The Food Forever Solutions Summit: How the diversity of our foods can help feed us in a changing world

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Food of the future was the hot topic at the inaugural Food Forever Solutions Summit earlier this month in Washington, DC. Hosted by Foreign Policy in partnership with the Crop Trust and the Food Forever Initiative, it brought together high-level guests from government, agriculture and business to examine the most pressing issues facing the global food system. But it wasn’t just about the problems; the Summit also included a Food Forever Experience, one in a series of events we are putting on to provide a preview of tomorrow’s global menu and show why conserving and using diversity in food is so important.

The Food Forever Solutions Summit looked at two of the biggest threats facing humanity today: climate change and food security. The collaborative solutions focused on conserving land and soil, preserving crop and livestock biodiversity, promoting sustainable farming technologies, and embracing new foods and innovative business models.

The Summit kicked off with a view from the United States Congress, provided by Representative Chellie Pingree. This was followed by three engaging sessions in which experts provided guidance on how public policy, small-scale farmers, consumers and entrepreneurs can together promote more sustainable farming practices, reduce waste, and meet the challenge of feeding a growing population.

We are losing certain species of plants that are contributing enormously to our diets, and we need to start cherishing this diversity and consuming it.

Chellie Pingree, member of the United States House of Representatives

Speakers during these sessions included representatives of the Crop Trust, the US Agency for International Development (USAID), the World Bank, the World Resources Institute, PepsiCo, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Bayer, the American Farmland Trust, Virginia Tech University, Gallup, Upfield, Harborview Farms, Compass Group, and Foreign Policy. The Summit also included a conversation with chef and TV personality Carla Hall on how food trends serve to diversify culinary culture.

I always knew kale, but when it became a big thing, I was excited again because I knew that now I could find a new delicious leafy vegetable in markets across the country.

Carla Hall, Chef and TV personality

During the discussions, speakers grappled with some controversial issues. These included calls to reduce meat production worldwide in order to reduce carbon emissions; the merits of new technology-based rather than field-grown foods; whether the billions of dollars that taxpayers provide every year to support fertilizer use should instead be directed towards promoting a more diverse range of healthy foods; and the challenge of tackling deep-seated complacency in the agricultural governance and research agenda.

Roughly 60% of the calories consumed in the US are from four crops. This contributes to unhealthy eating patterns, exposes large amounts of crops to harvest failure, and eliminates the biodiversity necessary to make crops resistant to pests and diseases.

FP Analytics

Putting ideas on the plate

Following the main Solutions Summit, delegates attended the evening’s Food Forever Experience. This comprised a chef challenge and a reception that showcased some foods we might be eating in 2050 if we conserve and use the vast diversity of foods available to us. It was the latest in a series of Experiences that the Food Forever Initiative has staged around the globe, and highlighted the importance of conserving food diversity while serving up unusual ingredients with a potential role in the future of food.

Delegates had the opportunity to try locally sourced specialties and get acquainted with foods from around the world, presented by renowned chefs from the Washington, DC area – including Kevin Tien of Emilie’s and Todd Gray of Equinox. They tasted ingredients like the Blondköpfchen cherry tomato, an heirloom from Gatersleben Seed Bank in Germany; spent grains, a ‘waste’ product from the beer-brewing industry; and bambara groundnut, a rising African superstar among neglected crops.

Food solutions to go

Ultimately discussions at the Solutions Summit – and, less formally, over food afterwards – boiled down to six big takeaways.

First, real food solutions must take into account the interconnected nature of climate change, food security, agriculture and the food system as a whole. Second, new technology is a critical enabler of more efficient and sustainable practices, but shouldn’t overshadow high-impact traditional techniques.

Third, food waste is a pressing global issue with myriad causes, requiring multi-pronged solutions that go beyond public awareness to policies like revised liability laws for food donations.

Fourth, dialogue between government officials and farmers is badly needed, particularly on how sustainable agricultural practices can be incentivized. Fifth, more data-driven research and cooperation among governments, farmers, private sector entrepreneurs and researchers is also essential for substantive change.

And sixth but not least, increasing agrobiodiversity is a uniting imperative in these solutions. Chefs can play a role in introducing the public to more diverse and healthy dishes; governments can support farmers to expand production of alternative crops; and together we can think a little more deeply about all the foods the world has to offer.

A synthesis report on the Food Forever Solutions Summit, produced by FP Analytics, is available here.

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