Knowledge for better food systems

Why food and sustainability?

Food is a convergence issue

Food sits at the intersection of environmental, nutritional and health concerns, and is both cause and consequence of some of the most pressing challenges we face today. 

Enough food is produced to feed our global population of seven billion but while two billion people endure the consequences of excess – obesity and associated chronic diseases – 800 million suffer the hunger of insufficiency and uneven access.  Micronutrient deficiencies in total affect about two billion people, including those who might also be obese.

At the same time, the production, distribution and delivery of food generate substantial environmental costs. The food system contributes 20-30% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG ) emissions; is the leading cause of deforestation and biodiversity loss; pollutes soils and water; and accounts for 70% of all human water use. Unsustainable fishing practices deplete fish stocks and cause wider disruption to the marine environment. Climatic and environmental changes also impact negatively on food production, endangering future food security.  And although food production and distribution contribute economic value, many of the 1.3 billion smallholders and landless agricultural workers worldwide live on or below the poverty line.

Finally, 30–50% of all food produced is spoiled or wasted – representing a waste of land, water and other inputs, ‘unnecessary’ emissions, and contributing to food insecurity.

Tackling the multifaceted ‘food problem’ with a systemic approach

Without action, these problems are set to grow with the population, rising incomes and shifting dietary preferences.  And while the issues are well recognised, from a policy and industry perspective most of the focus is on improving the environmental efficiency of production so as to produce more food with less impact. However, mounting evidence finds that while ‘production-side’ approaches may be necessary, they do not represent a sufficient response to the multifaceted nature of the problem. 

Given the complexity of the ‘food problem’ and the dynamic interplays of cause and effect, simple technical solutions may not always be appropriate or effective.  There is a need for systemic approaches that draw upon the insights and expertise of diverse disciplines and sectors.  To address a wide range of environmental concerns effectively, while tackling inequities in the system and the twin problems of dietary insufficiency and excess, three additional approaches are needed.

  • First, there is a need to address power imbalances in the food system, both at the national and international levels.
  • Second, we need to reduce the amount of food that is lost or wasted along the whole supply chain.
  • Third, diets will need to change. What, and how much we eat is directly related to what, how much and in what ways it is produced.  We therefore need to consume more ‘sustainable diets’ – eating patterns that have lower environmental impacts, that deliver broader societal benefits, and support good health.