The global food system: an analysis
The current structure of the food system lies at the center of a nexus of global problems, stretching from poverty to environmental degradation. The increase in food production needed to meet the anticipated demands of the near future cannot be achieved by simply extrapolating current trends in production and consumption. A continuation of the recent historical trends of expansion and intensification will undermine the very resource base on which the food system itself depends.
The preservation of ecosystems and the future wellbeing of the human population are all centrally dependent on a structural transformation of the food system towards a sustainable and resilient state.
The current food system is the product of a historic development pathway
Global food and agricultural production have increased significantly since the end of WWII spurred by a combination of population and economic growth along with technological and cultural shifts in production practices. Due to increases in population, wealth, and urbanization, the world has seen an overall increase in food demand, coupled with a shift in dietary preferences towards more resource-intensive foods.
The Green Revolution played a significant role in establishing intensive agricultural production methods globally and shaping the reigning philosophies in mainstream agricultural practice. Global yields have steadily increased since the 1950s; there is more food produced today per person than ever recorded. Though widely credited with helping avert anticipated large-scale food shortages in the post-WWII era, the intensification practices brought on by the Green Revolution have also been critiqued for driving ecological degradation, unsustainable resource consumption, and entrenching dependency on non- renewable resources like fossil fuels.
Intensification, consolidation, and specialisation are some of the large scale behavioural trends inherent to the food system. Intensive practices dominate the system as a whole and a small number of actors in the fields of production, processing and retail control most of the food system and strongly influence policy making. Loopholes in trade agreements are widely abused by more powerful nations, resulting in unfair competition for developing countries, ultimately manufacturing dependence and eroding local food security.
Recent trends and policies towards growing non-food crops, like biofuels and biomaterials, are leading to re-assignment of land and other base resources, resulting in less availability of these resources for food production. Funding for agricultural research and development is mostly available in higher- income nations, leaving lower-income nations behind. Research and development efforts have been focused on enhancing conventional production methods, with very little funding allocated to the development of sustainable agricultural techniques.
The food system is the largest contributor to both environmental and humanitarian impacts
Agriculture now occupies roughly half of the plant-habitable surface of the planet, uses 69% of extracted fresh water and, together with the rest of the food system, is responsible for 25 – 30% of greenhouse gas emissions. The expansion of industrial fishing fleets and a higher demand for seafood globally have led to the collapse or total exploitation of over 90% of the world’s marine fisheries. A growing demand for land-based animal products is the primary driver of tropical deforestation. Through its direct and intermediate impacts, the food system is the largest contributor to the depletion of biodiversity.
The agri-food sector is the world’s largest economic sector and is therefore deeply entwined with poverty. Half the global workforce is employed in agriculture. A majority of the world’s poorest people are subsistence farmers and fishermen. Small farmers and fishers around the world are caught in cycles of poverty, without access to education, employment, economic and social infrastructure, and political representation. Many do not receive adequate compensation, work in unacceptable conditions, or do not have access to sufficient, affordable, or proper-quality food. Poverty is the largest threat to producers of food globally and the largest driver of food insecurity.
However, simply ensuring a sufficient level of food production will not address the more entrenched impacts and humanitarian imbalances within the food system. We currently produce more than enough food for the global population, yet over 795 million people remain undernourished.
Increased population and growing wealth suggest that a doubling of food production may be necessary by 2050
Though its environmental and humanitarian impacts are already severe, the food system is poised for further expansion. In 2012, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimated that by 2050 we will need to increase food output by 60% based on a business-as-usual scenario. Since the FAO’s projections, population increases have been further revised upwards and food demand is likely to double. This represents a larger increase from today’s production than we have seen since the 1960s. Past concerns about the scalability of global food supply have historically been laid to rest by a continuous increase in output through intensification, but recent trends have renewed concerns about the continuity of global food supply in the coming decades. The genetic potential of major crops is being reached, land is being degraded, and there is a structural lack of investment in low-producing regions. These combined issues have led to a lower rate of growth in yields in recent decades; yield increases are not currently on track to meet projected increases in demand. This situation drives policy-makers and researchers to redouble their efforts on further advancing the intensive practices that led to dramatic increases in yields in recent decades.
