The food challenge

To ensure long-term food security and good health for our growing population, our food systems must simultaneously produce enough affordable, tasty and nutritous food and improve the livelihoods of producers, whilst operating within the limits of what our planet can sustain.

Food systems are at the heart of many sustainability challenges. The way we currently produce and consume food has a range of social, economic and environmental impacts. Our food systems are also increasingly at risk from those same challeges, including climate change impacts, water scarcity, soil degradation, loss of agricultural skills and more. Meanwhile, population growth and changing consumer preferences driven by the new global middle class mean that food production must double by 2050, putting pressure on already vulnerable systems

The complexity of the challenge demands a systemic appraoch, addressing production, consumption and regeneration. At the production end, we need sustainable agriculture to become mainstream, including agricultural efficiencies, technological innovation and urban farming. To repair existing environmental and social damage, we must adopt rapid and widespread implementation of regnerative practices. While at the consumption end, diets need to shift towards more sustainable and healthier choices and eliminate the huge levels of food waste currently produced. 

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Current trajectory

Unequal access

  • According to the UN, we currently produce enough food for everyone on the planet to have an adequate diet, but poor distribution means that 815 million people are hungry1 while 2 billion people are overweight or obese.2 Indeed, globally hunger is increasing, driven by the proliferation of conflict and climate related shocks. 

Food waste

  • One-third of the food produced today is lost or wasted post-harvest, before it even reaches the consumer. 1 
  • While many go hungry, much of the feed given to animals is fit for human consumption. If we could halve this and current levels of food waste, an extra 2.75 billion people could be fed. 2
  • Food waste accounts for approximately 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions.3 According to Project drawdown, should it be halved by 2050, tackling food waste could be the third most effective solution for slowing global warming.4
  • Every year the UK wastes £20 billion worth of food. 5

Changing consumption habits

  • Consumption of meat is rising across the world. Meat production has increased 4-5 fold since 1961 and historical trends suggest this will continue as global incomes rise.1 By 2050, consumption of meat and dairy is expected to rise by 76% and 65% respectively against 2005-07 baseline, compared with 40% for cereals.2
  • There are nonetheless some encouraging signs that point to shift towards sustainable consumption, China's 2016 commitment to half domestic meat consumption seems to be slowing taking effect, reflected by the fact that pork demand is peaking.3
  • Interest in sustainable protein is growing too. In the United States, veganism and demand for meat alternatives are growing4, althought the overall trend is that Americans are eating more meat.5

Soil degradation

  • According to the UN, one third of the planet’s land is severely degraded, largely due to destructive mechanised agriculture.1
  • For example, the decline in soil fertility is so sharp that the UK’s soils may be only 30-40 years away from complete degradation.2
  • This has alarming ramifications for agricultural productivity. In Kenya the productivity of cropland declined by 40% between 1981 and 2003, just as the country’s population doubled.3
  • The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation bluntly summed up the challenge we face: “past agricultural performance is not indicative of future returns.”4

Implications

  • Changes in both production and consumption patterns are essential to creating sustainable food systems. As such, we need to design and scale-up agricultural systems that go beyond the “do less harm” model to actively regenerate degraded land. Solutions such as agroecology, intercropping, integrated pest management and silvopasture can play a key role in ensuring the long-term viability of food systems and global nutrition.
  • Not only are these systems restorative but they are also more efficient per acre and labour intensive. As such they can boost long-term agricultural productivity and provide decent livelihoods, particularly among the millions of smallholder farmers who depend on subsistence agriculture in the global south.
  • Scientific evidence and practical experience of climate and supply chain vulnerability have cemented the need for businesses to rethink their approach to sourcing and managing value chains. A variety of large organisations have recognised that their business models depend upon a reliable base of farmers producing consistent agricultural products, and are implementing sustainable agriculture goals. However, this needs to scale up rapidly across commodities and sectors, to make a significant difference to the global outlook.  Increasingly, businesses will need to collaborate as the biggest challenges are too much for one company to solve alone.
  • Consumers around the world are becoming more conscious of the environmental, social and health impacts of their food choices and are demanding greater transparency. Simultaneously, technological innovations such as blockchain and satellite monitoring are enabling food traceability and monitoring of impacts around the world. As these trends come together this could accelerate moves towards more transparent supply chains.

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