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Transition to a sustainable agro-food system in Flanders: a system analysis

Issue 05-11-2012Our agro-food system is under pressure. The world population keeps growing, resources are becoming scarcer, and climate change continues to gain momentum. At the same time, food-related diseases such as obesity and heart and vascular diseases continue to rise, and Flemish farmers find it increasingly difficult to find a successor for their business. The new MIRA-AMS topic report analyses the tensions in the system and offers inspiration for managing the food supply chain in Flanders in a more sustainable way.

In the topic report ‘Transition to a sustainable agro-food system in Flanders: a system analysis’, Erik Mathijs (KU Leuven), Frank Nevens (VITO) and Philippe Vandenbroeck (shiftN) take a critical look at the organisation of our food production and consumption, from soil to spoon. In this way, the Flemish Environment Agency and the Agriculture and Fisheries Department aim to help scientifically underpin the debate and the development of a vision on a more sustainable agro-food system.

Agro-food system under pressure

The agro-food system as it has emerged (among others) in Europe, has brought about an abundant and varied supply of high-quality foods at low prices. Nowadays, however, this model is under pressure.

The report describes nine hotspots where the system is being pushed to its limits. For example, one characteristic of the current production model is the strong dependence on external natural resources such as fossil fuels, water, nutrients and proteins for animal production. This approach has resulted in high productivity, but also leaves the system vulnerable in the face of the explosive growth in demand for these resources.

Another characteristic of the system is the large number of highly specialised segments in the production chain. While this leads to high efficiency, it also diminishes the involvement of consumers with the food producers and in the production process. Moreover, such compartmentalisation stands in the way of the required integrated solutions. Other obstacles described by the authors include the succession issue in agriculture and the increase in food-related diseases such as obesity, food allergies, diabetes and heart and vascular diseases.

Inspiration for innovation towards sustainability

The report does not confine itself to an analysis of the problems, but also describes a series of innovations, bundled in four categories: urban agriculture, organic agriculture, eating differently, and new production paradigms. These innovations can help address the identified hotspots, and provide inspiration for making the agro-food system more sustainable.

The innovations described are very diverse. Urban agriculture, for example, may involve the development of gardens on wasteland and roofs, but also covers vertical greenhouses that combine intensive production with minimal use of scarce land. Community supported farms, where consumers participate in the production process, are another form of urban agriculture.

Eating differently encompasses not only meat substitutes, but also slow food, a trend that focuses on tasty, pure and fair food. Another trend is customisable food, which in the future may even be tailored to the genetic profile of consumers. The category 'new production paradigms' describes a number of new industrial and artisanal concepts such as Cradle-to-Cradle, 3D printing and peer-to-peer production, which could also be applied in food production.

Innovation is a shared responsibility of society at large

Rising raw material and food prices, the ever-pressing demand for an alternative economic system, and growing consumer attention to aspects such as local produce, animal welfare, healthy food, ecology and fair trade. These and other social developments can be instrumental in speeding up the transition to a sustainable agro-food system. The report demonstrates that such a transition is a shared responsibility of all actors involved: entrepreneurs, knowledge institutions, investors and government as well as social organisations and consumers.

researchers: Erik Mathijs, KU Leuven, Frank Nevens, VITO and Philippe Vandenbroeck, shiftN, in collaboration with MIRA, the Environment Reporting Unit and AMS, Department of Agriculture and Fisheries

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