This article is an adjusted, authorized version of Jacobine Das Gupta’s “Welcome to 2020: Better food for people and planet”
Numerous scientists and researchers at the World Health Organization, WEF and WBCSD amongst others, have clearly shown that we are not feeding ourselves in a sustainable way. Without significant changes in our food systems we won’t be able to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals nor the Paris agreement. Food production and consumption are factors that cannot be neglected, as they represent significant causes ánd consequences for human and planetary health.
“Food is the single strongest lever to optimize human health and environmental sustainability on Earth" - EAT-Lancet, 2019
The research contains three very good reasons for changing the way we produce and eat our food:
We will soon be surpassing 5 defined ‘planetary boundaries’: climate change, land-system change, freshwater use, nitrogen and phosphorus cycling and biodiversity loss1. More scientists spelled out the specific boundaries in relation to food: The combined sectors of ‘agriculture, forest and other land use’ account no less than 23% of human GHG emissions according to the intergovernmental panel on climate change2. Climate change is already causing increased risk of water scarcity, soil erosion, and a decline in crop yield as well as nutrients in crops. Another intergovernmental panel, dedicated to biodiversity, IPBES (2019) highlighted that the world's global biodiversity is in danger, with 25% of all animal and plant species are at risk of extinction, and half of all ‘eco-system’ services that nature provides us are in decline - think about pollination. Going forward the Earth won't be able to produce the food we need.
We do not do a good job in feeding ourselves well. Poor diets cause 11 million adult deaths per year caused by ‘non-communicable diseases’, diseases that are not transferable, such as heart disease and diabetes-2 and linked to high calorie intake, too much sugar, salt and saturated fats3. UN FAO (2019) calculated that the number of people suffering from hunger has risen to 820 million people, 1.3 billion people are moderate food insecure, where and over 2 billion adults and 400 million children obese or overweight4 and more than 2 billion people lack essential micronutrients such as Vitamin A, Iron and Iodine56.
Food is such a precious good, it is produced on increasingly scarce land, by human labor and costly factories it is a real shame that we are losing one third of all food along the way between growing, harvesting, transporting, processing and consuming, the equivalent of 1.3 billion tons of food7.
The different challenges are happening at the same time, are interlinked and need all to be addressed - starting now. Acting on climate change won't be enough. Imagine we would be able to stay within 1.5 degrees temperature - but the global insect population would go extinct and soils get drought and poor, we won’t be able to feed ourselves. If we don’t change our food composition, billions of people still will get ill, lose quality of life and will get diabetes-2 and other non-communicable diseases. How can we feed ourselves, and our children, in a healthy, sustainable, fair and enjoyable way?
One of the most interesting and optimistic books I read in 2019 was ‘The way we eat now’ by Bee Wilson. Wilson interviewed leading nutritionists, politicians, sociologists and economics about the important changes in our food systems in the past decades. Wilson concludes that it IS possible for consumers to change their food patterns – when governments and food producers put all efforts in making healthy and sustainable choices more easy, with more transparency about the origins and content of food – ánd when citizens realise the shifts are within reach, by training new tastes, eating new foods on old (thus smaller) plates, cook more from scratch and reconnect with senses.
There was no lack of guidance in 2019 about what a ‘healthy’ or, at least, a ‘healthier diet’ should constitute of. FAO and WHO (2019) and EAT-Lancet commission provided new global guidance for a larger food diversity, a preference for now or minimally processed, reduced sugar, salt and saturated fats, proportionally more plant based foods, moderate intake of dairy, eggs, fish, small amounts of meat and water as the fluid of choice, locally and culturally embedded. Others added that healthier diets should include (bio)fortification of staple foods subsidized by governments for those populations that are deficient of vitamins and minerals8. The World Health Organisation (2019) pledges for a more central role of nutrition and making it part of primary health care, to prevent health risks and costs.
Emission reduction from agriculture and food production comes first. This should be done by halting deforestation, reduce methane emissions from ruminants and burning of rice fields or biomass burning; and reducing nitrogen oxide (N2O) from fertilizer use and manure9. Emission reduction, however, won’t be enough. Oceans are increasingly a source of proteins, which requires marine biodiversity to be protected. Also agriculture soils need to stay healthy and fertile, ensure that land and aquaculture farming will be future-fit ‘regenerative agriculture practices’ will place a vital role, combining traditional techniques such as crop rotation and control livestock grazing systems and precision farming1011.
If there is one are that at first looks like a no-brainer, then it’s reducing food loss and waste (FLW). Driving change will require greater transparency in food supply chains, investments in (cold) storage and consumer behavior change12. WRI et all (2019) urge all governments and businesses to define food loss and waste targets, measure and track progress and identify hotspots take action upon. Among the scaling recommendations are national FLW strategies, public-private partnerships and the so-called ’10-20-30’ supply chain initiatives: the countries largest 10 food manufacturers and 20 largest suppliers cooperate to halve food waste by 2030 (SDG 12.3).
As food system challenges are multi-facetted, also solutions to fix the system will need a broad and multi-disciplinary approach for which environmental, health, economic, urban planners, doctors, farmers, and policy specialists are all needed. In summary, governments can help by redirecting subsidies to regenerative agriculture and R&D for sustainable production and food loss and waste reduction; Businesses should weigh in and develop the best technologies to increase food productivity, protect resources and biodiversity and develop foods and beverages that fit in the new criteria of sustainable, healthy and enjoyable food for all; and last but not least citizens: choose the food that is good for you and the planet, demand transparency.
1EAT-Lancet, ‘Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems’, The Lancet, 2019: https://www.thelancet.com/commissions/EAT
2IPCC, ‘Climate Change and Land’, IPCC, 2019: https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2019/08/4.-SPM_Approved_Microsite_FINAL.pdf
4Food and Agriculture Organization and World Health Organization, ‘Sustainable Healthy Diets’, FAO, 2019: https://www.who.int/nutrition/topics/ida/en/
5World Health Organization: ‘Micronutrient deficiencies’, WHO: https://www.who.int/nutrition/topics/ida/en/
6International Food Policy Research Institute: Global Hunger Index, IFPRI: https://www.ifpri.org/sites/default/files/ghi/2014/feature_1818.html
7World Resources Institute, ‘A 10-Step Plan for the World to Cut Food Loss and Waste in Half By 2030’, WRI, 2019: https://www.wri.org/blog/2019/08/10-step-plan-world-cut-food-loss-and-waste-half-2030
8World Business Council for Sustainable Development, ‘CEO Guide to Food System Transformation’, WBCSD, 2019: https://www.wbcsd.org/Programs/Food-and-Nature/Food-Land-Use/Resources/CEO-Guide-to-Food-System-Transformation
9IPCC, ‘Climate Change and Land’, IPCC, 2019: https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2019/08/4.-SPM_Approved_Microsite_FINAL.pdf
10The Food and Land Use Coalition, ‘Growing Better: Ten Critical Transitions to Transform Food and Land Use’, Food and Land Use Coalition, 2019: https://www.foodandlandusecoalition.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/FOLU-GrowingBetter-GlobalReport-ExecutiveSummary.pdf
11World Resources Institute, ‘Creating a Sustainable Food Future’, World Resources Institute, 2019: https://wrr-food.wri.org/sites/default/files/2019-07/WRR_Food_Full_Report_0.pdf
12The Food and Land Use Coalition, ‘Growing Better: Ten Critical Transitions to Transform Food and Land Use’, Food and Land Use Coalition, 2019: https://www.foodandlandusecoalition.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/FOLU-GrowingBetter-GlobalReport-ExecutiveSummary.pdf