15 October 2019
World Food Day, celebrated every 16 October, is an opportunity to reflect on the basic needs of humanity. It also reminds us that major transformations are needed in food systems and our eating behaviours if we are to ensure food security within the framework of the Paris Agreement on climate change, and as the world’s population approaches 8 billion.
So far, little progress has been made on the majority of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) since 2015, and the negative trend for reducing inequality, mitigating climate change, stopping the loss of biodiversity and cutting our waste production hinders progress on the entire 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. SDG 2 on ending hunger is no exception.
The 2019 Global Sustainable Development Report: The Future is Now—Science for Achieving Sustainable Development, has raised “building sustainable food systems and healthy nutrition patterns” as a key entry point for sustainable transformation.1 This report, produced by an independent group of scientists mandated by the United Nations, underlines that enabling transformation towards sustainable food systems very much depends on the other five entry points for transformation: “achieving energy decarbonization and universal access to energy”, “promoting sustainable urban and peri-urban development”, “shifting towards sustainable and just economies”, “strengthening human well-being and capabilities”, and “securing global environmental commons”.2
If transformation in food systems fails, progress on the other five entry points will not materialize and we will continue to grapple with the same problems. Likewise, failure to reach any of the SDGs will eventually lead to failure in ending hunger and malnutrition. In concrete terms, transformation of global food systems must lead to ending hunger and malnutrition (Goal 2), but in a way that simultaneously addresses water scarcities (Goal 6), enhances the mitigation of climate impacts (Goal 13) and protects life in water and on land (Goals 14 and 15).
Technological innovation is a prerequisite for the transition to sustainable food systems, but technology alone cannot deliver the needed transformation.
The good news is that integrated transformation is possible and the planet is capable of feeding future generations if a systems approach is taken with strong support from all societal actors, from the public sector to businesses, from communities to researchers. The focus now needs to turn towards enabling more equitable global access to nutritional foods, reducing food loss and waste, and maximizing the nutritional value of produce. These changes in food systems need to take into account the effects of climate change, biodiversity and health considerations to increase the resilience of food security and human health while ensuring uninterrupted access to nutritional foods.
Technological innovation is a prerequisite for the transition to sustainable food systems, but technology alone cannot deliver the needed transformation. The shift will require the strategic use of economic incentives, new forms of governance and changes in existing values and behaviours. We need consumers on board, as well as the full participation of the food industry, including food production enterprises, producers, retailers and service providers, to name a few.
Several levers need to be pulled simultaneously. First, the reduction of food waste in developed countries calls for actions by retailers and restaurants to minimize and repurpose such waste. Consumers, on the other hand, need to learn how to purchase and prepare foods so that less is wasted. Second, in developing countries, policies and integrated support are needed so that the most nutritious food available will be utilized, especially by women and children. Third, a dietary shift is required, especially in the developed world, but also among the upper middle class in developing countries. The excessive consumption of meat has not only caused problems with the environment but also with our health, particularly due to obesity. Malnutrition takes many forms globally, and thus nutritious food should be made accessible in ways that allow optimal consideration of the environmental and climate dimensions for each specific context. While education, civic action and peer support play important roles in dietary behavioural changes, the food industry, retail outlets and restaurants cannot be overlooked in transforming food systems.
For many people throughout the world, food options are limited. The cost of food, as well as the impact of climate change and the loss of biodiversity and water, prevents a growing number of people from making sound nutritional choices. Policies thus have an important role to play: to enable people to have access to healthy and sustainable nutrition.
The sustainable food system transformation requires an understanding of global food security issues, as well as innovations for contextual solutions that are creative enough to link the various SDGs together. The Nordic countries are working hard to integrate sustainability considerations into their nutritional guidelines to combat inflammation-related diseases caused by the excessive consumption of red and processed meat. Changes in diet can deliver sustainability gains, such as reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and lessening pressure on land use. In Belo Horizonte, Brazil, the intersectoral work carried out at the municipal level helped combat hunger successfully. Instruments used included subsidized food sales, school meal programmes and regulation of food markets, to mention a few. Cities are places where new lifestyles are adopted quickly and are thus conducive to innovation and experimentation with food system transformation.
Early childhood is the stage at which long-term gains are most effectively achieved. This begins with consuming nutritious foods and can be enhanced through education and changes in eating habits. There are projects underway all around the world, from Bangladesh to Finland, to teach children to eat healthy food sustainably. Children may also bring their acquired knowledge home to their parents, thus exposing their families to the essentials of food security and necessary behavioural change.
We are more interconnected than ever before. We all share a future that is in our hands. Failure to achieve the full framework of the SDGs will lead to more than 600 million undernourished people, leaving our planet unsafe and inequitable, and depriving its inhabitants of an opportunity to live sustainable and prosperous lives.
1 Independent Group of Scientists appointed by the Secretary-General, Global Sustainable Development Report 2019: The Future Is Now – Science for Achieving Sustainable Development (New York, United Nations, 2019), 64, 129.
2 Ibid., 38-94.
The UN Chronicle is not an official record. The views expressed by individual authors, as well as the boundaries and names shown and the designations used in maps or articles, do not necessarily imply official endorsement or acceptance by the United Nations.