Four pillars of a sustainable food system

Published on the 29th of November 2019
Sustainable food system

The World Bank estimates that the global population is predicted to grow from 7.6 billion in 2018 to nearly 10 billion by 2050. With agricultural systems already exerting extreme pressure on our planet, how can we feed a growing population sustainably?

Growth and intensification of food production is not the inevitable choice for addressing 2050 demands. Over 30% of food is currently wasted, a larger percentage of the population is now overweight than undernourished, and nutritious diets can be provided with a fraction of the average resource demand that they currently require. All of these systemic failures present opportunities for transitioning the food system in a direction where it provides fully for the needs of people without infringing on key limits. These four pillars form the backbone of a more resilient pathway.

Trends in global agricultural and food production, agricultural land use, and global population (FAO, 2015b).
Trends in global agricultural and food production, agricultural land use, and global population (FAO, 2015b).

1. An Adaptive and Resilient Food System

Able to respond to changing circumstances and new challenges as they emerge, adaptability and resilience are some of the most important systemic criteria for a sustainable food system, since we cannot predict all of the conditions or changes that will emerge in the future. Adaptive capacity and resilience must be built into both biophysical aspects of the system (through the preservation of biodiversity, maintenance of healthy soil systems, maintenance of buffering capacity in water bodies, etc.) and socioeconomic aspects of the system (knowledge transfer, development or organizational capacity, elimination of poverty cycles, etc.).

sustainable food system

2. Nutritious Food For All

The most basic and fundamental challenge that the food system must address is to ensure the supply of adequate nutrition for the world’s population. Ideally, it should achieve the objective set out by the World Food Summit in Rome, which states that food security is addressed when, “all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” Some of the priority objectives for addressing this challenge should, at minimum, include: reducing overall food demand (e.g., through reducing food waste); progressively shifting to lower-impact, less-resource-intensive food sources; ensuring that scarce resources (land, water) are allocated to food production as a priority over non-food uses; improving economic access to food; and improving farmer productivity in the developing world.

planetary boundaries
The planetary boundaries the world cannot afford to cross.

3. Within Planetary Boundaries

A sustainable food system should remain within planetary boundaries in all of the key biophysical impact areas across the entire life cycle of food production, consumption, and disposal. Though we should continuously strive for full net zero impact within the food system, there are some areas, such as preservation of biodiversity, which should be prioritized over others.  In general, severe and irreversible impacts to complex ecological and cultural systems, and the depletion of non-renewable natural resources caused by the food system, should be addressed with the highest urgency.

Many of the approaches that are necessary to address the first two pillars are also essential for bringing the operations of the food system within the scope of the planetary boundaries. Notably, reducing food demand and shifting to lower-impact sources of food are prerequisites for bringing down the overall resource throughput of the system. In addition, this challenge requires at least the following measures: reducing the impact of existing agricultural and extractive practices (e.g., applying conservation measures, reducing nitrogen emissions, moving to lower-impact fishing techniques); Placing limits on system expansion and intensification, particularly when addressing the global yield gap (e.g., reducing arable land expansion, and if necessary directing it towards marginal lands); and investing in the development of new sustainable agricultural techniques (e.g., organic cultivars, agro-ecological, regenerative practices).

Sustainable food system
An overview of the consolidation at each step in the food chain from inputs to production to retail. (FAO, 2014a; FAO, 2010; OECD Competition Committee, 2010; Nielsen, 2015)

4. Supporting Livelihoods and Wellbeing

The food system should structurally support the livelihoods and well-being of people working within it. It should be possible to fully nourish and support oneself and earn a reasonable living wage in exchange for average work hours within the food system. Ensuring that the food system supports livelihoods and wellbeing is more than an end in itself; it is also essential for addressing the other three pillars. Without secure livelihoods, smallholder farmers and fishermen will continue to struggle in building the necessary capacity and resource base to transition to sustainable models of production. A resilient system cannot be built upon an unstable foundation. Therefore, addressing the systemic structures that perpetuate poverty is critical to the success of achieving a sustainable food system.

Sustainable food system

These four pillars offer an alternative pathway

A counter-movement to intensive, conventional agricultural and extractive systems is slowly emerging. These practices still only make up a minority of the global agricultural production and are generally under-researched. New practices and food processing techniques present a small, but promising, new direction for a sustainable food system. We can produce sufficient food, even for a much larger population, if structural changes are made to how we approach both production and consumption. To successfully move towards a sustainable food system, we must consider the systemic nature of the system’s behaviours and impacts.

If we do not address and change the central root causes that lead to multiple impacts, impacts will continue to occur. To ensure that solutions are comprehensive and adaptive, we need to hard-wire systems thinking into food policy. By accounting for systemic effects, we can come to understand feedback loops and adverse effects early on and adapt policy accordingly.

This is an edited extract from our analysis for WWF of the global food system.

Reach out to agrifood and biodiversity consultant Brian Shaw at [email protected] for more on sustainable food.

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