Afton Halloran, Elene Shatberashvili, Dmitry Kostarov discuss sustainable food systems transition

26.05.2021 (Caucasian Journal). Today at Caucasian Journal we are talking about sustainable food systems: The Nordic experience and its applicability for Georgia. Our guests are Dr. Afton HALLORAN, a Denmark-based expert in sustainable food systems transition, Elene SHATBERASHVILI from Elkana Biological Farming Association, and Dr.  Dmitry KOSTAROV, head of agricultural television channel Saperavi TV and independent winemaker.

Our  interview can be watched or read in two languages. Below we present the full English text version of interview.  ქართულად: The Georgian text version is here
▶ For video version, click here.

Alexander KAFFKA, editor-in-chief of CJ:  I would like to thank Afton Halloran for making this interview for us, and my first question is: We know that Nordic countries are among the leaders in sustainable food systems transition. Why is it so, and if you share a little bit of your knowledge and approaches to this problem we would be very grateful.

Afton HALLORAN: Hi, my name is Afton Halloran, and I’m an independent consultant in sustainable food systems transitions. I work with different organizations and agencies to understand how they can transform the food system. So when we talk about the food system we need to talk about the different dimensions of the food system. For example, the human dimension, societal dimension, but also the economic dimension, the ecological or environmental dimension, even the political dimension. So when we consider all of these dimensions as a whole and how they influence food, and what we produce and what we consume, and everything in between, we see this as a system, as a whole.

So why is it so important to talk about the food system in the 21st century?

Well first of all if we look at the environmental dimension or the ecological dimension, global food systems are the largest single driver of environmental decline.

And then when we look at it from a biodiversity perspective we can see that food systems are the primary driver of biodiversity loss, because of unsustainable forms of food production.

For example, through deforestation to create further crop land, when we look at it from a resource perspective. We also have to consider food waste, that globally one third of food that's produced is lost or wasted. Also when we waste this food along the value chain we're also wasting resources. About eight percent of global greenhouse gas emissions that are produced by humans are coming from food waste, and this is something that can be prevented.

So when we look at it from a human nutrition perspective, or a societal perspective, we know that malnutrition is a definitely a challenge on a global level. One out of nine people go to bed hungry every day - still, in the 21st century!

At the same time one in three people are consuming too much food, and we have an issue related to obesity, in addition to diabetes. Poor diets are claiming the lives of more than 8 million people globally, or basically 14% of the total deaths. This is this is a problem.  Our diet should not be killing us.

So when we look at society as a whole we also see that within the food system there are massive imbalances, and many people don't have access to nutritious and high quality food. So this is another reason why we need to pay attention to food systems.  We also know that about 80 percent of the world's poor live in rural areas and are highly dependent on agriculture. We know that small scale farmers are very much dependent on this form of livelihood, but also they're much more susceptible to having their livelihoods threatened by climate change, for example.  Also many people depend on the food industry for their livelihood not just for agriculture, but also in terms of production, in the retail space. In terms of manufacturing  this provides an income to many people but many of these jobs are insecure, or they provide a low wage,  and so this is again a concern within our overall analysis of the sustainability of food systems.

A lot of my current work focuses on the different entry points that we can identify within the food system, that we can use to make interventions, and in the end see change and transformation within the food system.

Together with colleagues from the Nordic region we've identified eight different entry points that are applicable to this region of the world, but can also be applicable in many other places.  Before I get into this it's important that we talk about contextuality.  When we identify the different entry points that work in a given country or region, it really has to be context-specific.  I’ll speak more in general terms now, so this can perhaps be applied to a Georgian context, or to other contexts in the world.

One of the areas where we see a strong entry point is around food environments. Food environments are the physical and the digital and the social environments, where we make decisions about our food. So this is coming from a consumption angle.  These environments are extremely important because they're affected by policy; they’re affected by economic decisions, by socio-cultural decisions. And this in turn influences what we eat and how we eat. This could be for example how advertising focuses mainly on unhealthy foods, encouraging us to eat foods that are maybe high in salts, fat, and sugar - as opposed to focusing on the ones that are healthy for us.

If we can normalize food environments that encourage healthy and environmentally sustainable dietary patterns, this is one potential way that we can start to intervene in the system. And then of course from there you would decide what exactly needs to be done but certainly this is something that we've identified as important here in the Nordic region. 

Another issue is around circularity. There's a lot of talk about reducing waste in the food system, but circularity can also be brought up to another level. It's about recycling the flows of resources. If we understand byproducts not as something that's to be thrown away, but something that can be used and have value added to it, this is going to enable us to move towards more sustainable food systems. 

