This post was first published on the Aotearoa Food Policy Network website.The International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food) are pathfinders, shining a light on the deficiencies of industrial food systems and lighting the path to sustainable food systems. Their latest publication Towards a Common Food Policy for the EU is the result of  3 years of collaboration that provides a compelling roadmap for Europe with principles easily translated to the rest of the world.


Using a systems perspective, IPES-Food dissects the integration of food, consumption and  health systems that have overtime wrought havoc our environment, health, economy and society.

Five “vicious cycles” are described.

  • the failure to put sustainable farming first
  •  techno-fixes that sideline the real solutions
  • the hidden costs of cheap food
  •  the untapped potential of alternative food system initiatives
  • export orientation – a race to the bottom.

Figure 8 from the full report (page 76) illustrates connections between food production processes, policy and social and economic outcomes.

Vicious cycle 3 page 76

The report identifies five major paradigm shifts embodied in these goals, supported by a new governance structure for sustainable food systems.

1: Ensuring access to land, water and healthy soils

2: Rebuilding climate-resilient, healthy agro-ecosystems

3: Promoting sufficient, healthy and sustainable diets for all

4: Building fairer, shorter, and cleaner supply chains

5: Putting trade in the service of sustainable development.

Ipes paradigm shifts

Five objectives (page 39 of the full report)

The report also details concrete steps towards these goals. Here is a segment illustrating objective 2. Short term actions are in the outer ring with medium term actions, the inner circle. It is easy to see how most of these could translate to New Zealand.


Actions to achieve sustainable food systems (page 110 of the full report)

An advantage Europeans have over us is their federal system of governance. Individual nations retain autonomy to experiment and innovate and the whole union can watch and learn. The report provides examples of some progress towards sustainable food systems in European countries.

In 2015, the Dutch government brought food policy onto the agenda of the EU Agriculture Council, and held national consultations on developing a comprehensive food policy, based on recommendations from a government-commissioned report by the Netherlands Scientific Council for Government Policy.

The French Government adopted a ‘Food Law’ in 2018, following a public consultation on food systems (États Généraux de l’Alimentation). The law establishes comprehensive objectives for achieving sustainable food systems, including ambitious targets for the provision of organic food in public canteens, reduction of plastic use, more robust legislation on animal welfare, and the separation of pesticide sales from farm advisory services.

In 2016 the Swedish Government passed a bill setting a national food strategy to underpin the country’s efforts to meet the SDGs. The Food Strategy lays out a comprehensive framework to develop a competitive and sustainable food supply chain by 2030, including safeguarding access to local and regional plant varieties, improving access to productive land and water resources, and increasing national organic food production and procurement.

In 2014, the Scottish Government published its national food and drink policy, ‘Becoming a Good Food Nation’. The policy is backed by a series of progressive and integrated reforms, including a reduction of GHG emissions by 80% by 2050, robust support for SMEs to access public procurement contracts, and provisions in Scotland’s Community Empowerment bill to improve local food growing and allotment initiatives. A UK-wide civil society process involving 150 organizations has also developed a comprehensive vision for sustainable food and farming systems in a post-Brexit context: a ‘People’s Food Policy’.

page 25 of the full report

We in New Zealand have a long way to go to embed sustainable or regenerative food systems, and the policy that will support it. The current nexus of  government policy, industry interests and our consumption patterns are a major impediment to progress, and for effective change we need to foster a vision as clear and compelling from this and other IPES-Food work.

Food evolution and health in Aotearoa

Our focus at Local Food Northland is about the shift from industrial food systems to sustainable food systems. For us to better understand our current food system reality, we look back to look forward. This is the first of three posts to explore the tides of history that have shaped our food system.

Two hundred years ago was mostly populated by Māori and they ate mostly fresh food – some was dried for preservation or perhaps fermented. Over the last two centuries our dietary patterns have changed dramatically. In conjunction with changes in health care we have longer life spans, but the consequence of our twenty first century diet is an alarming increase in diet-related disease. As my colleague at NorthTec, Nigel Studdart writes:

We are what we eat and what we are becoming is an increasingly overweight and unhealthy population.

There are three major drivers of dietary change in Aotearoa, the impacts of colonisation, industrialisation and consumerism.

food evolution aotearoa


Before the arrival of Europeans, Māori were isolated in Aotearoa and there was therefore no imported food. Neither was food processed beyond cooking, drying or fermenting.

1700s garden

This image from Te Ara is an artist’s impression of a 1700s garden in the Auckland region (drawing by Nancy Tichborne). 

Gardens were community enterprises with crops grown including taro, hue (gourds) and kumara. Helen Leach’s book 1,000 Years of Gardening in New Zealand documents pre-colonial gardening. It includes a drawing by one of Captain Cook’s crew of an East Coast garden with kumara, yam, taro and gourd.

According to Te Ara (The Encyclopaedia of New Zealand) Māori had a life expectancy of about 30. This is low, but better than that of Britain at the time. But “by 1891 the estimated life expectancy of Māori men was 25 and that of women was just 23 (Te Ara). We cannot attribute this to diet, as disease, alienation from land, war, and war’s inevitable consequence, poverty, saw population decline and life expectancy reduce.

Māori adapted quickly to the new foods bought by Europeans, soon producing large quantities of food including potatoes, fruit and meat. By the mid 1800s, Māori were producing flour in their own mills from their own wheat.

