What we eat and how we produce it contributes to climate change: expert

The global food system is the largest employer in the world. It engages thousands of people and enterprises in agriculture, and millions are employed in processing, transportation, distribution, marketing, and sales.

But questions about food industry sustainability recently asked at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture, which is headquartered in Cali, Colombia, led to a global food system study that built the first map designed to score the sustainability of food systems, country-by-country.

The study looked at food productivity and nutrition and also economic and social variables.

“Our research highlights how little is currently known about food systems,” said Christophe Béné, lead author and senior policy expert at CIAT’s Decision and Policy Analysis (DAPA) research area.

“The reason is that national statistical systems, in both high- and lower-income countries, are collecting only a small portion of the information that is needed to build a comprehensive picture of the whole system.”

The researchers studied 83 documents covering two decades of food systems in their literature review and found 192 different indicators. Of those, they selected 20 indicators covering 97 countries from varying income regions and then built a global map to rate the sustainability of the food systems in each selected country across the globe.

Those 20 indicators were sorted into four sectors: environment, economic, social, and food security/nutrition and addressed factors including greenhouse gas emissions, the female labour force, fair trade, food price volatility, and food loss and waste.

The authors wrote in their report, “Addressing the question of (un)sustainability of our food systems is critical as the world braces for hard-choice challenges and potentially massive trade-offs around issues related to food quality and food security in the coming decades. Meeting increasing demand for nutritious food for a growing global population under climatic pressures, while mitigating associated environmental damages, is already a pressing challenge. In 2016 the total number of chronically undernourished people was estimated to be around 815 million. At the same time, the health consequences of the exponential increase in overweight and obese people are becoming another global burden.”

Worldwide, those trends are correlated with a massive environmental “food print” of the food production and distribution sectors, as well as patterns of food use characterized by worrisome levels of waste.

“People, including those in international development, (United Nations) agencies, policy-makers, academics, and the general public, are now getting aware of the importance of the ‘bigger picture’,” said Béné. “In particular, food security can no longer be reduced to just a food production issue and left in the hands of the agriculture/agronomist/crop specialists, but other dimensions of the system and related issues need to be considered. This is what the concept of the food system is trying to capture. But I would not say that the full, holistic nature of the problem is understood and embraced by everyone.”

He said information on the “missing middle” (activities other than agriculture/production and consumption, such as transportation, processing, distribution and retailing) that are in the middle of the system and critical to its dynamic are poorly documented and monitored, which drastically reduce the ability to understand how the whole system functions.

He was particularly concerned that the type of food the world consumes and the way food is produced, are contributing to climate change.

“There are tradeoffs between quantity and quality and the question is not just about quantity anymore,” said Béné. “Food quality should also be urgently tackled. The explosion of obesity and associated non-communicable diseases everywhere is proof of this.”

While focusing on one aspect such as food productivity, it is often done at the expense of other equally important dimensions, such as environmental stresses, he said.

“In particular, the environment (can suffer) such as loss of diversity, soil erosion, over-exploitation of ground water, etc.,” he said. “Now we are trying to fix both the nutrition and the environment at the same time. But unless we ensure that the solutions proposed to address this nutrition-environment nexus are done while recognizing and accounting for the social and economic dimensions, we are likely to fix one side of the problem while running the risk of making another side worse.”

He is concerned about the huge pressures that climate change is likely to put on the system in the coming decades.

“I think not many people (beyond scientists) are aware of the magnitude of the problem and of the implications for the ‘food security – population migration – international tension’ downward spiral that this will trigger. The irony is that, when climate change really hits us, the issue of food security in its primary dimension (availability) will re-emerge and the window of opportunity to tackle the quality issue will rapidly close up.”

In the future, he foresees a big change in the global food system.

While small producers have the flexibility to make changes, big multi-national food companies will have a strong interest to defend the status-quo.

“There is an urgent need to recognize that the main barriers to change may not be about technology and innovation but (the practicality of) realpolitik,” said Béné.

The study ‘Global map and indicators of food system sustainability’ was published recently in Scientific Data.

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