Another an entry point that we've identified is around food culture and identity. This is something that's not static but very much dynamic, and that we can influence over time. Food culture is the combination of our preferences, norms and practices that influence what we produce, what we consume, and even what we throw away.  What we found here in the Nordic region is that food culture can be changed, and what we've seen over the last 15 years is a huge renaissance of Nordic food culture.  The New Nordic food movement was started by a group of chefs, and then you had support from the government to create this new  Nordic food identity. And so we've seen this massive change, over a very short period of time and it's still happening. This is really good example of what happens when you cooperate and collaborate with different parts of the system to restructure how we want to see our identity.

If we globally, but also at smaller scale levels, can reassess our food cultures and identities and take the parts that lead to healthy and environmentally and socially sustainable outcomes, and also economically sustainable outcomes, we can help to restructure our food culture. 

Another entry point is around diet and meals. We know that here in the Nordic region the average diet is both unhealthy and environmentally unsustainable. So something needs to be done.  

One way of doing that is to look at dietary guidelines, and of course all countries would have those. In relation to how they can be updated, many countries now are moving towards including environmental sustainability - looking at both human and planetary health in tandem.

Another way is to change dietary patterns and the way that we eat. It could be through the public sector - through school meals, hospital meals, but also in the private sector - looking at how to assist the private sector to offer more options that are healthier and more environmentally sustainable.

Another entry point is around food supply chains.  Currently most food supply chains are very long. We buy food from different places in the world, and there is a lack of transparency and traceability in supply.  If we were to make transparency an objective, then it would be possible to understand where our food has the largest impact - so if we are importing it from other places in the world, are we actually outsourcing some of our environmental impacts to other places, that maybe have more resource scarcity, including water? So the traceability and transparency aspects will not only be important now but well into the future. And this is also where technology can play a major role.  

Our other entry point looks at sustainable and resilient food production. I’m not going to tell you exactly what that looks like, because it varies between context, and there are so many different dimensions that would influence what is considered sustainable and resilient in terms of where you are in the world, you would need to consider the social the environmental and economic dimensions there, when making a choice around what methods of agriculture are the best. But we know that from our assessments that the future will be governed by production systems that are taking ideas from traditional ways of doing things but also combining them with new high-tech ways of doing things. 

The second last entry point that we've identified was around food production and food producers. These food producers are in many ways an undervalued part of our society. These are the people who produce the food that we consume. And we know that more and more young people are not interested in going into agriculture anymore. So how do we encourage food production to be a desirable livelihood, and something that we reward as a society? How do we make it attractive, sustainable and respected? That's a big question, and of course we've seen here in the  Nordic region that a lot of younger people who are gravitating towards food and agriculture sectors are interested in incorporating technology into their ventures. And of course that's showing up in other parts of the world, too. 

And the final entry point is around cities. We know that the majority of the world's population now lives in urban centers, so cities can't be ignored when we talk about sustainable food systems. So this could be for example change or transform through municipal governments. 

An example here from the city of Copenhagen is that the city has a strategy to offer more plant-based foods in public institutions, and to lower the amount of waste generated through the canteens and in the public sector. So this is one way that this can be changed to encourage sustainable and healthy food systems.

And in terms of Georgia - well what a wonderful and interesting country, one that I have yet to visit. What you have in your food system - you have a massive tradition in both food and agriculture, but also wine-making. Looking ahead to the future it's important to build on the past, and the things that have worked - the most resilient sustainable forms of agriculture that you want to bring with you into the future - the cultural elements of your society that you want to preserve and hang on to, but also develop upon as you move forward. 

One day I hope to come visit and see the wonderful food systems that you have in your country, but also to meet the very interesting people there. Until then thank you for inviting me to chat with everyone, and looking forward to coming to Georgia sometime soon!

AK: Thank you very much, Afton, for your remarks. Let's discuss what we have heard from you. I’m sure this is all quite relevant to Georgia, and perhaps Elene and Dmitry would like to comment on this, and tell about the situation in our country?

Elene SHATBERASHVILI: Hello and thank you for inviting me. I represent Biological Farming Association Elkana. Elkana is an organization which works on organic farming and sustainable agriculture development since 1994 in Georgia. 

Why is a sustainable food system approach relevant for Georgia? Because it applies to consumers, to producers, and it aims at changing the whole food system.  In case of Georgia there are several entry points. From the producer side there is a need of awareness-raising of the producers and informing them on the importance of what they do, because we have this historical legacy, because of which farmers are more or less marginalized. The value of the knowledge is downgraded in farming systems, so in modern days knowledge is the most important for food production and sustainable food production. On the other hand it's very important that we look for new technologies, try to make the work of the farmer easier from physical perspective, and improve the position of the farmer in a society - as a person who really cares for the environment and for their consumers.

AK: Thank you, Elene.  I think you have just pointed the things which Afton was talking about - traditional attitude to the farmers in Georgia which might be a problem, and that we actually are facing the same problems as the Nordic countries have been facing.  So I guess some of the approaches which the Nordic countries are using now might be quite applicable in our country. What do you think?