Imported foods began to supplement local diets and the appetite for sugar was such that the Chelsea Sugar Refinery was established in 1883. Sugar is increasingly associated with the incidence of non-communicable disease (NCDs). In a food environment where Māori were struggling with the aftermath of war, European diseases, land alienation and the impact of tobacco and alcohol, sugar became another health burden. The world view of the colonialists was shaped in part by social Darwinism and assumption of the innate superiority of Europeans, especially English. In this context, Dr Isaac Featherson said it was the duty of Europeans to “smooth down … [the] dying pillow’ of the Māori race.” Thus the food landscape for Māori in the second half of the nineteenth century was not conducive to health.

The communal approach to gardening was probably one factor that enabled Māori to sustain and recover the population.

Maori population graph

This graph (from Te Ara) shows Māori population from 1841 to 2006.The decline post-Treaty took almost a century to recover. Arguably, the homogenising of assumptions of colonisation continued largely uncontested and dissenting voices unheard through the middle decades of the twentieth century.  The Māori renaissance of the late twentieth century laid the foundation for reshaping the food environment, but the forces of industrialisation and consumerism invoked another form of colonisation that dominated the food landscape as we shall see in the next two posts on this topic.




Why we need food policy

Our current food system doesn’t serve us well. My perception is that it has evolved into an ideal money making machine – for those who have positioned themselves to harvest the economic benefits. Most of us identify the dynamic below that would seek to lock us in to dependency on big players in the food and health industries.


A recent report from the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems identifies food system dynamics and advocates for a European Union Common Food Policy.

In Europe, as here, there is increasing consumer choice around food purchases, but little choice around the food systems that produce that food and deal with its consequences. Problems are exacerbated by siloed thinking, conflicting motives, disconnected policy and self-interest.

The need for new policy responses is made all the more pressing by the multiple crises now afflicting food systems in the EU and around the world, from burgeoning obesity to environmental degradation and pressures on farmer livelihoods. Our current political systems and policy frameworks are ill-equipped to address these crises. The policy tools affecting food systems do not respond to a set of agreed priorities. Instead, our food systems are the by-product of political compromises struck in various fora on the basis of various competing interests. The lack of a coherent food policy, cutting across sectors and joining up different levels of governance, means that accountability is hugely dispersed. When poor outcomes arise, no one can be held to account. With neither a pilot nor a flight plan, it is possible to ignore how badly food systems have veered off course (page 1).

The report positions this problem as a major opportunity. This resonates with our Northland experience.

Food is an entry point for joined up policymaking across multiple sectors and governance levels; sustainable food systems can provide a benchmark for actions in all of those areas. It is also a promising entry point for repairing democratic deficits and reconnecting European citizens with the policy measures put in place by their elected representatives (page 1).

The report is part of a “three year participatory process of Research, Reflection and Citizen Engagement”. With little sign of our government showing such resolve, we are at least raising awareness of the dire need for food policy reform. Please help – the first step is to engage. You can read the report here.

Dr Barbara Burlingame presenting at the Local Food Northland conference

Dr Barbara Burlingame will be presenting at the Local Food Northland conference on 13 and 14 February at NorthTec next year.

Dr Burlingame achieved her undergraduate degree at the University of California and then was awarded a PhD from Massey University. She is returning to New Zealand to take up a new role at Massey.


Dr Barbara Burlingame speaking during an FAO seminar on nutrition and environmental sustainability, as part of the preparations for the Second International Conference on Nutrition (ICN2), in November 2014. Photo credit: ©FAO/Giuseppe Carotenuto

We are fortunate to have a presenter of such calibre here. She has spent the past 16 years based in Rome, working for the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, including the last four as Deputy Director of the Nutrition Division.

The following video reveals her knowledge on nutrition, diet and sustainability – a great fit with our aspirations. You can read more about her here.

Free fish heads

Here is a great example of software facilitating better resource use. The ability of software to facilitate direct connections between producers and consumers are important in developing more sustainable food systems – in this case, reducing food waste.

Free Fish Heads from Tightlines Television on Vimeo.

Here is a link to Free Fish Heads.

The iPES-Food report – from uniformity to diversity

In June 2016 the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems released its first thematic report, From Uniformity to Diversity: A paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems. The report advocates the shift from industrial food systems to sustainable food systems.

The failure of the industrial food system is presented starkly in the figure below, from page 9 of the report.

iPES Food industrial food systems failure

Failures of the industrial food system.

In 2015 4.7 billion suffered from inadequate nutrition, that is 6 out of every 10 people. While other global systems are complicit in this failure, collectively we have failed, given the technology we have, the education systems and the exploitation of cheap energy sources.

The report states:

Today’s food and farming systems have succeeded in supplying large volumes of foods to global markets, but are generating negative outcomes on multiple fronts: wide- spread degradation of land, water and ecosystems; high GHG emissions; biodiversity losses; persistent hunger and micro-nutrient deficiencies alongside the rapid rise of obesity and diet-related diseases; and livelihood stresses for farmers around the world.

As someone working at the local level towards sustainable food systems, it is heartening to know that at the global level awareness of the failure of orthodox systems are rising, and there are organisations uniting people from diverse nations to take action. The transformation of our food systems is a place where we can think globally and act locally. Of all of the critical systems that support our economic and social well-being, food is a catalyst for change.

The report includes excellent analysis of the eight “lock-ins” that perpetuate the industrial food system. We can erode their influence with the opportunities emerging around the planet.

  1. Policy incentives for diversication and agroecology
  2. Building joined-up ‘food policies’
  3. Integrated landscape thinking
  4. Agroecology on the global governance agenda
  5. Integrated food systems science and education
  6. Peer-to-peer action research
  7. Sustainable and Healthy Sourcing
  8. Short supply chains .

I commend the work of the iPES-FOOD panel. Enjoy their report.