Exploring Challenges to Global Food Systems

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Food is fuel to human existence, and in the evolution of human settlements, food— its production, availability, demand and supply — and food systems have steered the development, expansion and decline of human settlements.

In the 21st century, global food systems face dual challenges of increasing food demand while competing for resources — such as land, water, and energy — that affect food supply. In context of climate change and unpredictable shocks, such as a global pandemic, the need for resiliency in global food systems has become more pressing than ever.

With the globalization of food systems in 1950s, the global food production and associated trade has witnessed a sustained growth, and continues to be driven by advancements in transport and communications, reduction in trade barriers and agricultural tariffs. But, the effectiveness of global food system is undermined by two key challenges: waste and nutrition.

Food wastage is common across all stages of the food chain. Nearly 13.8% of food is lost in supply chains — from harvesting to transport to storage to processing. However, limited research and scientific understanding of price elasticity of food waste makes it tough to evaluate how food waste can be reduced with pricing strategy.

When food is wasted, so are the energy, land, and resources that were used to create it. Nearly 23% of total anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions between 2007-2016 were derived from agriculture, forestry and other land uses. Apart from cultivation and livestock rearing, agriculture also adds emissions through land clearance for cultivation. Overfishing, soil erosion, and depletion and deterioration of aquifers threaten food security. At the same time, food production faces increasing risks from climate change — particularly droughts, increasing frequency of storms, and other extreme weather events.

   Global food prices surge to their highest level in a decade

The world has made significant progress in reducing hunger in the past 50 years. Yet there are nearly 800 million people without access to adequate food. Additionally, two billion people are affected by hidden hunger wherein people lack key micronutrients such as iron, zinc, vitamin A and iodine. Apart from nutrient deficiency, approximately two billion people are overweight and affected by chronic conditions such as type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases.

In essence, the global food system is inadequate in delivering the changing and increasing demands of the human population. The system requires an upgrade that takes into account the social-cultural interactions, changing diets, increasing wealth and wealth gap, finite resources, challenges of inequitable access, and the needs of the disadvantaged who spend the greatest proportion of their income on food. To feed the projected 10 billion people by 2050, it is essential to increase and stabilize global food trade and simultaneously align the food demand and supply chains across different geographies and at various scales of space and time.

infographic showing connections with various sdgs

How food and agriculture fit into the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. Image: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

Back in 1798, Thomas Robert Malthus, in his essay on the principle of population, concluded that “the power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must come in some shape or other visit the human race.” Malthus projected that short-term gains in living standards would eventually be undermined as human population growth outstripped food production, thereby pushing back living standards towards subsistence.

Malthus’ projections were based on a model where population grew geometrically, while food production increased arithmetically. While Malthus emphasized the importance of land in population-food production dynamics, he understated the role of technology in augmenting total production and family planning in reducing fertility rates. Nonetheless, one cannot banish the Malthusian specter; food production and population are closely intertwined. This close relationship, however, is also affected by changing and improving diets in developing countries and biofuel production — factors that increase the global demand for food and feed.

Around the world, enough food is produced to feed the planet and provide 3,000 calories of nutritious food to each human being every day. In the story of global food systems once defined by starvation and death to now feeding the world, there have been a few ratchets — technologies and innovations that helped the human species transition from hunters and gatherers to shoppers in a supermarket. While some of these ratchets have helped improve and expand the global food systems, some create new opportunities for environmental damage.

To sum it up, the future of global food systems is strongly interlinked to the planning, management and development of sustainable, equitable and healthy food systems delivering food and nutrition security for all. A bundle of interventions and stimulus packages are needed at both the supply and demand ends to feed the world in the present as well as the future — sustainably, within the planetary boundaries defining a safe operating space for humanity. It requires an intersectoral policy analysis, multi-stakeholder engagement — involving farms, retailers, food processors, technology providers, financial institutions, government agencies, consumers — and interdisciplinary actions.