6 August, 2021
By Jack Davies – Junior Fellow
The global food system presents a serious and relatively ignored challenge to human security. It is wasteful, exploitative and environmentally devastating, and despite visions of ‘feeding the world’, modern industrial agriculture has failed to end global hunger or malnutrition, even as for the first time in history more human beings are obese than underweight. Transforming this failing system to end food insecurity while transitioning to environmentally regenerative practices is one of the core challenges facing humanity in the coming decades. Doing so will require a clear-eyed analysis of the scale and scope of the current system’s failings. This article aims to provide a macro-level analysis of these failings, identifying the core shortcomings and embedded challenges that must be addressed in order to transform the global food system into a core, resilient, well-functioning pillar of the global human commons.
Food as a human need
As with any social system for provision, the global food system must be judged according to how well it achieves its most important social purpose balanced against what its impacts are on the world. Food is a fundamental human need, having played a central role in human wellbeing and security since famines first collapsed early civilizations in the bronze age. It is so central to any meaningful conception of human security and progress that ‘Zero Hunger’ (SDG2) is listed as the 2nd Sustainable Development Goal (SDG), with the aim to ‘End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture’. This is the goal that I adopt as the ‘purpose’ of the global food system.
To serve this purpose a constellation of actors, institutions and rules come together to form the socio-technical agriculture system. This system covers not only the production of food, but also its distribution and consumption. Currently, this system is dominated by industrial agriculture, a regime of food production that stresses the use of petrochemical enabled agricultural methods, mass production of a few standardised products, and the maximisation both of food yields and business profits. Yet despite this focus on mass production, the global food system is inefficient, unequal, extremely wasteful and falling woefully short of its promise of the universal provision of food.
It is true that macro-trends over the last few decades may have been heading in the right direction, with undernourishment in developing countries having dropped from over 30% in 1970 to under 15% in 2015. Yet this still leaves a population of almost 690 million people hungry or chronically undernourished, with more than 1.5 billion unable to afford an essential diet and over twice that unable to afford a healthy one. In a devastating indictment of the global food system, 1 in 4 humans alive in 2018 experienced moderate or severe food insecurity, the majority of these living in either Sub-Saharan Africa or Southern Asia.
This unequal impact belies a core failing of the food system: while food insecurity is approached primarily through the lens of increasing production (for example the World Bank cite estimates that agricultural production will need to expand by 70% by 2050), it is in fact primarily an issue of distribution.
Globally, humanity produces enough food to feed every single human being a healthy diet. Yet the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations estimated in 2011 that 1/3 of all food produced is wasted. The 2021 Food Waste Index Report, one of two follow up indices the FAO has introduced to measure progress towards SDG2, reported that 931 million tonnes, approximately 121kg per human per year, is wasted. Reducing food waste and redistributing surplus to those experiencing food insecurity or hunger within and across communities, cities, states, regions and the globe would be a far more efficient and environmentally responsible way of reducing food insecurity and hunger than expanding or intensifying production to extract more from the earth.
Indeed, improving food production is likely to become increasingly difficult to maintain, let alone expand, in the coming decades. Leaving the uniquely stable conditions of the Holocene behind threatens to increase both chronic and acute food insecurity and hunger as the impact of a rapidly changing climate and increasing deterioration of ecological systems take their toll on agriculture. Converging challenges including high atmospheric CO2 reducing nutrient take-up in crops, more unpredictable rainfall patterns threatening both flooding and drought, ecosystems of pollinators and natural pest predators unravelling, and glacial melt combined with rising sea levels reducing the availability of fresh water for irrigation will all take tolls on crop yields. The loss of an estimated 1/3 of all the Earth’s arable land to erosion and pollution over the past 40 years, amounting to 12 million hectares per year (or 30 to 35 times the historical rate), reduces the amount of soil that these threatened yields will be taken from. All in all this paints the picture of an agriculture system vulnerable to multi-year drought, widespread pest infestation and resultant crop failures, sparking famines across the world such as the one currently gripping southern Madagascar. Combine this with a global population projected to peak at over 10 billion by 2100, and the challenge becomes clear: we will have to feed more people, with fewer resources, under harsher conditions than ever before.
The impact of the global food system
The deteriorating environmental conditions threatening food production are not just external stressors on the global food system, they are consequences of it. The environmental impacts of the global food system are staggering in scale and severity. Agriculture is causing degradation across almost every environmental and ecological metric, most notably in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, land and water costs, and biodiversity and species loss, driving the destruction of the natural world and contributing significantly to environmentally related insecurity.
Agriculture is a significant and often ignored producer of harmful emissions, with the food system being responsible for 26% of all global GHG emissions. This figure is not distributed evenly across every aspect of agriculture: livestock and fisheries account for 31% of food system emissions; crop production for 27%, land use for 24%; supply chains for just 18%. Nor is it evenly distributed across foods, with animal products associated with far higher emissions than plant products. A comprehensive analysis found that lamb and mutton, for example, release up to 40kg of carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2eq) per kg of food product, while pork releases 12kgCO2eq and poultry 10kgCO2eq (eggs are roughly half this at 4.7kgCO2eq). Beef is uniquely harmful, releasing up to 99kgCO2eq for every kg of beef produced when grazed for meat, while even dairy herds average around 33kgCO2eq.
