Using the wrong measure of success is certain to lead to the wrong solutions being adopted. In the economy at large, the narrow pursuit of GDP growth remains the primary tool used by policymakers to assess progress. This has motivated economic strategies that have delivered short-term GDP boosts, but in ways that have harmed the environment and disadvantaged many groups in society.
Food systems are no different. If the measures of progress are too narrow or too focused on the short term, the long-term outlook will suffer. In food systems, success is often reduced to increased yields, net outputs and net calorie availability on a global level. More is better and quantity trumps quality.
This allows many crucial factors to fall through the cracks. How resilient are yields in the face of environmental shocks and disease outbreaks? How much do they vary from year to year? Where and to whom is food made available, and with what nutrient content? How well do these systems preserve the natural resource base for the future? How much employment do they generate, and under what conditions? Do consumers know where their food comes from and how it was grown?
Though some proposals have been made to address this gap, there is no consensus yet on the metrics that can capture these factors comprehensively. But we do have emerging examples of food and agriculture systems that are capable of sustaining, stabilizing and improving yields, preserving the environment, providing decent employment and secure livelihoods, and delivering diverse, nutrient-rich foods – in the places where they are needed most.
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