Food is tricky business. Worldwide, more than 10 per cent of people are hungry, roughly 25 per cent are overweight or obese, and another 25 per cent–who may also be either underfed or overfed–are micronutrient deficient.
Food is not only a matter of eating. Long before it reaches grocery store shelves, the process of production unleashes a multiplicity of factors affecting the length and quality of life on earth. Forests are cleared to create agricultural space, the atmosphere becomes warmer, diversity is systematically decreased, buffers that protect humans from animal-borne viruses–like COVID-19–are removed, soil and water is contaminated, and plants and animals are infused with substances with precarious effect.
More to the point:*how are we going to feed all these people, without causing more damage?*
Let’s break this down.
There is enough food for everyone.
While progress on reducing hunger has stagnated in the last five years, evidence suggests that the problem we face today is not a lack of food. Rather, it is a problem of efficiency. We can see this throughout the production and consumption process, beginning with how land is used. Responding to increased demand for meat and dairy, about 60 per cent of the world’s agricultural land is used for livestock grazing.
Later in the process, one third of the food produced is lost and wasted–between farm and table, while food is being stored, transported, processed, packaged, sold and prepared–with food being purchased faster than it can be consumed. Ultimately, 1.3 billion tonnes of food is lost or wasted every year.
Clementine O’Connor, Sustainable Food Systems Programme Officer at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) explains that, “There is no point in solving a problem while creating another one–producing more food only to waste it.”
It’s not just math.
Conventional wisdom has centred on quantity as the solution to hunger. It assumed that more food would mean less hunger, and more wealth would mean better health, because higher incomes enable people to buy more food.
But long-term trends reveal an equation that is not so straight-forward.
While poverty has decreased considerably–from 36 per cent in 1990 to 10 per cent in 2015–efforts to reduce hunger have been comparatively less successful. In fact, after decades of modest but steady decline, hunger began to rise again in 2015. And, as an added kicker, malnutrition emerged as a growing concern. Many countries now face a “double burden” that includes both undernutrition and overweight or obesity.
Many of the practices that were adopted to produce more food have resulted in environmental and health issues. Intensified farming has set into motion a vicious circle, affecting both immediate and long-term food security: expanding agricultural production demands clearing of trees and wildlife; deforestation contributes to climate change; and climate change increases the occurrence of flooding, drought and storms that result in food insecurity.
Pesticides and fertilizers used to boost food production are another concern. Not only do they pollute land and water, causing biodiversity loss; every year, 25 million people suffer from acute pesticide poisoning. Glyphosate–the most widely-used herbicide, worldwide–is associated with non-Hodgkin lymphoma and other cancers.
Nature is essential to agriculture and nutrition.
Nature can neither be ignored, nor outsmarted. Producing food that is both healthy and sustainable demands that we work with–not against–nature.
With farmers having abandoned numerous local plant varieties in favour of genetically-uniform, high yielding ones, 60 per cent of dietary energy is now derived from just three cereal crops: rice, maize and wheat. Consequently, nearly one in three people suffer from some form of malnutrition.
The situation is expected to worsen due to climate change. Harvard University research suggests that when staple crops are exposed to the levels of CO2 predicted for 2050, they will lose up to 10 per cent of their zinc, 5 per cent of their iron, and 8 per cent of their protein.
Nature is an ally.
By recognizing the practical value of nature, a holistic food-system produces simultaneous net gains for the environment, public health and the economy.
Reducing CO2 could positively impact the nutritional value of the food produced–a significant health benefit, given that the vast majority (76 per cent) of the world’s population gets most of its nutrition from plants. It could also reduce the risk of extreme weather events, which can lower crop yields. This is particularly important to small scale farmers and is not resilient to economic shocks. In this way, protecting nature also protects livelihoods and economies.
Restoring biodiversity means strengthening the resilience of food systems, enabling farmers to diversify production and cope with pests, diseases and climate change. It would also reduce the risk of zoonotic virus spillover and their tremendous economic impact, like the one we are currently experiencing.
Adopting plant-based diets would use less land, produce less greenhouse gas, and require less water. It would also play an important role in reducing chronic illnesses such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer and the associated costs of treatment and lost income. In fact, with a global burden of chronic disease projected to hit 56 per cent by 2050, dietary health will play an increasingly important role in economic management.
Feeding 10 billion people–safely and sustainably–means reconceiving food systems.
“We need to consider the entire food system–from production to consumption–understand each of its components, their relationships, and their immediate and long-term impacts,” says O’Connor.
Agriculture should be recognized as a solution to biodiversity loss, climate change and pollution; and shift toward more regenerative or agroecological models that contribute to healthy landscapes and ecosystems.
Policies should be built on multi-stakeholder collaboration and address the food system holistically, valuing natural capital, promoting sustainable land use, preventing pollution and environmental degradation, and enabling producers the financial opportunity to innovate more sustainable models.
Behaviour change among consumers is also critical, towards healthy and sustainable diets and food waste preventing practices, through education, awareness-raising, strengthened urban-rural linkages and supportive food environments.
Environmental sustainability is not a luxury. It does not occur as an afterthought or as a happy accident. It is critical to human survival, now more than ever.
*The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) supports a transition toward global food systems that provide net positive impacts on nutrition, the environment and farmer livelihoods. **Contributing to the One Planet Network Sustainable Food Systems Programme. UNEP has led the development of a guideline for collaborative policymaking and improved governance.*
*UNEP is also the custodian of the food waste element of Sustainable Development Goal 12.3, which commits member states to halve their per capita food waste at the consumer retail level. Developing the*Food Waste Index, UNEP is currently conducting global modelling of food waste data and preparing a harmonized methodology that will enable countries to track progress towards the Goal.