Global food systems are no longer fit for purpose. The pandemic exposed their vulnerabilities and created a renewed urgency for change. A symposium of leading development organisations believe four key areas could enact enough change that food systems could evolve to become resilient, sustainable and reduce rising huger levels. 

In a world where we produce enough food to feed everyone, everyday families all over the globe struggle to feed their children. According to the UN World Food Programme’s world hunger map, 821 million people - more than 1 in 9 of the world population – go hungry and one in three suffer from malnutrition. As a result, eradicating hunger is one of the great challenges of our time, and one that is set to worsen as the world’s population grows in size and the effects of climate change take hold. 

In a bid to address this pressing issue, in 2015, the global community adopted 17 Global Goals for Sustainable Development (SDGs) to improve people’s lives by 2030. Goal 2 – Zero Hunger – pledges to end hunger, achieve food security, improve nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture. However, despite five years of progress, the target of a zero-hunger world by 2030 is under threat as hunger rates continue to rise, fuelled by the impact of conflict and climate change. 

As Hisham Badr, president of the UN World Food Programme (WFP) explains: “The fact that more than 800m people are chronically hungry, and that hunger has risen for the past three years, suggests that many food systems are failing—and tragically they are failing many of the poorest people on the planet. Only by reversing this trend can we hope to achieve zero hunger by 2030.” 

In order to tackle the issue at its heart, a key part of Badr’s work for the WFP is bringing experts together to develop programs that build sustainable food systems in countries ravaged by conflict. For example, in Colombia, El Niño and La Niña (fluctuations in ocean and atmospheric temperatures in the eastern Pacific) are on the rise, destroying crops, putting livestock at risk and adversely affecting agricultural livelihoods which in turn, causes major disruption to food systems. 

To combat their effects, the WFP established the “Multiactiva Paz para Colombia, a farmers co-operative which purchases food from local suppliers, establishing a robust, local food system that boosts farmers’ incomes and the local economy allowing children to gain access to nutritious food while receiving a potentially life-changing education. Meanwhile in South Sudan, a country afflicted by decades of conflict, the WFP is supporting a project to repair a network of roads connecting 10,000 smallholder farmers to markets safeguarding the supply system to benefit the farmers and customers alike. “Over the years, WFP has steadily increased the share of food procured locally. By injecting cash into local economies, WFP has strengthened smallholders’ livelihoods and the sustainability of food systems by supporting land restoration or business training for farmers and traders” he says. 

Despite these efforts, however, the effects of climate change are mounting and have the potential to severely undermine local production and access to markets if global warming rates continue. Consequently, climate resilience is a critical factor in building sustainable food systems that help tackle hunger. In some places, these efforts are already underway. In Niger for example, the UN’s World Food Programme works with farmers on soil and water conservation to improve the sustainability of food supply chains, whilst in Malawi and Tanzania, the WFP operates a digital support service, supplying farmers with climate information through mobile phone messages, communal radio programmes and agricultural extension services – to build resilience, drive prosperity and alleviate hunger.

In addition, the agri-food sector currently places enormous strain on the environment and natural resources. For example, over production of food has resulted in monoculture cropping systems and a significant loss of biodiversity. Meanwhile, intensive animal farming on land and at sea has degraded natural resources faster than they can reproduce whilst also causing a quarter of all man-made greenhouse gas emissions, with livestock responsible for about a half of that. In addition, research by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization shows that industrial animal farming operations that rear large numbers of animals in confined spaces breed lethal viruses, like the 2009 swine flu, and spread antibiotic-resistant “superbugs” because of the overuse of antibiotics to promote their growth and prevent infections. Indeed, progress in reversing rising hunger trends has been turned upside down by a pandemic of this nature. It caused entire supply chains to shutdown in a matter of weeks as the pressure of panic buying, closed borders and sick workforces resulted in mile-long queues for food banks and empty shelves – all serving to highlight the vulnerability of the food system. Indeed, according to a recent UN report on the effect of the crisis on the 17 SDGs, “an estimated 71 million people have been pushed back into extreme poverty in 2020, the first rise in global poverty since 1998. Lost incomes, limited social protection and rising prices mean even those who were previously secure could find themselves at risk of poverty and hunger.” 

