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To feed a growing world, we need to change our food systems now

Cattle graze in a snow-covered cornfield near Newburg, Iowa, U.S. January 15, 2020. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton - RC2MGE9PPO7O

New ways have to be found to increase the productivity of land and water without further damage to the climate Image: REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

Louise Fresco
President, Wageningen University & Research
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Davos Agenda

  • Major, far-reaching sustainability transitions are needed to provide a growing world population with nutritious, safe, healthy, affordable and sustainable food;
  • To achieve large-scale sustainability transitions, we need coordinated action based on undisputed scientific information – disseminated through a trusted platform that informs government decision-making;
  • The 2021 Food Systems Summit provides a unique opportunity to drive global action to make food systems inclusive, climate-adapted, resilient and supportive of sustainable peace.

We need to make far-reaching changes to ensure the sufficient availability of nutritious, safe, affordable and sustainably produced food for the world’s growing population.

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Most food-insecure people live in areas characterized by instability and severe poverty. New ways have to be found to increase the productivity of land and water while decreasing emissions and halting the destruction of habitats and ways of life. It is imperative that the manifold transitions needed are tailor-made and based on scientific evidence.

The production of food and agricultural products is extremely diverse, involving many different commodities and technologies depending on ecological and socioeconomic settings. This must be taken into account. According to HLPE, there are also five main groups of interacting factors that may act as a barrier to innovation in this area: governance, economic, knowledge, social and cultural, and resources.

Future world population growth
Future world population growth Image: Our World in Data

Food systems: from concept to policy

Systems thinking has gained prominence in the agriculture and food sectors in recent years, fuelling discussions amongst both scholars and policy-makers about the unsustainability of modern food systems. Béné et al define four different sets of narratives about the failure of the food system:

  • Inability of the system to feed the future world population;
  • Inability of the system to deliver a healthy diet;
  • Inability of the system to produce equal and equitable benefits;
  • Unsustainability of the system and its impact on the environment.

Because food is an integral part of cultures and so closely linked with tradition, values and emotions, solutions to food system failures are subject to intense debate and controversy. There are polarized views on issues like fertilizers, genetic modification, animal welfare and so forth. There is also confusion and uncertainty about facts, such as, how much agriculture and food may contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, climate mitigation (carbon capture) and adaptation. Moreover, public confidence in science-based solutions seems to be in decline.

Global greenhouse gas emissions from food production
Global greenhouse gas emissions from food production Image: Our World in Data

At a national level, this complexity, confusion and polarization often lead to a policy stalemate and a distorted institutional landscape; no country has developed a comprehensive agricultural and food policy. At the same time, no country can expect to take national policy measures in isolation because imports and exports, emissions and technology always affect other countries as well.

Global governance of food systems

Agriculture is not just about food, but also about other public goods like natural resource management, climate change, trade regimes, competition for foreign direct investments, international research and innovation, public health and food safety and stability. Achieving SDG2 must go hand-in-hand with achieving other SDGs and therefore requires new thinking about the governance of agriculture and food systems.

In that spirit, a broader, system-wide partnership is needed with the private sector, financial institutions, civil society organizations and academia. A shared understanding of where we are and need to go with our global food system, what technologies and policies are available and a degree of agreement on concerted action is essential. These will create a level playing field for solutions that are truly best in class and can be shared for the benefit of everyone.

To get there, a truly multi-stakeholder approach is crucial. The private sector, including farmers, plays a dominant role in the (re)shaping of food systems. Roles and relations vis-à-vis present institutional arrangements, such as the Committee on World Food Security (CFS), the scientific bodies of the Rio Conventions and the CGIAR system, are to be worked out. Next to member countries and international organizations, national public organizations and private sector organizations representing industries, foundations and NGOs would need to be involved.

The UN Food Systems Summit 2021

The 2021 UN Food Systems Summit will provide a unique and timely opportunity to review the international and national food systems and design appropriate governance structures. The 2021 conference will aim to align stakeholders around a common approach for strengthening our food systems: a framework that will serve as a foundation for concerted action. Preferably, such a framework should be set out in an arrangement that is powerful enough to keep stakeholders aligned and acting together.

It is crucial to underpin this process with a scientific and technical advisory body, similar to the subsidiary bodies of the Rio Conventions. While many reports about food and agriculture have appeared in the last decade, there have been no attempts to pull together the commonly accepted science and proven technologies. An intergovernmental scientific and technical advisory body for agriculture and food systems has already been suggested in different fora. Food and agriculture policy could benefit a lot from a better evidence-base.


The road to the 2021 summit provides an opportunity to review the global governance structure for food systems and define the role of evidence-based knowledge in the transition towards sustainable food systems. To feed the discussions towards and during the summit, case studies from a number of countries can inform participants on what is meant and which interventions seem promising and suitable in impact and scalability.

The recent rise in hunger, under-nourishment and obesity call for a renewed global effort to lay the foundation for concerted action, based on undisputed scientific information. An evidence-based movement aimed at building consensus as the cornerstone of future agriculture and food systems, accompanied by effective institutional arrangements, must lead the way.

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