The world’s food system is on a dangerous trajectory. Most of the world’s population eats too little, too much, or the wrong type of food – at an unsustainable cost to the environment, health, and political stability. Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals will depend on a food system simultaneously capable of delivering greater volumes of more nutritious food with a lower environmental footprint.
Food – the way we grow, catch, transport, process, trade, and consume it – is central to the main challenges facing humanity.
We must change course!
Tackling these challenges will require a new relationship between food, landscapes and people, backed by science and based on an infusion of knowledge, tools, policies and business models. The global food system can be harnessed to solve some of humanity’s greatest challenges.
Food systems are a major driver of the unsustainable use of the planet’s increasingly fragile ecosystem. Water, land, forests and the biodiversity they contain are precious, yet finite, natural resources. Agriculture and food systems account for up to 29% of greenhouse gas emissions, and yet will be profoundly affected by the more rapidly changing climate that those emissions cause. Agriculture is driving the loss of the world’s forests and productive land, with 5 million hectares of forests lost every year and a third of the world’s land already classified as degraded. Agriculture accounts for about 70% of water withdrawals globally, is a major cause of water stress in countries where more than 2 billion people live, and water pollution from agricultural systems poses a serious threat to the world’s water systems.
Yield increases of staple crops have slowed, yet more food will need to be grown in the next 33 years than in the 10,000 years since the agricultural revolution began. Production and distribution will be challenged by population growth, dietary change, climate change and environmental decline. A diverse range of affordable and nutritious food – in particular, fresh fruits, vegetables and nuts – is limited in many markets, especially for the poor. Most of the growth in food required will need to come from increases in productivity across the food chain, and in harmony with the natural environment. Additionally, maintenance of active food markets and open trade are challenged. Food price crises have the potential to return in the future for various reasons including climate change, which increasingly creates correlated shocks in global and local food markets.
EQUALITY OF OPPORTUNITY
Social and economic inequalities are pervasive across food systems. Inequality in decision-making and control of productive assets and resources has major consequences for food security. It is one driver of conflict, which in turn is a key driver of migration. Progress towards gender equality is patchy across the globe and in various sectors, including in agriculture. Vast differences in rights, conditions and recognition reflect serious gender inequalities and a marginalization of women in agriculture even as primary production is increasingly being “feminized”. Inequalities in access to land tenure remain a major challenge.
The dietary equation is currently unbalanced. More than 800 million people are chronically undernourished, while two billion people suffer from micronutrient deficiencies, and an equal number are overweight or obese. Diverse diets are often unavailable, implying that improved products have to be thoughtfully delivered into value chains and markets, at the nexus of dietary education and reinforcing conditions such as public intervention in domains as diverse as regulation in different respects, including food safety, and sanitation and water quality. The use of chemical-based fertilizers and pesticides also risks exposure of the public or agricultural workers to health risks. Growing concern about emerging infectious diseases, of which many are zoonoses, highlights the need for informed interventions to control such diseases, which threaten production and human health. Anti-microbial resistance is a major emerging issue driven in part by the food system.
JOBS and GROWTH
About three-quarters of the world’s poor rely on agriculture and natural resources for food and livelihoods. More than 85% of the world’s 1.2 billion youth live in developing countries where meaningful employment and entrepreneurial opportunities are limited – contributing to migration and political insecurity. Stable rural and urban development requires jobs for the growing number and proportion of young people in the coming decades. Mechanization in food systems presents both opportunities for productivity and employment risks for some. Growth in the rural economy will be dependent not only on increasing jobs in agriculture but also wealth accumulation to allow farm family members to find off-farm employment. The Blue Economy is an often overlooked but critical element of livelihoods and sustainability.