On November 26th 2020 I presented The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Food Sustainability Index (FSI) as part of a panel discussion on the science of characterising and assessing the transition towards more sustainable food systems. The session was part of the 3rd Global Conference of the Sustainable Food Systems Programme, which focused on achieving the Sustainable Development Goals through food systems transformation. The conference is an important precursor to the Food Systems Summit 2021.
A summary of my intervention is below.
The FSI, developed by The Economist Intelligence Unit with the Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition (BCFN), measures the three main pillars of sustainable food systems identified in the 2015 Milan Protocol: sustainable agriculture, nutritional challenges, and food loss and waste.
It is a comprehensive index that looks at a broad range of both input and output indicators (37 in its latest edition, of 2018) and a wide range of countries (67 in its latest edition). Thus, it covers more than 90% of global GDP and four-fifths of the global population.
Criteria for choosing the indicators
As the FSI is based on an authoritative document—the 2015 Milan Protocol—it has three clear areas of focus (sustainable agriculture, nutritional challenges, and food loss and waste).
Data availability is a constraint, as the FSI includes a wide range of countries and therefore requires credible sets of comparable data. The FSI is meant to show a snapshot of the state of food sustainability that can be tracked over time, thus creating a longevity perspective.
The Economist Intelligence Unit looked at existing quantitative data (outputs), methodologies that exist to create our own quantitative data (e.g. food waste) and qualitative, interview-based data (policy and other inputs, exploring what’s being done to address food-sustainability challenges). We also rely on the efficacy of outcomes indicators, for example lower food waste (output) could be an indicator that food-waste programmes (input) are effective.
The need for prioritisation
Index developers always face tough decisions about how many and which indicators to include. There is a trade-off between the need for rigour to capture the complexity and multi-dimensionality of food systems and the need for simplicity to aid decision-makers in using the index to make better decisions.
The FSI is a comprehensive index, covering almost all facets of the issue. However, by focusing on three broad categories it also enables easy access and usability by decision-makers. We have been adding indicators over time, but we have needed to tread carefully as we have to give access to metrics across all countries. The breadth of the FSI’s coverage is driven by the need to bring a diversity of food-system stakeholders together, including policymakers, researchers and corporates.
Theory of change
Indexes are often based on a “theory of change” that looks at the outcome you want to drive and then works backwards to the indicators you need to drive that outcome.
The EIU’s research programmes often start with the need to provide a credible evidence base rather than with a specific research outcome in mind. Hence, we started with the three crucial food-system challenges and contradictions (see below) rather than specific outcomes. This makes the index rather neutral and non-prescriptive in the sense that it does not impose a specific theory of change through its choice of indicators.
- Food loss and waste: Almost 1bn people suffer from hunger, but a third of food is lost or wasted. Food waste amounts to four times the amount needed to feed the people suffering from undernutrition worldwide.
- Sustainable agriculture: Climate-change effects on agricultural systems are becoming more visible, but harder to estimate. Although agriculture can help to capture carbon emissions and help mitigate the impact of climate change, the ecological footprint of agriculture is growing. Meanwhile, the rise of biofuels as an alternative energy source threatens to reduce the land available to grow food.
- Nutritional challenges: The hungry and the obese coexist. Rising rates of obesity strain healthcare systems to the point of economic unsustainability. For each person suffering from undernutrition there are two who are overweight or obese.
Using indices to inform policy can be challenging given that sustainability indicators are usually not the same as drivers of sustainability, let alone good policy levers.
While the FSI focuses on sustainability indicators and food-system outcomes, the index also recognises the importance of drivers of change and policy levers, such as income equality, human rights and access to finance and insurance.
Food systems are dynamic amid changing environments and agricultural growing conditions, rapid population growth, shifting consumer preferences and markets, and scientific advances. In order to ensure the FSI’s longevity we update the index frequently, including removal of indicators if they become defunct or irrelevant. We update existing indicators, but we recognise that year-on-year comparison is not always possible as we increase the number of countries. For example, we aligned the FSI’s 2018 edition more closely with the SDGs, adding indicators on opportunities for investing in sustainable agriculture, access to finance, protection for land-users and environmental biodiversity.
Ultimately, the index’s relevance and longevity is intrinsically linked to the way the index is communicated. We have done this mainly through engaging white papers (for example on best practices or focusing on specific regions), news-driven articles that link the index to the news agenda or food-related awareness days, and a blog programme involving food-system experts and thought leaders.