• Monday, May 20, 2024
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Our planet is changing, so must our global food system


With the world’s population predicted to reach nine 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 UN’s food organisations – the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the World Food Programme (WFP) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) – have just published their annual 2014 report on global food insecurity. Their report 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 percent 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. 

According to the WHO, a staggering two 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 percent to the total warming of the planet today.   And much of the food we produce, we waste.  Figures from the Institute of Mechanical Engineers show as much as 2 billion tonnes of food – 50 percent of all we produce – never makes it on to a plate.

What is a crisis for many now could become a catastrophe for more in the future because of effects of climate change. Climate change is already making people hungry – 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 CO2 are stripping staple foods of vital nutrients, rendering staple crops such as wheat, rice and soya less nutritious for millions of people in developing countries. If these climate and socio-economic trends continue, the number of under-nourished children in Africa alone is expected to rise ten-fold by 2050.

It is against this backdrop that world leaders are coming together at the Climate Summit in New York to secure buy-in for a global climate deal next year. In the same week, in the same city, governments meeting at the U.N. General Assembly 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 re-imagined so that the world is producing nutritious food in a more sustainable way that increases livelihoods.

This means supporting the world’s small-holder farmers so that they are able to grow, sell ,and eat more nutritious foods; it means converting degraded lands into productive farms; fortifying staple foods with essential nutrients like iron and zinc; and developing alternative sources of food. It also means scaling up existing sustainable interventions that we know already work extremely well like breastfeeding for infants. All can play a role in reducing malnutrition and reducing the carbon footprint of the food we eat. All 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 this week 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.