• More than 800 million worldwide are critically hungry and over 3 billion people can't afford the food they need to ensure their families’ well-being.
  • The world needs a more inclusive, sustainable and resilient food and land use system, writes the World Resources Institute's Edward Davey.
  • Recent research from WRI and the Food and Land Use Coalition has set out key actions needed to do this, including 4 urgent priorities for 2021.

As the world continues to confront the coronavirus pandemic, it also has before it a striking opportunity — and obligation — to bring about a fairer, more inclusive, more sustainable and more resilient food and land use system.

Recent research from WRI and the Food and Land Use Coalition set out a vision of a world in which all people have access to healthy and sustainable food, while protecting biodiversity and saving the climate. WRI’s report described a menu of 22 actions needed to achieve this goal, while the Food and Land Use Coalition focused on 10 “critical transitions” to guide the decade ahead.

The issues articulated in both these publications have come into even starker relief since the outset of COVID-19, which has had major negative impacts on people’s access to food and delayed much-needed progress on sustainable agriculture and ecosystem protection.

a fishman paddles his boat in a muddy river
A fisherman at work in Guayaquil, Ecuador. Farmers and fishers are some of the world’s most essential workers.
Image: Photo by Maarten van den Heuvel/Unsplash

This year, governments will spend trillions of dollars on fiscal stimulus and on resetting economies in response to the pandemic. Food and land use should be at the heart of their decision-making.

An improved food and land use system must address the inequality of access to food so starkly revealed by COVID-19. Such a system would ensure, too, that all the world’s farmers and fishermen — who have continued to work hard through the crisis, often in exceptionally difficult circumstances — can live prosperous, dignified lives. And instead of fueling climate change and biodiversity loss, our food and land use system must become a powerful driver of emissions reductions, adaptation to climate change, and the recovery of nature.

Research shows that more sustainable agriculture, healthier diets and reduced food loss and waste — coupled with increased efforts to protect and restore nature — would generate millions of jobs and contribute to major economic gains. More recent work has shown that such actions would also help grow economies and improve well-being after the pandemic.

To achieve such a food and land use system will require concerted international effort, involving all actors — from heads of state and national governments, to small and large companies, farmers’ associations, scientists, communities and individuals.

a picture of farm labourers working in a field
A farm laborer picks strawberries in Nipomo, California. The post-pandemic food and land use system must ensure that all food workers can live prosperous, dignified lives.
Image: Photo by Tim Mossholder/Unsplash

2021 Is a Key Year to Make Progress on Sustainable Food

A series of high-profile events in 2021 will position food high on the international agenda, presenting an opportunity to drive significant political commitment, regulation and financial flows in the direction of a more sustainable food and land use system.

The UN Secretary-General’s Food Systems Summit in September 2021 — on the sidelines of the General Assembly, and to which all heads of state in the world have been invited — will be a particular highlight. This is the first summit of its kind in the UN’s history, with five action tracks on food security and nutrition, sustainable consumption, environmental protection, poverty and resilience, as well as work on four cross-cutting levers of change: human rights, gender equality, finance and innovation. Agnes Kalibata, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy to the summit, expressed her hope that this will be “a people’s summit,” reaching 5 billion people through its communications and outreach. In preparation, Food Systems Summit Dialogues are underway in more than 100 nations.

Additionally, the G7, hosted by the UK in June 2021, will focus on climate and nature. It’s likely to include a drive for global leadership on nature protection, tropical forests and deforestation-free commodity supply chains, the ocean, and food loss and waste. The G20, hosted by Italy in October 2021, declared that it will focus on hunger and the need for a more sustainable food and land use system. The CBD COP on biodiversity in China in late October 2021 will see nations signing up to a new global biodiversity framework, with significant commitments on food and land use. The UNFCCC climate summit (COP26) in November 2021 will bring a major focus on sustainable agriculture and tropical forest protection as part of the UK government’s COP26 Nature Campaign. And the Japanese government will host the Nutrition for Growth summit in December 2021, a landmark meeting in which new financial commitments to nutrition are likely.

a picture of farmers holding up their produce
Farmers grow sweet potatoes in Kenya. The country has taken steps to ensure access to affordable, nutritious food.
Image: Photo by Fintrac Inc./USAID/Flickr

4 urgent priorities for sustainable food in 2021

All these events offer big opportunities for change. Decisive action in 2021 across four areas in particular will be critical in ensuring that the decade ahead delivers what is needed on the food and land use agenda:

1. Increase political commitment and finance to fight hunger.

The first-order priority is to address global hunger, exacerbated by the pandemic. The number of chronically hungry people in the world increased by an estimated 130 million in the past year, to more than 800 million.

