Commissioned by WWF Netherlands

The global food system: an analysis

Executive summary

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. 


The Dilemma

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).


Structural challenges

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


New pathways

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.