We cannot live without food. We cannot lead long, healthy and happy lives without nutritious, healthy, available, and accessible food.
Yet, food is not merely a source of sustenance; it is intricately woven into the fabric of human life, culture, and the environment. Sustainable food systems can generate significant benefits to society through food, livelihoods, jobs and markets and can preserve the planet’s biodiversity and natural resources. But the balance is off. Our food systems are so unsustainable that they threaten food security and fail to provide healthy affordable diets for all, aggravating climate change and pushing natural resource degradation further.
With eight years remaining until 2030, the world is moving in the wrong direction. No targets related to food systems are going to be achieved in full by 2030. Unless we go beyond rhetoric and take concrete steps in an integrated way toward food systems transformation, the promise of the 2030 Agenda of life of dignity and prosperity on a healthy and peaceful planet for all will remain fiction.
Where do we stand? The paradox of food systems
According to the new FAO State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2023, global hunger is still far above pre-pandemic levels. It is estimated that between 690 and 783 million people in the world will face hunger in 2022. Considering the midrange (about 735 million), this is 122 million more people than before the COVID-19 pandemic. Over 2 billion people suffer from obesity and related health issues, a paradoxical coexistence. More than 3.1 billion people in the world – or 42 percent – were unable to afford a healthy diet in 2021 – an overall increase of 134 million people compared to 2019, before the pandemic. On the other hand, 1 billion people could be fed with the amount of food lost and wasted per annum (Journey of Food, 2023), another paradox. Even more paradoxically, existing policies have provided incentives for modern food systems to evolve in such a way that the cost of a healthy diet is five times greater than the cost of diets that meet dietary energy requirements only through a staple cereal.
Food systems account for a significant proportion of global employment. For instance, in Africa, agriculture employs 65-70% of the workforce. In 2021-22, the global food and vegetable processing market was valued at USD 204 billion. However, agricultural households constitute up to two-thirds of people living in extreme poverty worldwide, with women often being the most low-paid and vulnerable.
Food production is the largest cause of global environmental change. Agriculture occupies about 40% of global land, and food production is responsible for up to 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions and 70% of freshwater use. The conversion of natural ecosystems to croplands and pastures is the largest factor causing species to be threatened with extinction. At the same time, food systems and related livelihoods are themselves affected in the short and longer term by the intertwined impact of biodiversity loss and climate change.
What are the projections under the business-as-usual scenario?
It is projected that almost 600 million people will be chronically undernourished in 2030. This is about 119 million more than in a scenario in which neither the pandemic nor the war in Ukraine had occurred, and around 23 million more than if the war in Ukraine had not happened. This points to the immense challenge of achieving the SDG target to eradicate hunger, particularly in Africa. The health costs of unhealthy diets are also high – with diet-related health costs linked to mortality and non-communicable diseases (NCDs) projected to exceed USD 1.3 trillion per year by 2030. Global agricultural greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are projected to increase by 7.6 percent in the next decade.
Business-as-usual pathways and upscaling of current practices are not options if the global food systems are to sustainably and equitably meet the needs of the global population in the future. Fortunately, however, the challenge of transitioning food systems onto a sustainable trajectory is not insurmountable.
What is the challenge?
The fundamental question then is “How can the world adequately feed 8.6 billion people by 2030 in ways that help combat poverty, allow the world to meet climate goals, and reduce pressures on the broader environment?”
According to the OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook 2022-2031, the world population is expected to grow from 7.8 billion in 2021 to 8.6 billion people in 2031. Future demand for food is directly influenced by population and demographic changes, income growth and distribution, and food prices. Food demand will also be shaped by sociocultural and lifestyle changes, including urbanisation and rising female participation in the workforce, as well as increasing consumer awareness of health and sustainability issues.
Feeding the world by 2030 requires, as a minimum, in the next 8 years:
- A 10% increase in average calorie/person/day in lower-middle-income countries and 30% increase in average calorie/person/day in low-income countries;
- A 6% decrease in direct GHG emissions from agriculture; and
- A 24% increase in global crop yield and a 31% increase in global animal productivity.
Solutions to the current challenges are not a simple math exercise. Feeding 10 billion people – safely and sustainably – means reconceiving food systems, taking into account the entire food system – from production to consumption – and understanding each of its components, their relationships, and their immediate and long-term impacts (UN Environment, 2020).
Awareness of the unsustainability of the current state of food systems and the potential negative outcomes of the business-as-usual scenario is universal. Understanding of the pathways towards sustainable agrifood systems is also emerging.
Catalysing transition towards sustainable development pathways through agrifood systems transformation
A key challenge that restricts the successful transformation of food systems is that existing national, regional and global policies, strategies, legislation and investments are compartmentalized into distinct dialogues. These challenges can be overcome through the formulation and implementation of cross-sectoral portfolios of policies, investments and legislation that comprehensively address the negative food security and nutrition effects of the multiple drivers impacting on food systems. As with all systemic changes, there will be winners and losers, while the introduction of new technologies, improved access to data and innovations, and the subsequent changes in food systems performance, will produce both positive and negative spillover effects. Coherence among systems, as well as the cross-cutting accelerators, play a key role in maximizing the benefits and minimizing the negative consequences of transformation.
In 2021, the United Nations Food Systems Summit issued a powerful call to transform food systems in the context of the Decade of Action to deliver the Sustainable Development Goals. In 2023, the UNFSS+2 Stocktaking Moment showed how much can happen in two years on a scale we wouldn’t previously believe to be possible.
Following the UNFSS+2 Stocktaking Moment, the UN Secretary-General has called to:
- Incorporate food systems strategies into all national policies for sustainable development,
- Establish participatory food systems governance
- Invest in research, data, innovation and technology capacities including stronger connections to science, experience and expertise.
- Deepen joined-up participatory design and implementation
- Promote increased engagement of businesses to shape the sustainability of food systems and establish and strengthen accountability mechanisms, recognizing their centrality for food systems.
- Ensure access to short and long-term concessional finance, investments, budget support and debt restructuring.
Now, concerted and urgent action is needed to achieve the potential of food systems.
Sustainable and resilient food systems transformation is a powerful synergetic SDG accelerator that has an enormous potential to positively influence the social, economic and environmental dimensions of sustainable development. Food systems transformation should entail profound shifts across the production, storage, consumption, and disposal of food. These shifts have the potential to generate multiplier effects, acting as catalysts for broader transformation across multiple systems and SDGs. By reimagining and redesigning our food systems, we can address pressing challenges and unlock opportunities for progress in other areas.
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FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, WFP and WHO, 2021. The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2021. Transforming food systems for food security, improved nutrition and affordable healthy diets for all. Rome, FAO. https://doi.org/10.4060/cb4474en
FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, WFP and WHO, 2022. The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2022. Repurposing food and agricultural policies to make healthy diets more affordable. Rome, FAO. https://doi.org/10.4060/cc0639en
FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, WFP and WHO, 2023. The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2023. Urbanization, agrifood systems transformation and healthy diets across the rural–urban continuum. Rome, FAO. https://doi.org/10.4060/cc3017en
OECD/FAO, 2022. OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook 2022-2031, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/f1b0b29c-en
OECD/FAO, 2023. OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook 2023-2032, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/08801ab7-en.
UN Environment, 2020. How to feed 10 billion people. https://www.unep.org/news-and-stories/story/how-feed-10-billion-people
UN Environment and WHO, 2023. The Journey of Food. Infographic. https://www.unep.org/resources/infographic/journey-food