Last year witnessed the culmination of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the launch of a new global development agenda – the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). According to IFPRI’s 2016 Global Food Policy Report (GFPR), launched in Washington, DC last week, achieving the ambitious aims of the SDGs – which include eliminating extreme poverty, hunger, and malnutrition while encouraging sustainable growth and conserving the environment by 2030 – will require coordinated action at the global, regional, national, and local community levels.

A key component of reaching the SDGs will be creating a more sustainable, inclusive, and efficient global food system. While the current food system feeds 6 billion people, according to the report, it still leaves nearly 800 million people hungry; at the same time, many of those 6 billion people who eat calories do not eat nutritiously enough and thus suffer from malnutrition. In addition, the global food system is responsible for the livelihoods of millions of people, many of whom remain impoverished in rural developing areas due to a lack of productivity and market access. Finally, as the world faces increasingly scarce natural resources and stronger climate change-driven weather shocks, global agricultural systems are quickly becoming unsustainable and need to become more climate-smart.

A better functioning global food system would be more efficient, inclusive, climate-smart, sustainable, nutrition- and health- driven, and business-friendly. The specific application of these characteristics and their role in the global food system is discussed as follows.

Functioning Markets: The FAO reports that by 2050, global food producers will need to produce 70 percent more food than they do today in order to feed the world’s population. However, the world’s natural resources will not be able to support such an increase in production using current agricultural techniques. Thus, the challenge is how to feed more people using fewer resources. One solution is increasing the efficiency of global agricultural trade so that food can move more efficiently between countries that have it and countries that need it. The decision by the 10th WTO Ministerial Meeting in December to end agricultural export subsidies is a strong step toward reducing trade distortion and thus making agricultural trade more efficient, according to the GFPR.

Food Waste: Another important factor in increasing the efficiency of the world’s food systems is the reduction of food waste and loss. According to the FAO, around 30 percent of the food produced around the world annually ends up lost or wasted at some point along the global agricultural value chain. Food loss occurs most often in the production and processing stages in developing countries and is due to factors such as improper harvesting and storage techniques and loss to pests and disease; food waste, on the other hand, is most common during the consumer stage in developed countries when food is discarded due to safety or quality concerns. Addressing food loss and waste will require efforts to improve the infrastructure, technology, and transportation available to producers in developing countries and to educate both producers and consumers about ways to minimize loss and waste.

Access and Inclusion: Smallholder farmers (those who farm less than 2 hectares of land) make up the majority of the world’s agricultural producers; these households also make up half of the world’s poor and hungry population, according to the report. A lack of access to assets, such as tractors and fertilizers, and higher value markets makes smallholder production less efficient. In addition, female farmers and youths can play an important role in increasing agricultural productivity and ending poverty and hunger, but these groups also face constraints in terms of their access to assets and agricultural markets. Thus, ensuring that the world’s agricultural system becomes more inclusive of these poor and marginalized groups is essential to boosting agricultural outputs, particularly of more nutritious crops. The GFPR estimates that closing the gender gap in agricultural production could reduce the number of undernourished people by 12-17 percent, or 100 to 150 million people. Policies to enhance inclusion can include increasing access to agricultural inputs and financial services like insurance and credit, as well as ensuring that women have equitable land rights.

Climate-Smart: Making agriculture and food production systems more climate-smart is the third key factor in achieving the SDGs, according to the GFPR. With climate change already bringing about shifts in temperature, precipitation, and weather volatility worldwide, it will continue to have important implications for crop yields in the coming decades. Unfortunately, many of these implications will likely be negative – the World Bank estimates that global cereal yields will decline by 20 percent by 2050 due to climate-change driven shocks. These negative effects will hit smallholder farmers particularly hard because this population is already more vulnerable due to limited resources and capacity to adapt. In addition, agricultural production is itself a driver of climate change, producing one-fifth of total greenhouse gas emissions according to the FAO. Therefore, making the global food system more climate-smart is crucial on both ends – reducing future emissions and helping farmers adapt to the negative effects caused by current emissions levels. Climate-smart techniques such as no-till farming, the use of more resilient crop varieties, and the use of agroforestry can also help improve agricultural yields, thus improving food security as well as protecting the environment.

Sustainability: The concept of a sustainable food system goes hand-in-hand with a climate-smart food system. Efforts are increasing to make sure that intensified agricultural production does not come at the cost of efficient use of natural resources and reduced environmental impacts. The report identifies several agricultural technologies that can enhance both sustainable production and food and nutrition security; these include the use of heat- and drought-resistant crop varieties and the use of more efficient drip irrigation systems.

Consumption Patterns: A sustainable food system will also require addressing three global diet trends: overconsumption of calories, overconsumption of protein (particularly animal-based protein), and growing global demand for resource-intensive beef products. These trends all pose risks to human health, but also have negative implications for the environment, requiring significant resource use and resulting in significant greenhouse gas emissions from intensified production. Changing people’s dietary preferences can be a challenge, however. Both governments and private sector companies will need to be engaged in consumer education and in setting incentives to shift consumers’ diets to healthier, less resource-intensive products.

The world’s current food system tends to focus solely on meeting caloric needs rather than focusing on nutrition and health; according to the World Bank, 2 billion people worldwide suffer from some type of micronutrient deficiency, and as many as 795 million are undernourished. In addition, nearly 162 million children under the age of five are stunted, particularly in Africa south of the Sahara and South Asia. These rates of undernutrition will have significant impacts on countries’ economic development, as malnutrition can result in cognitive impairments that lower educational attainment and ultimately labor productivity.

At the other end of the spectrum, overnutrition – or consuming more calories than needed for optimal health – has become another global health risk, with 2 billion people worldwide either overweight or obese. A food system that emphasizes adequate, appropriate consumption of nutritious food can help battle both under- and overnutrition. Policies should focus on encouraging agricultural value chains to produce greater quantities of nutritious foods; such interventions could include the establishment of “cold chains” to keep perishable foods like fruits and vegetables fresh or contract farming arrangements that encourage farmers to grow more nutritious crop varieties.

Private Sector Engagement: Finally, the new global food system needs to be friendly toward business to encourage well-functioning markets and cooperative private sectors. Private sector investment is crucial in advancing agricultural technology and productivity and thus need to be included in the broader food policy debate. Policymakers should focus on mitigating the effects of price volatility and on creating an enabling environment for public-private partnership. Such an environment will require adequate transportation, communication, and energy infrastructure, as well as transparent financial institutions and agricultural extension services.

To track progress on these six characteristics, the GFPR calls for the establishment of a food system index, as well as for increased research into how to realistically and sustainably improve the global food system.

For more information about the GFPR's regional findings, read:
Global Food Policy Report: Making Africa's Food System More Inclusive, Sustainable
Informe de Política Alimentaria Mundial 2016
The Global Food Policy Report 2016: Implications for India

By: Sara Gustafson, IFPRI

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