A food system for the future 

FIRST MOVES: Supporting smallholder farmers so that they are able to grow, sell and eat more nutritious foods is crucial. Picture shows a paddy field near Shillong, Meghalaya. File photo: Ritu Raj Konwar   | Photo Credit: Ritu_Raj_Konwar;Ritu_Raj_Konwar - Ritu Raj Konwar

With the world’s population predicted to reach 9 billion by 2050, we collectively face a dual challenge: ensuring that everyone will have access to affordable, nutritious food without decimating the earth’s natural resources in the process. This is easier said than done. Our current food system is dysfunctional both in its impact on people and the planet. Unless we change course, we will fail to meet this challenge. Today, millions do not have enough to eat and billions lack the right nutrients to be healthy. The United Nation’s food organisations — the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the World Food Programme (WFP) and the World Health Organization (WHO) — have just published their annual report on global food insecurity, which highlights that despite some evidence of progress, 805 million people, or 1 in 9 people, still suffer from hunger.

Poor diets stunt the growth of 162 million children every year, 97 per cent of them in the developing world, trapping communities in a cycle of poverty and ill-health. The consequences for those affected can be devastating. Malnourished children tend to start school later, have poorer levels of concentration and lower scores in cognitive ability tests. Many carry these burdens through into later life.

Damaging food system

According to WHO, a staggering 2 billion people are affected by iron deficiency which contributes to anaemia. More than 250 million children suffer from Vitamin A deficiency which is a major public health challenge in more than half the countries on the planet — with half a million going blind each year. Half of these children die within 12 months of going blind.

Meanwhile, 1.3 billion of us are classified as overweight or obese, fuelled by a food system that is damaging not just our bodies but the environment too. If trends towards western diets continue, the impact of food production alone will reach, if not exceed, the global targets for total greenhouse gases. Our current agricultural production system is inefficient. We continue to destroy tropical forests for agricultural expansion and this contributes 12 per cent to the total warming of the planet today. And we waste much of the food we produce. What is a crisis for many now could become a catastrophe for more in the future because of the effects of climate change. Climate change is already making people hungry, by disrupting crop yields, pushing prices up and increasing food insecurity for large numbers of the world’s population. And it is not just food but nutrients that are becoming scarcer as the climate changes.

A study led by the Harvard School of Public Health found that rising levels of CO are stripping staple foods of vital nutrients. If these climate and socio-economic trends continue, the number of undernourished children in Africa alone is expected to rise tenfold by 2050. It is against this backdrop that world leaders came together at the Climate Summit in New York to secure buy-in for a global climate deal next year. Governments meeting at the U.N. General Assembly now will review proposals for the post-2015 development goals that aim to eliminate poverty and hunger for good.

If we fail to act, we risk a downward spiral in which poverty and climate impacts reinforce each other. It is the poorest communities that will suffer the worst effects of climate change, including increased hunger and malnutrition as crop production and livelihoods are threatened. And poverty is a driver of climate change, as desperate communities resort to unsustainable use of resources to meet current needs. But there is an alternative path. In the face of climate change, our basic food systems have to be reimagined so that the world is producing nutritious food in a more sustainable way that increases livelihoods.

Targets and a vision

This means supporting the world’s smallholder farmers so that they are able to grow, sell and eat more nutritious foods; it means converting degraded lands into productive farms, and fortifying staple foods with essential nutrients like iron and zinc. It also means scaling up existing sustainable interventions that we know already work extremely well like breastfeeding for infants. All of this can play a role in reducing malnutrition. All of this will rely on ambition, innovation and leadership.

We come from very different backgrounds, but we share the belief that it’s only by bringing together business, civil society and governments that we will find solutions that can be scaled up for maximum impact. Countries, companies and NGOs can create a better future, leading by example and catalysing action in their peer groups or industries. But we need ambitious targets and a common vision. We cannot afford to talk about hunger without addressing climate change, food production without sustainability or growth without good nutrition.

As climate and development goals are debated since the conclusion of the U.N. climate summit and the months ahead, it should be with these links in mind. A healthier, more sustainable future is possible. But, the sustainability, food and health nexus must be dealt with together if we are going to fix the global food system.

(Paul Polman is Chairman of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. Marc Van Ameringen is Executive Director of the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition.)

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Printable version | Jan 26, 2022 4:14:18 PM |

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