Dmitry KOSTAROV: Yes, it is very important to be on time, when we speak about sustainable food concepts, and we see what changes were done in Nordic countries, and there is a high demand on high quality food. So this is good opportunity for Georgia to be one of suppliers for it.  Yes, unfortunately the demand for high quality farmers in Georgia is very low, but at the same time if we pay attention to these demands in the developed countries, Georgia could take the very important place in this food supply chain. We have one of the best climates, ground and water conditions in Georgia, so it means that we can produce  such kind of food that other countries cannot do.  

AK: What are the main problems in Georgia - is it this traditional thinking? If it is the problem, perhaps the education should be the key solution? Or is it perhaps regulation - the governmental policies, which might be adjusted? Or perhaps is it insufficient financing?

DK: Before the disintegration of the Soviet Union there was a system; right now we don't have this system and we have to build it up again.

AK: You mean governmental regulation system?

DK: Yes, government regulation system. We don't have big players in our market right now. I can say we have chaos in our agriculture. We have a lot -  more than 200.000 – farmers, but they don't know what they should produce, what kind of quality the final product must be.  For example, the mandarins. Let's say the average price for mandarin is about 30 tetri, it's less than 10 cents, but if they had the quality that the Nordic people are looking for, they will be ready to pay a dollar maybe two, maybe three dollars per kilogram.  But this information about demand our farmers do not have, and this kills our agriculture.  So what we have to do - we have to provide this information to our farmers, we have to invite big players in our country.  We have to pay attention to this demand and not lose our chance.

ES: If we want sustainable food system we have to make reforms and we have to make interventions, of course the regulations and policies should be changed, but also it should include access to resources, information, financing but also the food supply chains market information etc. And I would agree with Dmitry that the future of Georgian agriculture is in producing high quality organic products because of the climate conditions, and our rich food tradition. This is our niche, this is our advantage, and that is why it's very important that the government policies have this vision. 

And of course key is the information and knowledge, but then other support tools have to come in. Our vision, as an organization of agriculture development, is that the Georgian production should not only focus on exports, because it's a, so to say, very “backward-looking” perspective. Export is very important, but in terms of sustainability it's very important as well that we have stable local markets, that local production has a serious niche in local consumption and diet, if we want to influence the food habits, and the connections between consumers and producers. 

This is how you make the profession of the farmer more prestigious - by connecting them with the consumers, so that the consumers understand how much efforts and intellect is put in what is on their plate.  I think this is from where you start and then you also have the vision of export.  It should be um focused on high quality products, but it's very difficult because, as Mr. Kostarov also mentioned, Georgian agriculture is very much scattered, and the food product consolidation is a problem, and keeping product quality is a problem. By introducing standards and sustainable production practices like organic production, we increase the comparative advantage of Georgian products. Another dimension is geographic indications.  This is also very important because it shows the food culture of Georgia, that we have certain types of cheese, wine and many other products which are really unique. 

We believe in our organization that this is the future of Georgian agriculture, and of course this should be connected with the coexistence of export orientation and the short local food chains, where consumers and producers support each other.  It will also increase nutrition of the people in Georgia, because if you have products directly from the farm they are more healthy especially if they are organic products.

AK: Dmitry, you are representing mass media – television, and Elene, you're representing the civil society.  What can be done from the point of view of civil society and from the point of view of mass media, to improve the situation?

DK: Our role is to provide our people with this information, to pay attention to what you're eating, pay attention to what your child is eating. The best quality food this is a healthy food, this organic food. Of course technologies: We have to provide these technologies and trainings. A lot of work must be done. This is our role. 

ES:  Elkana has been working for more than 25 years on agricultural extension. One interesting initiative actually focused on the export market in the field of hazelnut production, where we work with the local association of smallholder hazelnut growers in Western Georgia, and help them to introduce internal control system for organic production.  This is an interesting example because this is the first example of big internal control group of farmers who produce according to certain standards and criteria together, all of them.  

DK: This is very important step because we have small farmers and it's very difficult for them to receive these certificates for organic production.

AK: I’m sure we shall continue our project and perhaps involve more experts from European Union because obviously this is quite important experience, and can be used in the South Caucasus as well.

DK: Thank you very much, Afton. We're more deeply in practice here, and you have showed a more general view, and now personally I have understood much more.  

ES: I’m grateful to Afton for her brilliant input. We hope that in Georgia the  sustainable food system approach will become more and more important also in terms of political discussions.

AK: Afton, thank you very much, and I hope we will see each other in person in Georgia very soon.
Read the Georgian language version hereView the video here

Caucasian Journal
 appreciates kind support of Royal Norwegian Embassy in Tbilisi in preparation of this interview.

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