Of these, 235 million people — up 40% from last year — are in need of immediate humanitarian assistance and protection, including communities facing famine in South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Yemen, Nigeria and Burkina Faso.

Across the world, urgent efforts must be taken to broker peace, provide access to food, and address the current shortfall in humanitarian funding. Donor governments, which have mobilized trillions for the COVID-19 recovery, need to significantly step up their contributions to meet the funding requirements of the World Food Programme and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Businesses can do the same.

2. Ensure all people can access and afford nutritious, healthy food.

Relatedly, as exchange rates fluctuate and economies flounder, food prices have risen. In total, 3 billion people in the world today cannot afford the food they need to ensure their families’ well-being. Malnutrition is a scourge in almost all nations of the world – including countries and regions as diverse as the United States, sub-Saharan Africa, India and Brazil.

To address this, governments can expand social safety nets, such as India’s food-based social program, the Public Distribution System, which reaches 800 million people. They could enact policies that ensure access to affordable, healthy food, as Kenya is doing with its Agri-Nutrition Strategy, focused on greater domestic production of healthy and nutritious foods.

Investment in local food supply chains is also important, as are global trade measures to keep national and global agricultural markets open, sustainable and fair. (This is likely to gain a favorable reception from the next Director General of the WTO, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala).

This may also be a good time for governments to reform their subsidy and regulatory regimes to encourage greater consumption of healthier foods, and to address high rates of obesity and other non-communicable, diet-related diseases (themselves linked to the impact of the pandemic). For example, as part of its national obesity strategy, the UK government is considering ambitious new legislation to ban TV and online advertisements for foods high in fat, sugar and salt before 9PM. The policy would also outlaw “buy-one-get-one-free” deals on unhealthy foods in supermarkets.

3. Broker a new deal with the world’s farmers.

The pandemic revealed farmers (as well as people working across the food supply chain) to be some of the world’s most essential workers. They deserve to be appropriately remunerated for the food they produce, and more generously rewarded for their efforts to shift to more sustainable agricultural practices.

Today, the world spends at least $600 billion each year on agricultural subsidies. Roughly 70% of these funds provide direct income support, while only 5% support any kind of conservation or sustainability objective. Much of this money could be imaginatively redeployed in fiscally constrained circumstances to deliver better outcomes for farmers, consumers, the climate and the environment.

For example, China reformed its fertilizer subsidies to fund improvements in manure and nitrogen management. In the Punjab region of Pakistan, the regional government is working with the World Bank to modernize its wheat production, reduce food loss and waste, and encourage better agricultural practices to protect the natural environment, such as integrated water management. A number of governments, convened by the Policy Action Coalition of the Just Rural Transition, have begun to work collaboratively to this end, exchanging lessons learned and insights from reforms underway — including the UK’s new environmental land management scheme, which rewards farmers with “public money for public goods.”

4. Produce, protect, reduce, restore.

Finally, there is an urgent need to redouble global efforts to “produce, protect, reduce and restore.”

Countries can work to sustainably increase their agricultural productivity, through enhanced investment in agricultural research and development, coupled with policy reform. These productivity improvements can then be explicitly linked to enhanced commitments to protect nature. Whether on land or at sea, there is a huge amount to be done to safeguard the rights of indigenous peoples, to protect intact forests and marine ecosystems, to invest in protected areas, and to appropriately plan national economies to protect key ecosystems and landscapes.

These efforts to “produce” and “protect” can then link up with a parallel effort to “reduce” and “restore.”

In some countries, the “reduce” agenda refers to efforts to encourage less meat consumption and greater adoption of plant-based diets. In almost all countries of the world, it also refers to efforts to reduce food loss and waste, where the adoption of a “target-measure-act” approach has already led to significant reductions in the UK and the Netherlands.

Finally, and across the world, there is an urgent need to invest in greater efforts to restore degraded land, with major positive impacts for rural economies, climate change adaptation, ecosystem recovery, and the prevention of future hunger and humanitarian crises. Countries as diverse as India, Brazil and Malawi are showing the way forward here.

Building a Better Food System in 2021

There is little time to lose, and, amidst the continuing impacts of the pandemic, a real chance in 2021 for countries to build forward better in response to COVID-19. This includes focusing on one of the most important things binding together the whole of humanity and our relationship with the natural world: food.