The planetary boundaries and unsustainable resource extraction are hard limits to the food system’s further expansion based on past trends
The FAO’s 2012 global food projections study concluded that sufficient global land, water, and fertiliser resources exist to supply the 2050 projected global food demand, though with difficulty due to emerging scarcity. Even so, these conclusions are based primarily on the physical availability of basic resources and do not take into account the transgressions of planetary boundaries.
Four planetary boundaries have already been transgressed; biospheric integrity, the biogeochemical cycles of nitrogen and phosphorus, and climate change. Biospheric integrity is an apex boundary that is further breached when any of the other boundaries are impacted. The extraction of biological resources accounts for around 21% of the total material extraction by mass globally, but is responsible for a disproportionate majority of impacts that relate to planetary boundary transgressions. A majority of biological resource extraction can be attributed to the food system, making it the primary single contributor to the transgression of many planetary boundaries.
In addition to the planetary boundaries, a second set of limits to the expansion of the food system is the depletion of non-renewable or slowly renewable resources, such as fossil fuels and wild fish stocks. From our survey of impacts stemming from the global food system, we conclude that pursuing a growth and intensification trajectory is untenable as the main strategy for addressing the projected food demands of the 2050 population. Moreover, this pathway will only provide temporary solutions at the expense of long-term productive capacity due to, for example, the erosion and salinisation of soils.
Alternative pathways can provide for the needs of our growing population without compromising human or ecological health
The growth and intensification pathway is not the inevitable choice for addressing the 2050 food demands of the population. Over 30% of food is currently wasted; a larger percentage of the population is now overweight than undernourished; land resources are increasingly allocated towards non-food uses; 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.
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 innovations in the 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 and resilient food system, we must consider the systemic nature of the system’s behaviours and impacts. Severe, irreversible and non-linear impacts that may lead to the crossing of key systemic tipping points should be avoided at highest cost. These include impacts in areas of preservation of global biodiversity, mitigation of climate change, management of soils and essential non-renewable resources, the preservation of culture and heritage, and the preservation of human health. 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 the food policy. By accounting for systemic effects, we can come to understand feedback loops and adverse effects early on and adapt policy accordingly.
Making food policy decisions for the global food system requires stronger and more cooperative international governance. Many impacts in the food system today can be traced back to a structural limitation of governance and enforcement.
We need to address four main challenges simultaneously in order to transition to a sustainable and resilient food system
Challenge 1: Adaptive and Resilient Food System
An adaptive and resilient food system is one that will be able to respond to changing circumstances and new challenges as they emerge. This is one 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.).
Challenge 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.
Challenge 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 Challenges 1 and 2 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 critical 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, 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 practices).
Challenge 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 challenges. 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 and resilient food system.
The global food system is in need of a dramatic transformation. The pathway we are currently on is leading to an impasse: the increases in food production needed to meet the anticipated demands of a much larger and wealthier human population cannot be achieved by simply extrapolating current trends in production and consumption.
Can we achieve a food system that works within the planet’s biophysical boundaries, inclusively supports human livelihoods, and ensures food security for a growing and changing population? This has become one of the central questions in humanity’s broader quest to shape a sustainable future.
In the 8 – 10,000 years of practicing agriculture (Harlan & MacNeish, 1994), only a small fraction of the 200,000 years that modern humans are estimated to have existed (Harpending & Eswaran, 2005), food production has altered our environment more dramatically than any other socioeconomic activity. Agriculture now occupies roughly half of the plant-habitable surface of the planet (FAO, 2015b), uses 69% of extracted fresh water (Aquastat, 2014), and, together with the rest of the food chain, is responsible for between 25 – 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions (IPCC, 2014). The expansion of industrial fishing fleets and an increased global appetite for seafood have led to the collapse or total exploitation of 90% of the world’s marine fisheries (FAO, 2014b).
