Global food systems are killing the planet

Thursday, 29 November, 2018

Global food systems are killing the planet

Worldwide collective action is urgently needed to transform global food systems and mitigate climate change, which experts say is exacerbating food and nutrition insecurity and inequalities.

According to the 130 national academies of science and medicine across Africa, Asia, the Americas and Europe that compose the InterAcademy Partnership (IAP), the current approach to food, nutrition, agriculture and the environment is unsustainable and must change.

In the wide-ranging new report ‘Opportunities for future research and innovation on food and nutrition security and agriculture: The InterAcademy Partnership’s global perspective’, the authors call for an end to business as usual and urge leaders to look to science to drive innovation and inform policy.

“Our food systems are failing us. It is not only the environment that is at stake, but health, nutrition, trade, jobs and the economy. Agriculture and consumer choices are major factors driving disastrous climate change. We need a robust and ambitious policy response to address the climate impacts of agriculture and consumer choices — and scientists have a major role to play. Our new report is a wake-up call to leaders,” said Professor Joachim von Braun, Co-Chair of the IAP project on Food and Nutrition Security and Agriculture, President of the Pontifical Academy of Science, and Director of the Center for Development Research (ZEF) at the University of Bonn.

2018 has revealed precisely how vulnerable food systems are to extreme weather and other results of man-made climate change. Moreover, agriculture, forestry and land-use change alone — not including food transport and other energy-intensive processes — contribute around 20–25% to global annual emissions.

In 2018, FAO noted that the absolute number of undernourished people has continued to increase between 2016 and 2017, and other nutrition targets are also being missed. Climate extremes and variability are threatening to erode and reverse previous gains made. The drive for calories in food production is causing health challenges, including obesity. Climate change is exacerbating food and nutrition insecurity and inequalities.

“This is no time for business as usual. In addition to climate change, our current food systems are negatively impacting people’s health around the globe. High-calorie diets have become cheaper, and this has serious implications for public health, obesity and malnutrition. Science is critical to tackling the Sustainable Development Goals; in particular, hunger and health,” said Professor Volker ter Meulen MD, Co-Chair of the IAP project on food and agriculture and President of the IAP.

There is an urgent need to strengthen evidence-based policies and programs and invest in solving the most critical challenges of our times: mitigating climate change through changes to food production and consumption, and ensuring that people globally have access to nutritious, affordable and environmentally sustainable food.

These issues are not only critical for health and the environment, but also the global economy, trade and jobs. Climate-smart agriculture, incentives for consumers to change their diets, innovative foods and cutting-edge technologies, combined with rigorous social science, are indispensable for addressing the root causes of our failing global food system.

What kinds of changes need to be made?

Climate-smart food systems

The InterAcademy Partnership urges a shift to climate-smart food systems. At the same time, limiting agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions alone will be insufficient to address food systems’ impact on climate change.

Incentives for consumers to change their diets

There need to be incentives — informed by evidence — for people to improve their diets, both for public health (including obesity and nutrition) and for the environment. Policymakers need to understand the drivers of demand and find ways to change consumer behaviour, including the acceptance of innovative foods and innovative diets. Policymakers also need to help consumers understand and weigh the environmental implications of food choices. Reducing food waste should be prioritised, too: it is a major opportunity with significant benefits for climate and the environment.

Innovative foods

There must be ambitious efforts by policymakers and other leaders to influence consumer behaviours that produce greenhouse gas emissions. Changing dietary consumption could bring co-benefits to health and climate, such as reducing meat consumption in regions like Europe or increasing innovative foods and diets. Examples of innovative foods include meat–mushroom mixes, lab-grown meat, algae and appealing insect-based foods.

Collaboration between natural science and social science

Research needs to be translated to applied innovation, but this will require stronger connections across disciplines and with cutting-edge technologies, science education, training and outreach. Life sciences and basic research must cooperate much more closely with social science and policy research on food, nutrition and agriculture.

New international science advisory mechanism

The IAP advises creating an international advisory panel on food and nutrition security and agriculture, to include participation by academies and to strengthen international governance mechanisms.

The scale of the challenge

According to the latest assessment by the UN (FAO et al, 2017), the number of chronically undernourished people in the world increased from 777 million in 2015 to 815 million in 2016. Many more people suffer from micronutrient deficiency and from the disorders associated with being overweight or obese. The food security status has worsened in particular in parts of Africa, Southeast Asia and Western Asia, most notably in situations of conflict and in combination with droughts or floods. These growing causes of food insecurity associated with conflict and climate underline the need to include more social sciences, health and climate sciences in the global food, nutrition and agriculture research agenda to understand the issues and the options for their resolution. Agricultural production cannot expand infinitely: there is a critical imperative to avoid further depletion of ecosystem services and biodiversity. According to the World Bank, approximately 11% of the Earth’s land is used for arable purposes — that is, under cultivation — with a larger percentage, more than one-third, agricultural (including pasture and grazed forest lands).

Image credit: © Studio

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