​Three challenges we must overcome to secure the future of food

Governments, countries and academics must work together to safeguard food systems for the future

Climate scientists predict that, if left unchecked, global warming will lead to large cuts in agricultural productivity in most parts of the world.

By Guido Schmidt-Traub, executive director, UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network

Nothing has a greater environmental impact than our food system, including agriculture, livestock, aquaculture and hunting. It drives massive biodiversity loss and deforestation; leads to water stress in many parts of the world; accounts for a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions; and generates vast quantities of nitrogen and other nutrients that create dead zones in many coastal waters. At the same time, the food system is also vulnerable to climate change, land degradation, and biodiversity loss.

Climate scientists predict that, if left unchecked, global warming will lead to large cuts in agricultural productivity in most parts of the world – with potentially disastrous consequences for food security and livelihoods. On top of this, today’s food system leaves an estimated 700 million people undernourished and an additional 2 billion malnourished, with obesity rising in many countries.

We are facing a crisis, and on current trends the situation is going to become worse. As incomes rise in China, India and other parts of the developing world, demand for meat is going to increase too. Since around 7kg of grain is needed to produce 1kg of beef, this will increase demand for land and water for food production. Population growth in many developing countries, particularly the poorest ones, and the effects of climate change will both increase the pressure.

The 17 sustainable development goals, adopted by all member states of the UN in 2015, set ambitious benchmarks for promoting economic prosperity, enhancing social inclusion, and ensuring environmental sustainability. Like the Paris climate agreement in December of the same year, the goals recognise the central role of food systems and their vulnerability to environmental change. As a result, the world now has a framework for action towards a sustainable food system – but we lack a clear understanding of what success might look like, and of how to get there.

Three major challenges

Governments are the first major obstacle. In both rich and poor countries they operate in silos on issues relating to agriculture, biodiversity, water, health, demography, and other environmental considerations. These issues tend to be discussed in isolation. Governments also fail to adequately tap into expertise from civil society, business, and the science community. A similar disconnect occurs among academics: climate scientists, agronomists, ecologists, hydrologists, economists, and representatives of other fields rarely come together to propose integrated targets for sustainable food and land use systems, or pathways for achieving them.

A lack of detailed country-level analyses of how to achieve long-term objectives is the second challenge that must be overcome. This is where the rubber hits the road.

Policies are formulated, budgets are developed, and political compromises are hatched at the national level. But these individual country strategies, taken together, need to respect the planetary boundaries essential for preserving the global commons, such as the carbon budget associated with keeping the rise in global temperatures to well below 2C above pre-industrial levels. Similarly, the release of nitrogen, phosphorous, and other nutrients from all countries put together must not exceed the ocean’s capacity. So global and national pathways must be consistent in the context of planetary boundaries and rising agricultural trade.

The third major challenge is to get countries to consider the long-term consequences of short-term strategies, so that they avoid locking themselves into unsustainable practices.

With energy, we have learned that 10 to 15-year decarbonisation strategies lead to countries pursuing low-hanging fruits, such as shifting from coal to gas-powered electricity generation or increasing the efficiency of the internal combustion engine. These may generate significant short-term emission reductions, but they also lock countries into a fossil fuel-based economy that will make the long-term objective of net zero greenhouse gas emissions impossible to achieve.

Similar issues arise in the transformation towards sustainable food and land use systems, which require long-term changes in agriculture, livestock management, aquaculture, water management, ecosystem protection, and many other areas.

Since politicians and business leaders around the world focus on the short-term, the 193 signatory countries to the Paris climate agreement decided to prepare long-term low-emission development strategies. Now several policy, business and scientific organisations, including the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, working with the Global Environment Facility have recently launched the Food and Land-use Coalition to promote integrated, long-term thinking on food and land use systems. This will, among other things, work with researchers and practitioners in the major G20 economies and other countries with large agriculture and forestry sectors to develop integrated, long-term targets and pathways covering food, agriculture, biodiversity, land use and energy.

Together we plan to build the knowledge base that countries need in order to make informed decisions on their food and land use systems. And we will help countries prepare their low-emission development strategies to guide short-term policies, while also taking into account the long-term consequences.