Likewise, a growing demand for land-based animal products is the primary driver of tropical deforestation (Convention on Biological Diversity, 2015). Through its myriad direct and intermediate impacts, the food system is the single largest contributor to the depletion of our most precious non-renewable resource: global biodiversity (see section 3.1).
The food system is the single largest contributor to the depletion of global biodiversity.
Likewise, a growing demand for land-based animal products is the primary driver of tropical deforestation (Convention on Biological Diversity, 2015). Through its myriad direct and intermediate impacts, the food system is the single largest contributor to the depletion of our most precious non-renewable resource: global biodiversity (see section 3.1).
Though its environmental impacts are already severe, the food system, which we define as the complete set of people, institutions, activities, processes, and infrastructure involved in producing and consuming food for a given population, is poised for a necessary expansion.
In 2012, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimated that by 2050 we will need to increase food output by 60% based on a business-as- usual scenario. Since the FAO’s projections, population increases have been further revised upwards and the food demand is likely to need to double (United Nations, 2015). This represents a larger increase from today’s production levels than we have achieved through advances of the Green Revolution since the 1960s (Searchinger et al., 2013).
Simply ensuring a sufficient level of food production, however, does not address some of the more entrenched impacts and humanitarian imbalances in the current food system. We currently produce more than enough food for the global population, yet despite this fact, over 795 million people remain food insecure.
On the other side of the spectrum, in 2014, the number of overweight people reached 1.9 billion, with over 600 million obese (World Health Organization (WHO), 2015). Due to a combination of poverty, lack of education, and evolving commercial practices in the food industry, there is an increasing emergence of “double burden” families that have members who are both overweight and malnourished (World Health Organization (WHO), 2015).
As the world’s largest economic sector, the agri-food system is also deeply entwined with the issue of global poverty. Half of the global workforce (1.3 billion people) are employed in agriculture, with an estimated 2.6 billion deriving their primary livelihoods from it (International Labour Organization (ILO), 2015). A majority of the world’s poorest people are subsistence farmers and fishermen, whose basic livelihoods continue to be threatened by structural poverty traps (Carter & Barrett, 2006).
It is clear that ensuring adequate food globally, though critical, is just one piece of a much more complex puzzle. The current structure of the global food system lies at the centre of a nexus of global problems stretching from poverty to environmental degradation.
Breaking the pattern
The dilemma of the global food system is a deeply existential one. On the one hand, we have a moral imperative to ensure an uninterrupted food supply, on the other, doing so based on the expansion of current practices will have devastating consequences for our natural environment, undermining the very basis of the food system’s functioning. Most of the solutions proposed to resolve this dilemma focus on the expansion of arable lands and the increase of yields per hectare through the intensification of agricultural production. There is good reason to question whether or not this approach, which in many ways represents a continuation of existing trends, will result in a food system that sufficiently resolves the nexus of problems we face:
- Universal food security has not been achieved despite the fact that food production levels are sufficient to feed everyone globally; 10.8% of the global population remains food insecure despite a global surplus in caloric production of over 20% (Marx, 2015; authors’ estimates based on FAOSTAT data).
- The global nutrient cycles of nitrogen and phosphorous are broken, not only because of practices in agriculture, but to an equally large extent through the lack of collection of nutrients from municipal waste water systems (Vitousek et al., 1997).
- Production practices are evaluated based primarily on short-term increases in yields, rather than on their ability to sustain long-term productive output based on care for soils, appropriate labour systems, and the need for adaptation to the effects of climate change (Phelps, Carrasco, Webb, Koh, & Pascual, 2013).
- Despite clear indications that allocating arable land use to the production of first generation biofuels is not a good use of resources by almost any measure, policies remain in place to continue this trend (Bastos Lima & Gupta, 2014).
- Around one third of food globally is wasted, indicating large potential gains for reducing impact and saving scarce resources (Gustavsson, Cederberg, & Sonesson, 2011).
- The very structure of global food markets and trade continues to keep individuals trapped in poverty and threatens local food access in developing countries (Serpukhov, 2013).
