overcome them.

Which are the main challenges related to food at the global level?

An immense challenge is to be able to converge the interests of all the people involved in the food system. In a clearer way, the interests of consumers with the interests of producers.

Many times, when we talk about the justice of the food system we think only of the producers, or only of the consumers. Finding sustainable routes that encompass everyone is very difficult.

And how can we achieve this?

The Sustainable Development Objectives (SDOs) speak of partnership and that we must all come together to find context-based solutions. We need to involve all stakeholders, not just the food system.

The second challenge is how to make the food system part of global sustainable development. It is not something separate that we can tackle without touching on aspects such as infrastructure, transport, social security or migration. The great idea of ODS is to think in a systemic way. We must ensure that the world’s most important decision-makers really see the food system as part of the global system. We are on our way to achieving this. If we’re going to do it, I don’t know.

The third is related to the implementation of the actions. Achieving solidarity between the different parties, especially between those who have more economic power with those who have less, both in the export market and in the domestic market. Solidarity also means a good public-private partnership, being able to create ideal mechanisms to achieve this human solidarity through the food system. And with this, we will be able to reach so many people who are unable to pay for the added value that we are often adding to food.

May be doing distinction among developed and developing countries

The industrialized world has greater economic power so it can influence the way food is produced. If the demand for more sustainable products grows, I think we can achieve the more sustainable production we are looking for. This power of the private sector, which is continuously related to consumers, has in its hand the power to change the unsustainability of the food system.

And how can we persuade the industry to react to adapt to these sustainability needs?

It’s the $1 billion question. Who has the power, who is paying, or is the offer the one that can change that demand? Sometimes supply can change demand. In many places, there was no certain type of food and when you started to introduce a type of food in many cases were not nutritious, we see how now only eat that.

You can do educational campaigns, but it is also true that campaigns to promote certain products are also very strong.  I also understand the position of the private sector. Some are already changing with regard to social and environmental responsibility, but not all are doing so. The public sector must make a standardized regulation so that those who do want to change in the private sector force those who don’t want to. And education is very crucial in order to change behaviour.

Is FAO considering climate change from adaptation but also mitigation point of view? Carbon footprint?

Absolutely, there are many programs focused on intelligent climate technologies. We also support agroecology. We are very interested in biodiversity at FAO because nowadays, with the expansion of the urban area, we are losing a very rich biodiversity. It is in the soil that we have the greatest biodiversity on the planet.

I come from a country like Costa Rica, where 30 years ago at least 12 or 15 varieties of pineapple were easily eaten. In the 90’s suddenly changed to 2 or 3 varieties, no longer so acidic. And now there is only one variety, the same variety that you eat here. What are we doing to respond to the massive use of monoculture while we are losing biodiversity?

Biodiversity also affects the variety of the diet. We are working with consumers to educate them that more diverse diets are required, not only for human health but also for the health of the planet.

We have everything against us. If we look at the voluntary official standards of agricultural agencies and the quality classifications of fresh produce such as fruits and vegetables, we almost always find only 2 or 3 qualities. When a fruit has a spot larger than 5 centimeters, it is already disposable. And in some cases, it cannot be marketed.

Exceptions have sometimes been made, such as in the case of some US green apple producers where it was impossible to find apples of that particular variety without spots, despite having a very high production. These growers achieved an exception with this apple variety.

We need to revise some standards in many cases and civil society needs to put more pressure on this issue because a lot of produce is staying in the fields.

But we also need the support of the scientific community. These standards are aimed at product safety, to prevent a fruit from carrying a virus or a bacterium. It is the Academia and Research which must help us to assess in which cases there is no danger of harmlessness and in these cases there is.

 And the same applies to chemicals…

The use of chemicals is linked to the following question: Are we paying what we should really be paying for food?

There is a program called the Global Environmental Facility that offers money to stop the producer from using certain highly polluting products that in some cases have already been removed from the regulations but in many cases are still being used. But you can’t convince a small producer to say: You can’t use this anymore, you have to use what is less polluting if you don’t give it a good alternative and that’s always a better price. If they know they are going to keep getting the same price, they don’t understand any other way. It is very difficult when they are making so little money.

And then we go back into consumer education who have to understand that they have to pay more for certain products. And let it be fair. And the intermediaries should be aware that the producer’s price has to be a little higher.

Are fresh products too expensive for the population at large? Should healthy products be subsidized?

We work to be efficient, fair and at the same time maintain high biodiversity at low prices. Non-nutritious products have lowered prices tremendously. Some countries are beginning to alarm about what we are eating. Chile or Ecuador are doing campaigns very similar to anti-tobacco campaigns warning about foods with a high fat, sugar and salt content. And it has begun to have an impact. Even though they are cheaper.

The problem has been that products with low nutritional value have dropped a lot in price, so the other very expensive ones are perceived. Because society has focused a lot on things other than food and food has become just another commodity.

What are the problems you have identified in short food supply chains?

There are several problems. One is good communication between local governments and support for the national government. But above all, it is to agree on aspects that are interfering for both. When the local government of the largest urban part is a good leader there is not so much problem. But when we talk about intermediate cities, neighbouring and with rural areas, the dialogue is not always so good. If you want to promote productive sustainable corridors, the first thing you have to agree on is water resource planning. This generates tension many times because water is not only the jurisprudence of one government, but of several, and the struggle between the urban and the rural is created.

Another problem is that in some cases the cheapest brings the product from outside. And this struggle means that many times this transition is not achieved in order to sufficiently exploit the potential of short chains.

On the other hand, if there is good cooperation among producers to create associations or cooperatives, it is much easier to promote this internal market, because they function as a large company. And we have seen exemplary cases to be able to achieve this internal production. In some cases, for example, in Thailand, improving domestic production allowed them to generate a good image for export abroad as well. A distribution food chain that is highly productive does not always arise from products for export. There are other cases where domestic demand is key.

Another aspect is the education or awareness of consumers that the local is not only good in terms of nutrition but also has a positive social message, which is to keep their rural area healthy.

And what role does urban agriculture play, can it contribute to the sustainability of cities? 

When we talk about urban agriculture, not peri-urban agriculture, we are talking about cities of considerable size. We also have to consider that in cities of this size in the non-industrialized world there are not the same sanitary conditions that exist here. They don’t have enough water to produce. And if they produce there are serious health risks. There have been many cases of people having problems with products that have been produced in urban areas.

Another aspect is that urban agriculture has great potential to support food security. However, production levels are quite low.

If we look at it from the point of view of essential nutrients that do not come in meat products or products such as cereals, it is already contributing something there, because many times fruits and vegetables are not being consumed and in this way many talks about this type of practice promoting healthy eating.

In this sense, perhaps the greatest contribution (and reflected in the FAO book together with University College London, “Integrating food into urban planning”) urban agriculture is the gateway to citizen awareness. The re-encounter with land, vegetables and the rural area, and that made a movement in several cities that then moved to markets and ways of providing food.

Another factor of urban agriculture is the fact that it contributes much to the resilience of many vulnerable areas of cities as well. Especially if they are planting perennial trees.

In this sense, urban forests play an essential role…

At FAO, we are well aware that the urban forest is vital and we have placed it as part of the overall urban food action programme because we believe that if we focus on people’s well-being, it is not only where they are going to eat but also where they are going to walk. There is a quarter of the world’s population that has nothing around it but 24-hour pollution.

In addition, there is a lot of evidence that urban forests allow for lower energy consumption, maintain higher water table levels, aid mental health and improve air quality.

We wanted to include it in a programme linked to the food and green environment programme. If a person has few economic resources should at least have that, it should be part of the essential.