Tom Arnold: "Supply chains must become more resilient"

Tom Arnold is an Irish agricultural economist who leads the expert group studying the necessity of an International Platform for Food Systems. He explained that the sustainable transformation of food systems has only been on the agenda for around ten years, and that the language has changed considerably in this time.

The agro-food sector is responsible for 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions, while biodiversity and water quality are severely affected by agricultural activities. At the same time, we are faced with the triple burden of malnutrition, with an estimated one in three people worldwide suffering from malnutrition, hidden hunger (a shortage of nutrients) or obesity/being overweight. Together all these factors are generating considerable political momentum for the transformation of food systems. The UN’s Food System Summit in 2021 was an important milestone according to Arnold; 140 countries have since been discussing the required changes in dialogue groups.

COVID-19 as a turning point

Arnold also described COVID-19 as a turning point: “The pandemic has shown us how vulnerable our food systems are, partly due to the long supply chains. They can be made more resilient, for instance by growing more food locally. And in a sustainable way.” He expects the war in Ukraine to become a driver of change in the longer term, pointing to the fast initial increase in energy prices and the expected trend for that to continue: “This is making farmers reconsider their energy consumption while rising food prices will increase the focus on regional food security. The European Commission has already identified this, publishing a paper on the topic in March. Another significant factor is that the African Development Bank wants to spend a billion dollars on stimulating food production in order to depend as little as possible on imports.”

Scientists as influencers

Arnold looked back on the early 1970s, when there was genuine concern about global hunger at the highest political levels. “Today’s worries are more complex: how do we feed ten billion people and combat climate change at the same time? We need the same commitment we had back then, with scientists serving as influencers of policy and politics. With its long history, Wageningen is perfectly positioned to start this discussion.”