As the food system has expanded over the past decades, many of these concerns have come into sharper focus rather than becoming resolved. This observation points to the fact that more effective and durable solutions to achieving a sustainable and resilient food future may lie in deeper parts of the system: in its very structure and the underlying incentives that lead to continued problematic outcomes.
Two women vendors in a Chinese street market, Creative Commons: thisnomad
Food is a daily necessity, a carrier of our cultural values, family traditions, and even personal ideologies. The very discussion of the challenge of the food system is often framed politically, as a battle between the needs of humans versus the needs of the environment. Discussions about organic agriculture or Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are almost never merely about technological efficiency; they touch on several polarizing debates around people’s identities, ethics, and views of the world.
We need a multitude of strategies at different levels of the food systems functioning that go beyond individual convictions in order to address the urgent challenges at hand. To that end, it is essential to take an objective look at the data and look beyond the well-worn pathways of argumentation.
This report presents a baseline analysis of the global food system using methodologies taken from systems science. One of our primary objectives is to present a clear overview of the current performance of the global food system: its inputs, outputs, impacts, structure, and behaviour. With this factual basis, we hope to lay the foundation for further in-depth analysis, and inform a deeper and broader look at the potential systemic approaches for transitioning towards a truly sustainable, resilient food system.
The inevitability of an expansion of food production based on current business as usual models is far from a closed question; a coordinated effort between policy makers, knowledge institutes, producers, financial institutions, and consumers is needed to shape a new, coherent pathway forward.
Chapter 01: Current State
The food system is both enormous and complex. The trend of globalization has intensified the level of interdependency between its actors and processes over the last half century, leading to an increasingly “global” system in the true sense of the word. The full scope of the food system stretches to include the vast majority of the human population (as either producers, traders, or consumers), the majority of all economic activities, and a large proportion of many categories of resource use.A wealth of data is collected annually on the performance of the global food system by intergovernmental organisations such as the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), national and local governments, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and a variety of research and academic institutions. Statistics collected cover everything from agricultural yields and regional availability of tractors to trade balances and malnutrition rates. In this chapter, we explore the current state of the global food system through the lens of some of its core processes: production and extraction, processing, trade, retail, consumption, and waste. We present key statistics along each of the steps of this chain, which will serve as the basis for further interpretation and analysis in later parts of the report and in the follow up studies to this work. Understanding the basic nature of the resource flows and production practices in the food system is an essential prerequisite to gaining insight into the problems at hand.
Key messages in Chapter 01: Current State
- Currently 30 major crops account for 90 to 95% of human food consumption (United Nations Environmental Programme, 2007). Cereal production occupies the largest percentage of cultivated land, accounting for almost half of total cultivated area, followed by oil crops, which occupy almost one fifth.
- Of the 1.5 billion hectares of agricultural land worldwide, only a third is used for the production of food crops. The remainder is primarily dedicated to the production of livestock. Because 38% of global crops are used as feed for animals, only 20% of global agricultural land is utilized for the direct production of crops for human consumption (FAO, 2015b).
- Fish provide 4.3 billion people with around 15 percent of their animal protein intake (FAO, 2014b). The global fisheries and aquaculture sector produced over 176 million tonnes of seafood in 2011 (FAO, 2015b). Although the production of fish, seafood, and algae is still dominated by extractive wild capture fisheries, global aquaculture (aquatic farming) has more than doubled since the start of the millennium, and is positioned to become the primary contributor to seafood production in the near future.
- The production of food is dominated by East Asia, Latin America, and Europe; between them, these regions produce over half of the world’s food supply. »Contrary to popular expectations originating from topics like “food miles” and import dependencies, the amount of international trade is relatively insignificant compared to total volumes of production (14% of total annual production), though some commodities, like coffee, are outliers in this regard.