These figures are staggering when considering that almost all plant products (with the notable exception of luxuries coffee and dark chocolate) release less than 3kgCO2eq, less than 33 times the amount of beef. One core reason for this imbalance is enteric fermentation – the production of methane through animal digestion. Despite dissipating much faster (12 years compared to 300 to 1000 years), methane is 72 times more potent than CO2 for the first 20 years after being emitted, remaining 25 times more potent across a 100-year window. Add to this the need to produce crops for livestock feed alongside far greater land and water use requirements for raising healthy animals in humane conditions, and it becomes clear why reducing animal associated emissions across the global food system is such an intractable challenge. Therefore, while other sectors such as energy and mobility are beginning to show signs of rapid decarbonisation through shifts towards renewable energy sources, industrial agriculture will not be so straightforward. Without addressing the outsized impact of animal products, most of which cannot be reduced or removed without compromising on the living conditions of the animals themselves, food production will remain a major global source of GHG emissions.
Additionally, the resource cost of the global food system, especially in terms of land and freshwater, is huge. Roughly half of the world’s habitable land is used for agriculture – an area of 51 million km2 – of which 40 million km2 is used either for livestock grazing land or to grow feed crops for livestock. Again, animal agriculture exerts a disproportionate impact, with almost all animal products requiring far more land to produce than plant-based products. Per OurWorldInData, Lamb and mutton require 370m2 per kg of food produced, beef requires 326m2 per kg, cheese 88m2, dairy herds 43m2, with pork and poultry requiring 17m2 and 12m2 respectively. The majority of plant-based products come in at under 10m2, most less than 3m2. This resource to product cost (including emissions) is made even more extreme when considering that livestock only produces 18% of the worlds calories, and 37% of its protein.
Intensive use of the land for industrial agriculture has also driven the degradation of life-giving soils. A single square meter of healthy soil can contain tens of billions of bacteria, hundreds of thousands of microorganisms and thousands of insects. Yet soil contamination, erosion, salinisation and compaction are resulting in the loss of over 200,000m2 of top soil every minute, or 24 billion tonnes per year. Furthermore, soil compaction caused by the heavy use of industrial machinery has reduced porosity and permeability of top-soil to water, in turn increasing erosion due to run-off. Reducing the ability of the soil to absorb and retain a healthy volume of water could exacerbate the already considerable demand for freshwater by the global food system. Globally an estimated 70% of freshwater withdrawals are used for agriculture. Again, livestock accounts for a large proportion of this, using 11900 km3 or 10% of total global annual freshwater flows, yet the demand for freshwater for irrigated agriculture is also significant. This demand is expected to grow in the coming decades, with rising temperatures likely to increase both crops and animals water needs, resulting in severe stresses and possible shortages in areas dependent on irrigation to produce needed yields.
Lastly, the impact of the current global food system on ecosystems across the world is disastrous. Over the past 40 years there has been a recorded decrease of 39% in marine species, this being related both to pollution of marine ecosystems (agriculture is responsible for 78% of ocean and freshwater eutrophication) and intensive overfishing. The Fish Forward Project reports that 29% of global fish stocks are overfished, with this figure rising dramatically for certain bodies of water (for example, 88% of fish stocks in the Mediterranean Sea and Black Sea are overfished). More broadly, of the 37,480 species listed on the ICUN Red List as vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered, agriculture and aquaculture is listed as a threat for 19,202 of them.
Optimisation or transformation
Accounting for these disastrous environmental impacts, the obvious and urgent challenge is to transform the global food system to feed a growing population, with fewer resources, under harsher conditions than ever before, and to do so through means that regenerate instead of degrade our climatic and ecological systems.
Ensuring universal food security while affecting a transition towards environmentally regenerative practices will be difficult. To do so rapidly, and as the devastating effects of climate change increasingly impact the Earth’s ability to provide food, will be even more so. It will require a ‘menu of solutions’, aimed not only at optimising existing practices through incremental efficiency improvements, but at designing, identifying, supporting and scaling up entirely new approaches to food production. New regimes that challenge the dominance of industrial agriculture across production, distribution and consumption are needed, along with new governmental regulatory frameworks and approaches and models of financial investment that can support and scale up potential solutions.
Technological innovation will have a role to play, for example through the design of drought or flood resistant crops, the electrification of agricultural equipment, or more efficient irrigation and nutrient management. However, less speculative nature-based solutions focusing primarily on preserving the remaining health of existing arable land, reducing the strain that intensive industrial farming has placed on it, and reducing the total land used for agriculture in order to allow previously degenerated spaces to regenerate and restore themselves, may be more effective both financially and environmentally.
To allow this reduction in overall impact without plunging millions more into food insecurity, two key changes will need to happen relating not to production, but to distribution and consumption. As noted earlier, globally we produce enough food to ensure universal food security, yet the colossal scale of food waste results in significant inequalities in food access and nutrition. Transforming distribution models both within and between communities, cities, states and regions to be centred on the principles of zero hunger and equity in access will be a fundamentally necessary step towards ending food insecurity under the difficult conditions of the 21st century. Regarding consumption, the wholly disproportionate impact and resource cost of producing animal-based food products as compared to plant-based products highlights the necessity of global transition towards plant-based diets. However, it is unlikely and unrealistic that all humans will completely cease consuming animal-based products without significant reductions in the global consumption of meats like beef and mutton, and without this, decarbonising agriculture and ensuring universal food security will be almost impossible to achieve.
The global food system must be consciously re-shaped and re-structured to be more productive, more resilient, less harmful and more equitable than it currently is. Ending food insecurity is within our power, but will take an immense effort, bold imagination, stubborn optimism and unprecedented cooperation. Nonetheless, and even despite the bleak outlook of a climate change dominated 21st century, it can be done.