FAO estimates that around the world, about 795 million people still suffer from hunger and more than two billion people suffer from micronutrient deficiencies or forms of over-nourishment. Simultaneously, historical and future achievements in food security are under threat due to climate change and increasing pressures on natural resources.

FAO’s Future of Food and Agriculture Report on the trends and challenges facing the global agricultural and food security sectors was recently released. The goal of the report is to increase the understanding of the challenges that agriculture, rural development and food systems are currently facing and will be facing in the coming decades. The report discusses 15 global trends spanning a range of themes: demographics, economic growth, climate change, agricultural productivity, pests and diseases, conflicts and natural disasters, poverty and food insecurity, nutrition and health, structural change and employment, migration and agriculture, food losses and waste, governance, and development finance. These trends are strongly interdependent and inform a set of 10 challenges to achieving food security.

According to the report, global demand for agricultural products is expected to increase by at least 50 percent by 2050. This will mainly be driven by global population growth; despite falling fertility rates, the world’s population is expected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050, with Africa and Asia set to experience the largest increases. Incomes are also expected to grow (especially in low- and middle-income countries), leading to increased demand for meat, fruits, and vegetables.

The food and agricultural sectors are also closely linked with climate change. On the one hand, agriculture comprises one of the main drivers of climate change, contributing substantially to greenhouse gas emissions and deforestation. On the other hand, climate change negatively impacts agricultural production and crop yields in a myriad of ways. For instance, climate change increases rainfall variability and the incidence of floods and droughts. These impacts are expected to increase in the coming decades and will require swift responses to improve agricultural adaptation and mitigation.

Agricultural productivity varies significantly across the world and, despite increased investments, agriculture in low- and middle-income countries is much less capital-intensive and productive than agriculture in high-income countries. Countries in Africa south of the Sahara and South Asia, regions with relatively low agricultural productivity, need to improve their yields significantly in order to double output by 2050 and keep up with increased demand. At the same time, yield increases are slowing due to climate change; investments in conservation and climate-smart agriculture will be key to increasing agricultural productivity, especially in vulnerable areas. At current rates of investment and spending on social protection, the FAO, IFAD and WFP estimate that hundreds of millions will continue to be undernourished by 2030; estimating that an additional annual investment of US$265 billion is needed to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger by 2030.

The report also highlights that conflicts, crises, and natural disasters have been increasing in number and intensity in recent years. This is significant, as these crises reduce food availability, disrupt access to food and health care, and undermine social protection systems, driving many people into poverty and hunger. The proportion of undernourished people living in low-income countries experiencing a protracted crisis is between 2.5 and 3 times higher than in the proportion of undernourishment in other low-income countries. Thus, building populations’ resilience to such crises is key in reducing food insecurity. The report highlights the need to increase peace-keeping efforts around the world, as well as to better ensure human rights and economic and social equity, both within and among countries. In addition, early warning systems and disaster preparedness programs need to be stepped up in areas prone to natural disasters and climate-related shocks. This will require improved data collection, monitoring, and reporting at the sub-national, national, and regional levels in order to improve information-sharing and harmonize resilience-building efforts across countries.

Another important trend is that while rates of extreme poverty and undernutrition have fallen, the triple burden of malnutrition remains a global health emergency. This ‘triple burden’, which consists of undernutrition, micronutrient deficiencies, and overweight and obesity, affects large proportions of the world’s people. In particular, rates of overweight and obesity have increased rapidly in recent years and are expected to continue increasing until 2050. To properly address these challenges, policymakers will need to ensure adequate food access and food utilization, not simply adequate food production. In addition, efforts to educate consumers about healthy food choices should be stepped up in both developing and developed countries.

Patterns of structural change and agricultural transformation differ across regions. For instance, small-scale producers and landless populations, who live mainly in developing countries, are increasingly forced to seek employment opportunities in other sectors, driving migratory flows and the feminization of farming in many parts of the world. Simultaneously, value chains are increasingly dominated by large retail chains (such as supermarkets), automated processing plants, and standardized food production.

The last two trends covered in the report are governance for food security and nutrition and development finance. The report highlights that in order to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, a new governance framework that is effective on both the national and the international level is needed. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is a step toward such a new framework, according to the report. The Agenda emphasizes that sustainable development is both a challenge and a responsibility for all countries, not just developing countries; it also emphasizes the need to address inequalities within nations as well as among nations. Developing countries need more policy space to determine their own national development targets and agendas, and private sector stakeholders can have a larger role as development partners.

In terms of development finance, significant increases in the level of financial flows to low- and middle-income countries have been recorded over the past decade. The report argues that increasing financial investments in the agri-food sector as a whole, especially in low- and middle-income countries, will be key to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. Governments will need to increase public spending while simultaneously creating effective enabling environments that encourage private sector investments. In addition, the report discusses the recent development of non-traditional investment sources, such as the UN’s Green Climate Fund, and investment sources from middle-income countries themselves, such as the Asian Infrastructure Development Bank.

Based on all of the trends discussed above, the report documents a number of key challenges that need to be addressed in order to achieve a sustainable global food system: improve agricultural productivity while ensuring a sustainable natural resource base; address climate change; eradicate extreme poverty and reduce inequality; end hunger and malnutrition; make food systems more efficient, inclusive and resilient; improve income-earning opportunities in rural areas; build resilience to protracted crises; prevent trans-boundary and food system threats; and address the need for coherent and effective national and international governance.

The core theme resonating through all of these challenges is the need for a global shift to a sustainable food system that uses land, water, and other inputs efficiently and that reduces waste. Achieving this will take increased investments across the agri-food sector, as well as social protection schemes and pro-poor investments (especially in productive activities in rural economies) that ensure food security and incomes for the poor.

By: Sara Gustafson, IFPRI

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