- There is enormous variability in global agricultural production and wild extraction systems. The type of practice selected is one of the main determinants of resource demand and yield, and by extension, environmental impact
Chapter 02: Trends and Behaviour
The enormity of the food system is apparent from the data presented in the previous chapter. Since World War II, the system has tripled its output across many categories of foods to keep pace with population growth and changes in food demand patterns (FAO, 2015b). As we discuss in more detail in Chapter 3, the continued increase in resource throughput accompanying this expansion has placed ever greater stresses on both the biophysical resource base of the food system as well as the people and animals influenced by it. In this chapter we present some of the trends and underlying dynamics of the food system in order to better understand how its current shape and direction have evolved. The resource flows linked to different aspects of the food system have not grown uniformly. With regards to some parameters (land, greenhouse gas emissions) the food system has become much more efficient (though absolute throughput has still increased), whereas with regards to other parameters (pesticides, fertilizers), the food system has become much more resource-intensive over the period examined, with some recent signs of increased efficiency. In addition to looking at the quantifiable outcomes of the food system’s activities (food production, resource consumption), we also examine a few of the driving trends (population, GDP) and emergent behaviours (intensification, consolidation) that have shaped the system and characterise its current functioning. In the discussion section at the end of this chapter, we look at the implications of the food system’s current trajectory for the coming decades using the FAO’s business as usual projections for 2050 as a starting point. Despite its current enormity, the food system is poised for continued expansion due to projected increases in population growth and wealth. This projected increase in demand raises critical questions regarding limits to the system’s expansion under its historic model of development.
Key messages in Chapter 02: Trends and Behaviour
- The Green Revolution played a significant role in establishing intensive agricultural production methods globally and shaping the reigning philosophies in mainstream agricultural practice. Though widely credited with helping avert anticipated large-scale food shortages in the post-WWII era, the intensification practices brought on by the Green Revolution have also been critiqued for driving ecological degradation and entrenching dependency on non-renewable resources like fossil fuels.
- There is more food produced today per person than ever recorded. Both calories and grams of protein per capita have steadily increased since the 1950s. »Growth in yields has begun to slow in recent decades, with annual yield increases in cereal crops now growing on average at half the rate necessary to reach a (potentially necessary) doubling of food production by 2050. The genetic potential of major crops is being reached and land degradation as well as lack of investment in low-producing regions is leading to overall yield declines.
- There is enormous global variability in yield, and the global yield gap between the most and least productive farms globally has increased dramatically since the 1950s.
- The food system’s absolute resource use (water, pesticides, fertilizer, energy) has increased significantly over the period evaluated. However, resource intensity per unit of food output has been improving for certain resources. Emissions intensity measured in tonnes of CO2eq. per tonne of food has decreased. Fertilizer and pesticide intensity have more recently begun to show signs of decline as well. These are indications that the system is becoming more efficient as it expands.
- Key trends that have been driving the expansion pattern and structure of the food system include increases in global population, wealth, and urbanisation. These increases are associated with changes in consumer dietary preferences, which have led to the increased complexity and resource-intensity of average diets.
- Policy-supported trends have also led to structural shifts within the food system. Notably, demand for non-food uses of crops, particularly biofuels and biomaterials, is putting significant pressure on the resource base needed to support continued food production.
- The food system exhibits several large scale behavioral trends including intensification, consolidation, specialisation, and regionalisation. As evidenced in steadily increasing yields, intensive practices now define much of the food system. Control of the system has consolidated onto a handful of actors in production, processing, and retail. Intra-regional trade now encompasses the majority of international trade, indicating a slow-down in the effect of globalisation towards a more regional model.
- Funding for agricultural research and development is not evenly distributed across nations or production methods. This has allowed certain nations and regions to improve, while many low-income nations are excluded. Similarly, funding has been prescriptive in developing specific production methods, allocating little opportunity or funding for alternative practices to take hold.
- A slowly growing counter-movement to the intensive practices brought on by the Green Revolution has begun to emerge in the form of alternative, lower-impact agricultural systems. However, these practices still make up a small minority of agricultural production worldwide and are generally under-researched. New practices and food processing techniques (advanced greenhouse horticulture, symbiotic agricultural systems like aquaponics, agroecological practices, vertical urban farming, alternative and synthetic protein products), present a small, but promising frontier for food system innovation.
