Arlene Mitchell is Executive Director at the Global Child Nutrition Foundation, where she recently led a comprehensive Global Survey of School Meal Programmes (available at www.gcnf.org). A thought leader in the area of child nutrition, education and agriculture, she has previously worked for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the UN World Food Programme.
What are the main global challenges related to food availability and food safety today?
I think the biggest food availability challenge is getting food where it needs to be, when it needs to be there and to the people who need it most. This involves overcoming issues related to seasonality, quality, safety, diversity and shelf life, which all affect access to safe and nutritious food. Our global food system works reasonably well where populations are wealthy, but often fails to serve vulnerable and poorer populations.
The system is interdependent at a global level and requires all elements to work together – from farming research and fertiliser inputs, to harvesting, processing, packaging and transportation. If any of the elements break down, the entire system can fail, which can affect quality, safety and supply to the consumer. This makes the global food system sensitive to social crises or environmental crises, like drought and water deficiency, often with disproportional impact on the most vulnerable and the poor.
What impact has the COVID-19 pandemic had around the world?
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted just how vulnerable our global food system is. Illness in the workforce can affect food production and transportation, and closed borders have restricted the movement of food. School closures during the pandemic also prevented school feeding programmes from providing at least one nutritious meal per day for school children. The pandemic has affected many parts of the food chain and I think we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg in terms of its long-term mental, physical and societal impacts.
What role has good packaging played in school feeding programmes during pandemic?
When schools closed, governments and implementing partners had to quickly alter how they reached children. Systems were changed to enable children and vulnerable families to pick up ‘take home rations’ from schools, food banks and community centres, and door-to-door delivery systems were also used. The need for social distancing completely changed the concept of quantity as instead of serving a plate with food on it, take home rations included a variety of fresh and packaged foods. Packaging became more important than ever to deliver safe food to consumers and children, which involved a different approach in the food supply chain.
How does packaging help to ensure food availability?
Packaging is fundamental for the availability of safe and nutritious food as it reduces the potential for food to become contaminated between processing and reaching the consumer. It also reduces spoilage and food waste by extending the shelf life of seasonal produce before the consumer can safely eat it. Then there are the ‘invisible’ benefits of packaging that we only notice when they don’t work, for example if a package breaks or doesn’t stack efficiently. Well-designed and right-sized packaging enables efficient and safe transport and storage.
What role can packaging play in demonstrating food safety for consumers through greater trust?
This issue of trust is particularly sensitive around food. Whether consumers accept a new food item on the market or a known product in different packaging will depend on if it is trusted. People are experiencing heightened anxiety around the world right now due to the pandemic and political turmoil, which increases distrust. So it’s incredibly important for consumers to have access to certain brands and packaging they know and trust to provide the food they need.
One third of all food is lost or wasted somewhere along the food supply chain. What role can packaging play in helping to reduce food waste
Packaging can play a major role in reducing food waste by extending the shelf life of food and avoiding contamination. In low-income countries, inadequate processing and packaging solutions result in significant food waste through post-harvest losses in production and transport. Packaging can significantly reduce this waste, particularly if we develop solutions specifically for low-income countries.
What do you think are the key learnings around food security from the pandemic?
The pandemic has graphically demonstrated the need for better nutrition globally to make us stronger in the face of health threats. It has highlighted the need to develop resilient back-up solutions in our food systems that can be quickly implemented in the event of crises. We additionally need to develop systems that are both more local and closer to the consumer, as well as more resilient systems for transporting food over long distances with longer shelf-life packaging. Finally, we need to build public trust as well as consumer understanding of food systems, safety, quality and nutrition.
How can regulators and consumers be made more interested in food safety
Educating consumers to demand quality and safety will drive regulators. But as regulators are consumers themselves, we need to engage them on a personal level. I always recommend we start with children: Do you want your own children to have safe food? If so, then what can we do to ensure that for everyone?
Do you see a potential conflict of interest between securing food safety and availability and the climate goals?
Securing food safety and availability while also protecting the environment and achieving climate goals presents challenges, but is not impossible. We have all the knowledge and tools needed to work towards both at the same time, and it is critically important that we do so. The real question is whether we can muster the will and invest the necessary resources.
What expectations do you have on packaging from a climate perspective?
We are seeing a very positive trend of what I would call climate-friendly packaging. This is packaging that is made using renewable resources and which is biodegradable and/or recyclable. We are also seeing a trend in consumer awareness and demand for more climate-smart packaging. That said, we have a long way to go in this space, and must step up our efforts to move towards 100 per cent climate-friendly packaging.
How can packaging help secure safe and nutritious food for almost 10 billion people by 2050?
I think it goes back to how we improve the vulnerabilities in the food system and ensuring we have back-up systems when we encounter crises. This will become increasingly essential in the face of climate change, which will put our global food system under greater pressure in the coming decades. We must also work to ensure that consumers understand what healthy and nutritious foods are, to combat the growing issues of obesity and undernutrition.
The main issue is not the lack of food – it’s more about getting food to where it’s needed when its needed. Here, packaging clearly plays a crucial role in securing safe and nutritious food for the global population by providing efficient, transportable and safe packaging solutions. I believe the role of packaging in the global food system will only increase in importance in the future as we work to ensure everyone has access to the safe and nutritious food they need to survive and thrive.