Policies are crucial for food system transformation

Food systems hold the key not only to food security, but also to plant, animal, and human health, as well as environmental sustainability. The United Nations (UN) will hold its first ever UN Food Systems Summit in Sept. 2021, since the transformation of food systems is now seen as one of the most impactful approaches to meeting all 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

There are many challenges for our food systems. Ongoing climate change, slow global economic growth, and prolonged conflict have reversed years-long progress on hunger. Now, nearly 700 million people around the world are chronically undernourished, and healthy diets are unaffordable for more than 3 billion people worldwide. At the same time, food systems are pressuring planetary boundaries, as they consume more than 30% of global energy and account for up to 37% of global greenhouse gas emissions. These problems existed before COVID-19; now, the pandemic is compounding food insecurity and malnutrition and is exposing vulnerabilities in the system.

The Food Sustainability Index (FSI) is a useful tool in measuring national progress and setbacks. It correctly points out that aggregate global rankings must be treated with care and encourages its users to focus on how countries fare within three areas of food sustainability: Food loss and waste, sustainable agriculture, and nutritional challenges. Now covering some 67 countries—and expanding to 78 in 2021—the rankings can provide useful lessons for countries around the world, and can help identify successes as well as challenges.

The importance of supportive government policy

Clearly, there are many elements that determine how well a country is likely to fare in the FSI, but government policies are crucial. Food system outcomes depend on choices by producers, food system intermediaries and consumers, but governments can steer those choices by getting incentives right through policies and regulations. Hence, to transform food systems, policies will need to change to address major challenges and invest in opportunity.

For instance, governments spend more than $600 billion per year in agricultural support measures, mostly intended to protect farm incomes. But in practice these policies underpin current food production and consumption patterns. There thus seems to be important scope in repurposing the current government-provided support to shift incentives towards innovations and investments that help lower agriculture’s environmental footprint and lead to more healthy food consumption.

Policies that improve the resilience of food systems can also be repurposed, especially in light of COVID-19 and climate change. This could include investing more in social protection programs that ensure both climate resilience of food systems and affordability of healthy diets for all. More fiscal resources are also needed for agricultural R&D to improve climate-resilient food production and raise productivity of nutritious foods. Trade policies, such as decoupling agricultural subsidies, have the potential to provide multiple positive effects for economies and the environment. On the other hand, bad trade policies such as food export restrictions can hinder an effective response to shocks like COVID-19.

Evidence-based tools for decision-makers

The FSI can be a powerful tool for awareness-raising, and for identifying and communicating problems and success stories. From a policy perspective, it is of interest to look at the individual components of the Index, separating policy indicators from other conditioning factors and food system outcomes in order to help determine why some outcomes are better or worse across countries.

Tools can always be improved. In expanding its coverage to 78 countries to include more developing countries, the FSI can continue to grow its scope, especially by collecting more high-quality and timely data and highlighting critical data gaps, as well as tracking progress at different stages along the value chains.

At IFPRI, we very much welcome indicators such as the FSI, as we are highly committed to contributing rigorous policy analysis and evidence on food systems to inform priority-setting, identify tradeoffs, and assess the effectiveness of policies and investments. Every year the IFPRI publishes a Global Food Policy Report, which includes complementary food policy indicators. We have provided evidence-based recommendations on how countries can “build back better” after the COVID-19 crisis, which has exposed some serious food system vulnerabilities. With tools like the FSI and more evidence to inform policymakers and regulators, food systems can be transformed for better outcomes.

Johan Swinnen is Director General of IFPRI. This post first appeared on the Food Sustainability Index blog.