Chapter 03: Impacts
The expansion and intensification of the food system that have been discussed in the previous chapter have led to increasing yields and a growth of overall food production. However, at the same time the food system is causing a range of environmental and humanitarian impacts. This chapter provides insight in the magnitude of these impacts, as well as their key drivers. The discussion that follows with regards to the drivers behind key impacts of the food system, focuses on direct causal relationships between drivers and impacts at the global level. Thus it provides a clear overview of the way in which the food system impacts environmental and social issues that have sparked wide international concern, ranging from biodiversity loss and climate change, to hunger and poverty. For purposes of clarity, the key impacts are discussed in this chapter as if they were points; caused by something, a final consequence. This is, of course, a simplification of reality. As Figure 19 illustrates, the set of impacts discussed in this chapter are interrelated, biophysical impacts such as climate change influence other impacts in turn (e.g. biodiversity or food security).These issues are reflected upon in more detail in the discussion at the end of this chapter.
Key Messages in chapter 03: Impacts
- The food system is the primary driver of several key environmental impacts that are leading to the transgression of the planetary boundaries. Based on an analysis of the global material flow for the reference year 2010, the extraction of biological resources accounted for around 20% of total material extraction by mass. However, this single category of resource extraction accounts for a disproportionate majority of impacts that are leading to planetary boundary transgressions (land use change, water management, release of novel entities into the environment, climate change, biogeochemical cycle displacement, and through all of these driving mechanisms: biodiversity loss). The food system is the primary source of biological resource extraction, and is therefore a disproportionate contributor to overall anthropogenic impact.
- The food system is one of the largest sources of emissions accumulating in environmental “sinks.” The production and dispersion of emissions, novel chemical entities and the large-scale production of waste burden many of the environmental elements and processes that are able to convert and eventually remove pollutants. Food waste and the lack of infrastructure or oversight to avoid it, results in not only higher environmental tolls, but also humanitarian costs such as a lack of food security. Packaging, while reducing food waste, adds to waste streams.
- The available physical resource base for food production cannot expand under current practices to meet the projected needs of the human population by 2050 if we are to remain within the planetary boundary limits. The food system uses land, soils, water, riparian and coastal habitats, nutrients, and many other essential inputs. Most of these key inputs are either fully exploited or projected to become so if current production trends continue.
- A large proportion of the global population is entirely dependent upon the food system for their livelihoods and access to affordable food. For many however, inadequate compensation, unacceptable working conditions or unaffordable or low-quality food continue to result from the functioning of the food system.
Chapter 04: Structural Causes
There are many studies on sustainability of the global food system that readily identify a number of important immediate drivers behind sustainability impacts. These drivers are often identified as (but not limited to) policy failures, exploitative practices, population growth, and other emergent behavioural phenomena. While these are certainly an important part of the explanation of how impacts occur, these drivers alone do not tell the full story. In systems science, understanding the underlying structures is the key to identifying the root causes of problems. Only by addressing root causes, rather than the symptoms of problems or their more superficial causes, are we able to create long-lasting changes in a system’s functioning. The structures within a system (e.g., the infrastructural elements, rules, and key relationships determine the system’s behaviour. Understanding the structure of a system allows us to pinpoint higher-leverage interventions which can result in target behaviour and outcomes (Meadows & Wright, 2008).Taking the main impact categories that we discussed in the Impacts chapter as a starting point, we identified case studies which are major contributors to these impacts, and investigated the root causes for each case. What we have observed from these case studies is that a relatively small set of structural mechanisms are at the root of many shared problems. While the exact structural elements that make up the “root causes” for each impact area vary across different contexts, what we can see is that there are several common themes and patterns that emerge.
Key Messages in Chapter 04: Structural Causes
- There are almost never any single root causes to impacts. The vast majority of structural root causes that were identified from a case study analysis pointed to several structural elements working together to create either self-reinforcing mechanisms or other forms of path dependency. Because there are several structural root causes, the behaviour and ultimately the impacts that result are deeply entrenched into the system.
- Poverty is the largest threat to producers of food globally. Small farmers and fisherfolk around the world are caught in a similar cycle of poverty, whereby a fundamental absence of educational services, employment opportunities, economic and social infrastructure, and political representation force them to subsist.
