A new global food system for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals
The Sustainable Development Goals are charting a path towards meeting current needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Over half of the SDGs relate to global food security and nutrition, including the goals that relate to poverty, gender equality, water and sanitation, responsible production and consumption, and climate change.
The global food system needs to be reshaped to achieve a whole range of SDGs. While it feeds seven billion people, it leaves 795 million people hungry, about two billion micronutrient deficient, and over 600 million obese. It does not generate adequate livelihoods for millions of people employed in the food system. And it is not environmentally sustainable. The 2016 Global Food Policy Report, a flagship publication of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) proposes key policy options to achieve the SDGs through a new global food system. This new global food system should be efficient, inclusive, climate-smart, sustainable, nutrition- and health-driven, and business-friendly.
What should a productive and efficient global food system look like?
It should produce more food using the fewest resources possible. We need to close the 70 percent gap between the food needed to feed 9.7 billion people by 2050 and the food produced in 2006. Resource-efficiency is particularly crucial as competition for water land, energy, and other resources is growing — for example, agriculture’s demand for water could rise by over 30 percent by 2030 as availability shrinks. Additionally, per capita arable land is expected to decrease by 50 percent by 2050. All resources must be used more efficiently to meet current and future needs. Another inefficiency lies in producing food that is not consumed — about 30 percent of food is lost or wasted every year. Improving infrastructure, technology, transportation, and distribution along the supply chain to reduce food loss, and educating consumers about food waste is critical. A new G20 Technical Platform on Food Loss and Waste, launched by IFPRI and FAO in 2015, will provide knowledge on best practices in these areas.
What is an environmentally sustainable and climate-smart global food system?
While the world’s food system contributes to about one-fifth of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, it is conversely affected by climate change and adverse weather, water, and soil conditions. Global cereal yields, for example, are projected to fall by 20 percent by 2050 due to climate change. Therefore, an environmentally sustainable global food system must not only minimise negative impacts to our planet, such as land degradation, but it must also be climate-smart. It should integrate agricultural development, climate action, and biodiversity conservation in order to contribute to agro-ecological resilience. Adoption of climate-smart approaches — including low-carbon policies, zero-till farming, and climate-ready crop varieties such as C4 rice can help meet these goals.
How can the global food system be more inclusive of poor and marginalised groups?
Smallholder farmers, women, and youth have important roles in ending hunger and undernutrition — yet they often lack access to assets and markets and are at risk of exclusion from increasingly complex food value chains. Maximising the potential of commercially viable smallholder farms, empowering women, and making agriculture more attractive to youth can enhance their contribution to global food security and nutrition. This is also central to achieving other SDGs, such as reducing inequality.
How will the global food system deliver nutritious and healthy diets to all?
We must adopt a nutrition and health-driven value chain approach. While millions suffer from hunger and undernutrition, 641 million people globally are obese. Pressure from population growth, urbanisation, and economic development are leading to more intensive agricultural and industrial practices that increase agriculture-related health and food safety risks. The global food system must make it easier for people to consume safe, nutritious, diverse diets in appropriate amounts, while limiting processed foods of little nutritional value. Interventions could include redirecting inefficient subsidies to expand the production of nutritious crops, “cold chains” that can help keep perishable foods fresh, taxing unhealthy foods, and nutrition education for consumers.
What does a business-friendly approach to the global food system mean?
It promotes well-functioning markets and encourages entrepreneurs to adopt long-term, market-based solutions. Markets and trade systems need to be open, transparent, and fair. Reducing distortions in trade policies, such as the recent WTO agreement to end export subsidies, is a promising step. The private sector has a key role to play in ensuring global food security and nutrition. Ways to increase their participation include encouraging public-private partnerships that link various actors along the value chain to expand profit potential. Creating an enabling environment is another — adequate transportation, communications, and energy infrastructure; and availability of financial capital can go a long way.
If we focus our energies on these areas, we can pave the way to achieving the SDGs on time, or even earlier. It may not be easy, but with all hands on deck we can ensure a healthy, well-nourished population and a planet that can be sustained for many generations to come.
Shenggen Fan is Director General of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).