Today is World Food Day, a day to focus on global food security. This year’s theme – Healthy People Depend on Healthy Food Systems – recognizes that food security is not an isolated issue. Instead, it emphasizes that food is part of a large and interconnected life-support system that includes economics, health, soil, society, climate, energy and water. If the food system fails, we all fail.

Other disciplines have taught us that adopting a “systems perspective” to this kind of problem makes it easier to find solutions, which make the initial strain worthwhile. Systems thinking means recognizing that the interactions between parts of a system are at least as important as the parts themselves. For example, thousands of genes interact in diseases such as cancer, and by using systems approaches we now recognize that no single target will provide a cure; multiple, coordinated interventions are required.

A systems approach to food makes it possible to change more by doing less, and to avoid unintended consequences. It is in its infancy, and linking economics, social, physical and environmental sciences with predictive tools to find win-win solutions is very challenging.  However, I am optimistic about the future precisely because we have been so bad at seeing food as part of a bigger system until now.

A popular food security headline is that we will have to produce at least 50% more food each year by 2050 than we produce now. Given growing populations and rising incomes, some increase in demand is inevitable. But what if at the same time we can stop 30% of food going to waste between the factory gate and the dinner plate? And what if we can deal with the obesity epidemic in the West and increasingly in the East, slowing the demand for increased calories and redirecting savings in health budgets?

About 70% of the fresh water we use is for agriculture, but at least 20% of the world’s aquifers are being used unsustainably. This means that 40% of the world’s population live in regions where groundwater is being used faster than it is being replenished. However, precisely because water is being used so inefficiently in agriculture, there is significant room for progress, including investment in more efficient irrigation practices, and improving soil quality to minimise evaporation and run-off.

Soil degradation affects at least 40% of the world’s agricultural soils. Growing healthy crops on degraded soil requires more fertilizer, and fertilizer production already consumes 2-3% of the global energy budget. It has been predicted that if trends continue, soil degradation will result in a 30% reduction in food production by 2050. Furthermore, soil quality is linked to water use since degraded soil can only hold about 50% of the water that healthy soil can. A recent study showed that about 40% of the sea level rise since 1960 could be attributed to irrigation water that soil could not retain. It is a statistic worth dwelling on: nearly half of the recent sea level rise has been caused by water being wasted as it washes straight through degraded soil.

Degraded soil can be repaired by changing the way we manage it, including by adding more organic matter (such as manure and crop residues) as fertilizer. The carbon in this organic matter cannot only help significantly reduce atmospheric CO2, it can also help make crops and pastures more water efficient and resilient to drought. It also returns micronutrients to soil to grow healthier food. With 60% of the world’s population suffering some kind of micronutrient deficiency, and modern high-yielding crop varieties having less than half of the micronutritional density of 50 years ago, this last advantage is particularly significant.

Finally, there is growing evidence of the link between food security and social unrest. While there is a cluster of other factors implicated, unrest such as in North Africa and more recently in Syria can be linked in part to rising food prices, a symptom of growing food insecurity. The human and economic costs of food insecurity are enormous and touch us all.

When we take a system perspective with food, the win-wins become obvious, but the means are still a challenge. The difficulty is taking the long-term view in a world where governments face severe short-term financial constraints. Here again though, there are opportunities where long-term goals can be transformed in to short-term incentives.

Professor Hugh Harley, Head of Financial Services at PwC Australia and adjunct Chair at the University of Sydney Business School, takes the view that the financial sector can be an important part of the solution:

“Globally we are seeing many more banks, insurers and asset managers focusing on the opportunities and risks implicit in global food production and consumption trends. At a global level, Rabobank is a particularly good example here; at the other end of the spectrum local microfinancing and insurance cooperatives are making their mark. Moreover, the global financial crisis has generated much soul-searching in the industry about risk management and the need to think about portfolio risk in an holistic, long-term manner.”

It is in the interests of the world economy to ensure a healthy food system. Recent advances in systems thinking and tools mean we can shed light on these challenges like never before.  Potential solutions exist or will appear with the right incentives. Progress in mitigating conflict over water gives reason for hope.

One area for obvious focus is the complexity of “systems governance”.  Many of the relevant organizational structures remain siloed in the way they think about food, health, environment, the economy and society. Better coordination within and between governments, and between governments, business and NGOs is needed to create the appropriate global context for the most effective local response.

Read more blogs on sustainability and environment.

Find out about the World Economic Forum’s New Vision for Agriculture.

Author: John Crawford is the Judith and David Coffey Chair in Sustainability and Complex Systems at the University of Sydney. He writes about environmental issues for the Forum:Blog.

Image: Labourers unload wheat from a tractor trolley at a wholesale grain market on the outskirts of the northern Indian city of Amritsar May 7, 2013. REUTERS/Munish Sharma