- Research and investment in production is locked-in on traditional, intensive approaches. Alternative, more sustainable practices do not have the opportunity to continually develop and evolve like conventional paradigms that benefit from reliable funding, further cementing their market dominance. With funding focused on specific practices, investment in developing nations from high-income nations has become intermittent, making long-term development difficult without sustained and reliable resources.
- Mechanisms and loopholes in the architecture of trade agreements are often abused by powerful countries to continue pursuing protectionist policies, resulting in unfair competition scenarios for the developing countries, ultimately creating trade dependence and eroding local food security.
- Policy making is strongly influenced by wealthy actors in the system. Liberal trade policies and the revolving door for government lobbyists have solidified a culture where large, wealthy corporations have disproportionate power over political decision making, whereby small players in the food system are marginalized both economically and politically
Chapter 05: Towards a Sustainable and Resilient Food System
It is clear that the food system is in need of a significant transformation if it is to feed our growing population in a sustainable, equitable, and adaptive manner. Because the food system is poised to expand in the coming decades, there is an opportunity to intervene in shaping its future direction. The current functioning of the food system is the result of deeply embedded, self-reinforcing structures and paradigms. These lead to the problematic behaviours and impacts that we have described throughout this report. With the right interventions, we may be able to avoid impacts and break out of patterns that now seem inevitable as a result of its current trajectory. Before we can chart a course for transitioning the food system to a different state, we must have a clear outlook of where we would actually like it to go; a working definition of what sustainability might mean in the context of this system. Though it may seem challenging to develop consensus on the “ideal state” of the food system, this task is greatly simplified by sticking to performance or outcome-oriented features (e.g., adequate food supply for all people) rather than describing the specific mechanisms or approaches that should be used to produce those outcomes (e.g., applying conventional versus organic farming techniques). In this chapter, we propose a working draft of performance criteria for a sustainable food system. By describing what the system would function like if all of its negative impacts were addressed, we are able to describe how an ideal system might look without prescribing mechanisms for how to get there. The resulting performance criteria of an ideal food system can be grouped under four key challenges that the food system must address in order to be considered sustainable:
- Challenge 1: Adaptive and Resilient Food System
- Challenge 2: Nutritious Food for All
- Challenge 3: Within Planetary Boundaries
- Challenge 4: Supporting Livelihoods and Well-Being
In a sustainable food system, all four of these challenges should be adequately addressed: only dealing with a subset shifts the “burden” from one problem to another, and leaves the system in a state of vulnerability that threatens its overall functioning. We provide an overview of the key objectives that need to be addressed within the scope of each of these challenges.
Key Messages in Chapter 05: Towards a Sustainable and Resilient Food System
- Table 3 presents a set of idealised performance criteria for a food system that addresses human and ecological needs simultaneously. The performance criteria adhere to the principles set forth in systemic sustainability frameworks like the circular economy, biomimicry, or industrial ecology thinking. They describe a state where the negative impacts within the food system have been reversed (i.e., universal food security has been achieved, biodiversity levels are no longer threatened by activities of the food system, etc.). We have grouped the objectives presented in Table 3 under the heading of four central challenges for achieving a sustainable and resilient food system.
- A transition to a sustainable and resilient food system will require all four challenges to be simultaneously addressed. Though distinct from one another, the challenges share a number of root causes, which should be central targets in shaping a coherent strategy for transitioning the food system:
- Challenge 1: Adaptive and Resilient Food System. Adaptive capacity and resilience are foundational features for achieving a sustainable food system. These properties 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 of organisational capacity, elimination of poverty cycles, etc.).
- Challenge 2: Nutritious Food for All. Based on the research presented in this report, we conclude that 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.
- Challenge 3: Within Planetary Boundaries. Many of the approaches that are necessary to address Challenges 1 and 2 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 critical 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 practices (e.g, applying conservation measures); 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, agroecological practices, etc.).
- Challenge 4: Supporting Livelihoods and Wellbeing. 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 challenges. 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 and resilient food system.