It is thought that the deep impact of the pandemic on food supply chains was in part due to the fact that food systems are highly-centralised and operate primarily on a ‘just-in-time’ basis making it prone to shocks, as the pandemic showed. Consequently, as governments turn their attention to economic restoration following the pandemic, they are faced with a unique opportunity to transform the global food system to make it resilient to future shocks and ensure environmental sustainability and healthy nutrition for all. 

So, where to start? 

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the International Fund for Agricultural Development, and the World Food Program, collectively agree that resilient food supply chains, healthy diets, regenerative farming and conservation are the four pillars of building resilience in global value chains enough to lift millions out of poverty, many more out of hunger and malnutrition and establish sustainable food systems that nurture prosperity. 

  1. Resilient food supply chains: Efficient and effective food supply chains are essential to lowering the risks of food insecurity, malnutrition, food price fluctuations and can simultaneously create jobs. Key to building resilience in the food sector is driving ‘rural transformation’ - empowering small producers and retailers, mainstreaming them in the food systems economy to decentralise the chain and add healthy competition that allows markets to thrive. 
  2. Healthy diets: Over the past 50 years, diets have become increasingly homogeneous, dominated by crops that are rich in energy, but poor in macronutrients essential to health. For instance, of the thousands of plants and animals used for food in the past, less than 200 currently contribute to global food supplies and just nine crops account for almost 70 per cent of all crop production. As a result, low dietary diversity has surpassed caloric insufficiency as the primary driver of death. According to the EAT-Lancet Commission, moving toward "healthy diets with a diversity of plant-based foods, low amounts of animal source foods, unsaturated rather than saturated fats, and limited amounts of refined grains, highly-processed foods and added sugars could prevent between 19 and 24 per cent of all adult deaths.” However, to drive societal change on this scale, policymakers need to place agricultural subsidies on healthy foods, tax unhealthy foods, and align procurement practices, education programs and healthcare systems toward better diets. If this can be done, globally, healthcare costs will reduce, as will inequality, and it is also likely to lessen the impact of the next pandemic as the population is healthier. 
  3. Regenerative farming: It is thought that intensive livestock farming may be a contributing factor to the emergence of this latest pandemic. One studysuggests that the public is providing $1m per minute in global farm subsidies, overwhelmingly used to prop up and expand the current broken model of intensive farming. The same $1m a minute that promotes factory farming also increases pandemic risk. Scientists believe that pathogens may pass from wild animals to domesticated (farm) animals, and then from those animals to humans therefore this model of farming is endangering human health in a myriad of ways. In addition, livestock accounts for nearly two thirds of agricultural greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to climate change. Therefore, by supporting regenerative farming - a dynamic and holistic approach to incorporating permaculture and organic farming practices, including conservation tillage, cover crops, crop rotation, composting, mobile animal shelters and pasture cropping, can increase food production, farmer income and improve topsoil. As a result, by focusing on agricultural activities that support and protect the environment, economic, health and market benefits will help facilitate market access and level the financial and regulatory playing field for smaller, sustainable farmers relative to large intensive farmers. 
  4. Conservation: According to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation, food systems are currently responsible for 70 per cent of the water extracted from nature, cause 60 per cent of biodiversity loss and generate up to a third of human greenhouse gas emissions. Indeed, these figures show the destructive cycle the food sector has created in that by producing food, it has contributed to climate change, which in turn, threatens food security. To create sustainable food systems that help reduce hunger, a more holistic lens is required, to consider how the entire value chain – including food processing, packaging, transport, retail and food services- can all be part of conservation efforts. 

Food systems are central to human, animal, economic and environmental health. Ignoring how these relationships interlink and overlap is to expose the global economy to mounting health and financial shocks as climate change and global populations rise. However, if policy makers around the world can prioritise food system reform as a key part of economic restoration strategies following the pandemic, significant progress towards achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Climate Agreement can be made that will result in a healthy, more prosperous global community.

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