Why our food systems must be transformed

Despite ravaging the Earth for industrial agriculture we can’t provide nourishing food globally. That has to change.

Seble Samuel
1 March 2020, 7.05pm
Seble Samuel/CCAFS. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Our food systems face a perilous moment: they are surpassing the fundamental ecological limits of the Earth while leaving billions of people overweight, undernourished or lost in food deserts. As we enter ever further into the climate emergency, continuing to transgress these socio-ecological limits is both immoral and impossible if we want to preserve healthy communities on a habitable planet.

What exactly are we gambling with?

Currently, almost half of global food production relies on conditions that cross planetary boundaries of sustainability. As of today, we have deforested, degraded or otherwise transformed about 50% of the earth’s entire land surface to grow food.

However, the vast majority of agricultural land is used to grow feed to fuel the industrial production of livestock, glucose syrups and biofuels, and this problem is growing day by day. The accelerating expansion of agricultural territory has damaged ecosystems and increased water stress, biodiversity loss and species extinction. On top of these problems, the agricultural sector has become the single largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions globally, wreaking havoc on the climate.

The marine world has fared no better, since we have depleted coastal and freshwater fisheries at an alarming and often non-rechargeable rate, while continuously sucking up around 70% of global freshwater use for agriculture. Excessive fertilizer use and runoff into streams and rivers has left algae blooms and dead zones where marine life simply can’t survive.

But despite this ravaging of the Earth - supposedly to feed and sustain our survival - we are failing to keep up with rising demand for food and provide nourishing food globally. Around two billion adults across the world are either overweight or obese, while more than 820 million are undernourished.

Of all the food produced globally, around one third is lost or wasted from farm to fork. In the poorest corners of the world, communities are plagued with food deserts where healthy and affordable food is simply a mirage.

The problem doesn’t stop there. By 2050 there will be almost 10 billion people living on the Earth, which means about 2.2 billion more mouths to feed than today. The critical question, therefore, is how to create a sustainable food system that can feed and nourish this growing population within known and predictable environmental limits.

One thing is clear: we won’t be able to do this by using current dysfunctional food systems; instead, they have to be transformed, but how?

A number of initiatives have been launched to tackle various elements of food systems transformation. One new initiative, Transforming Food Systems Under a Changing Climate, brings over 100 organizations together to identify the most strategic levers for change and the most urgent actions we need to take collectively.

The key elements of this transformation require revamping the entire agricultural infrastructure to tackle our socio-ecological food crisis in order to create food systems that are de-carbonized, diverse, inclusive, circular and resilient. An indispensable element of this revamping concerns our diets, so what will we eat in a transformed food system?

Shifting diets is a key component of the agricultural overhaul we need to make. At present, the world of food is riddled with contradictions. For example, the World Resources Institute (WRI) estimates that half of the world consumes 50% more protein than they need, mainly from red meats.

This level of consumption is demonstrably unequal, with overconsumption across the Global North and scarce consumption across much of the Global South (with the exception of Latin America). Animal-based food intake is set to increase by more than 70% by 2050, particularly across lower-income countries where current meat consumption is small.

Meat supply per person, 2017. Source: Our World in Data 2020.

This trajectory of rising meat demand globally will be impossible to sustain. Not only is the overconsumption of red meat triggering public health crises in the form of high cholesterol, heart disease and cancers, it is also generating the largest portion of agricultural emissions - and is therefore the biggest contributor to the trend to surpass ecological boundaries. In fact, the Global Footprint Network estimates that we would require 1.75 Earths to meet the future human demand for meat. But of course, we only have one Earth.

As our collective food choices continue to threaten the planet’s integrity, we need to radically rethink what we eat, since each choice weighs very heavily on the ecosystems of the Earth. The higher we climb up the food chain, the more destructive the impacts become on landscapes, freshwater use and emissions.

Resource consumption by food type, 2010. Source: WRI Creating a Sustainable Food Future 2018.

To curb this destruction, we have to shift what we eat individually, collectively and at scale, particularly across high- and middle-income countries. Consuming lower on the food chain, finding alternative proteins, building agro-biodiversity, eating locally and promoting plant-based diets will need to become commonplace.

According to a report from the EAT-Lancet Commission, this planetary shift in diets means that our plates will be filled with more whole grains, legumes, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, but less red meat, starchy vegetables and refined sugars. It also means we have to waste much less food generally.

These changes will be exceptionally important across the Global North in order to secure a dramatic drop in agricultural emissions and free up the ecological space for much of Africa and Asia to meet their dietary needs, especially in terms of protein. The diversification of diets to plant-based alternatives will allow for healthy climate-friendly eating while reducing the largest driver of agricultural emissions: beef and dairy consumption.

To make this happen we will need to end subsidies for processed and environmentally damaging foods, and replace them with support and incentives to healthy, affordable and locally-sourced alternatives. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) estimates that agriculture globally is propped up by USD $600 billion in annual subsidies. What we choose to subsidize therefore has a massive influence on dietary outcomes, especially for low-income communities.

We will also have to create public health campaigns to promote these alternatives and make clear to consumers that there are ecological and health consequences that stem from their food choices. Just as there are cigarette warnings, our food must reveal its true contents and the risks of eating it.

An indispensable element of this transformation is that we eliminate food waste. This can mean redistributing excess food to the hungry, taxing all food waste, and creating circular food systems that use compost to return food scraps to the soil. In the Global South, we need to modernize transport and storage infrastructure to tackle the brunt of food losses during the post-harvest period and processing.

The challenge of reducing the environmental impacts of what we eat by closing food, land and emissions gaps while moving towards a food future that can feed 10 billion people healthily and sustainably by 2050 is a herculean task. But it’s also a challenge that we can tackle collectively if we decide to grow our food and feed ourselves in a radically different way.

In the era of climate emergency, such a collective shift in our diets is no longer optional; it’s a necessity for a healthy, sustainable and equitable future – for both people and planet.


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