‘A clear vision is needed’: Breaking the ‘vicious cycle’ of food, climate and nutrition

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT

'Radical transformation' needed to develop sustainable food system  ©iStock/danymages
'Radical transformation' needed to develop sustainable food system ©iStock/danymages
The food sector is locked in a “vicious cycle” of increased production, environmental degradation and a mounting public health crisis, according to a report from think-tank Chatham House.

The report, published by the Hoffmann Centre, highlights the challenges facing global food production. First and foremost, the report authors – research director Rob Bailey and executive director Bernice Lee – stress the need for vegetation, soils and oceans to be preserved in order for the sequestration of carbon needed to prevent “catastrophic climate change”.

“This implies urgent action to stop deforestation, restore and expand forests, stop peatland burning and enhance soil carbon, among other steps,”​ they argued.

However, this agenda is at odds with the need to increase food production to meet the needs of the growing global population because the current food system is reliant on land-based agriculture. Arable farming, horticulture, livestock farming and other agricultural practices account for around 99% of global calorie supply and 93% of the protein supply, the report stated.

Food insecurity and climate change

Reliance on a limited number of crops, produced in a relatively concentrated geographical area increases food insecurity.

Moreover, a limited number of crops dominate agricultural production. Wheat, rice and maize account for over half of the world’s calorie consumption. Adding sugar, barley, soybean, oil palm and potato takes the share beyond three-quarters.

The majority of these crops are produced in the US, Brazil, Russia and Ukraine.

“Such genetic and geographical concentration increases the vulnerability of food supply to pests, diseases, extreme weather and trade disruptions, the risks of which are expected to increase with climate change and biodiversity losses,”​ Bailey and Lee wrote.

Chatham pic 1
A small number of countries dominate global crop exports. Source: Hoffman Centre

Diversity sacrificed for industrial farming

Government subsidies, private research and development and increased trade have supported the increased production of these crops. However, this has been achieved at the expense of biodiversity and a convergence in global diets.

“While these crops are calorie-rich, they are nutrient-poor and so diets have become more uniform, more calorific and less nutritious as their consumption has increased. This is contributing to the global obesity pandemic and public-health crisis,”​ the report suggested.

Without changes in consumption patterns, global food production must increase significantly to meet the needs of a growing population. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) forecasts food demand could increase by 60% by 2050.

Current rates of yield growth are insufficient to achieve such production increases without further expansion of agriculture, placing yet more pressure on planetary resources.

One recent estimate found that business-as-usual increases in productivity could mean over 1 billion hectares being converted to farmland by 2050 – representing an area roughly equivalent to India’s landmass.

Pressure points for improved efficiency

The report highlights key areas of the supply chain - such as food waste - where efficiency gains can be made.

Food waste is key, with 24% of the calories produced lost in the supply chain and in consumers homes.

“Globally, cutting waste and losses by half would close 22% of the gap between calories available today and those needed by 2050,”​ Bailey and Lee noted.

“It would also help alleviate pressure on land and forest, reduce input uses and save energy across the distribution chain. It would also reduce greenhouse gas emissions through reduced production and avoided emissions from landfill.”

One solution put forward as a potential “game-changer​” is the deployment of cold-chain logistics and cold storage at scale in developing countries. “As well as reducing waste, refrigeration and better infrastructure allow for strategic stockpiling that could create a buffer in case of shocks, reduce the risk of food-safety problems such as aflatoxins and improve market access among smallholder farmers.”

The largest inefficiencies in the food chain occur in the conversion of plants into animal proteins through livestock rearing, Bailey and Lee suggested. Eighty-seven percent of calories consumed by animals are lost. It takes around seven kilograms of feed to produce one kilogram of beef, for instance.

Moreover, on average worldwide, people consume around 10% more calories than necessary – although the authors noted significant disparity between geographies.

“Once post-harvest losses, processing, livestock, consumer waste and overeating are included, losses for the global food system exceed 60% of calories produced,”​ they said.

Counting the health costs

The food system is also responsible for a toll on human health and has “failed to deliver” nutrition security, the report states.

One in nine people suffer from hunger gloablly and 2bn suffer from micronutrient deficiencies. Meanwhile, 1.9bn adults are overweight, of whom 600m are obese.

“Skyrocketing healthcare costs for obesity-related NCDs threaten efforts to combat other forms of malnutrition,”​ Bailey and Lee continued.

The cost to human health goes well beyond the diet-related issues of obesity, type 2 diabetes and other non-communicable diseases, however.

“Food production has contributed to worsened water and air quality, with dire consequences for human health.

“Of growing concern today is the overuse of antibiotics in the livestock sector, which is contributing to antimicrobial resistance, one of the most serious systemic health risks currently facing humanity.”

‘Breaking the vicious cycle’

Bailey and Lee suggested that the current food system is designed to keep food prices low but also encourages waste. “This circle is ultimately unsustainable as agricultural production depends upon the ecosystems it is degrading,”​ they concluded.

In order to achieve food and nutrition security and preserve environmental resources, the researchers call for a “radical transformation”​ of agricultural production systems.

“The environmental footprint of agriculture must shrink dramatically. Nitrogen and phosphorus pollution must be curtailed, soils restored, greenhouse gas emissions cut and land use contained (preferably reduced to accommodate more afforestation and reforestation).

“Each one of these steps presents a formidable challenge, but they must be taken simultaneously, while also increasing and diversifying food supply in a manner that supports the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of poor farmers and agricultural labourers.”

To achieve these objectives, “new generations​” of interventions and solutions need to be formulated. New technologies are required to improve soil health, decouple animal production and land use and decarbonise the food chain.

Chatham House called on policy makers to take action and incentivise farmers to adopt new, more biologically diverse, production methods. “Governments have considerable resources and capabilities at their disposal to effect these changes.”

However, the think-tank noted that such action flies in the face of the established economic interests of the global food sector.

“The political economy of the global food system stands in the way of transformative policies and innovative interventions. Market power is highly concentrated. The agricultural sector is core to national income generation in many poor countries, and farm lobbies have remained disproportionately influential in rich countries where it is not. Resistance should be expected at all stages of the food system,”​ Bailey and Lee concluded. “A clear vision is needed.”

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