• No less urgent for the future of the planet than the ‘Great Energy Transformation’ is what we might call a ‘Great Food Transformation’.
  • Greening food production and managing food demand to ensure it is safe and nutritious are crucial for meeting the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
  • 3 shifts tailored to countries can fix the problem: a transition to healthy, sustainable diets; farming must become regenerative; reduce ecological footprint of agriculture and fishing.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in 2019, delegates spoke of a “Great Energy Transformation” needed to ensure a clean and secure energy future. As stressed by delegates to the United Nations Food System Pre-summit in Rome in July, no less urgent for the future of the planet is what we might call a “Great Food Transformation.”

While the climate implications of burning fossil fuels have received a great deal of attention, research by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) shows that what we eat, how we produce it and how it gets to us exerts an even greater impact on the global environment and public health – a finding made even more evident by the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Greening food production and managing food demand to ensure that it is safe and nutritious for all are crucial for meeting the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the environmental pledge behind the UN’s Paris Agreement.

Earth as food-vending machine

Looking back at their evolution, it is hard to understand why current foods systems are under attack.

For early humans, life was no picnic. 1.8 million years ago, our ancestors ate wetland ferna crustaceans and slugs for proteins. Scavenging on carcasses left over by competing carnivores was the hominis’ equivalent of a happy meal. After farming became widely established some 7,000 years ago, feeding got easier. But for centuries, agriculture remained a low-productivity affair dominated by small family-owned farms raising diversified crops and livestock.

The music changed abruptly around 1950. Eager to shrug off the traumas of food insecurity during World War II, developed nations began pouring vast amounts of money into farmers’ pockets to foster the adoption of machinery, synthetic fertilisers, herbicides, pesticides and genetic manipulation – products and practices often directly repurposed from military applications. Yields multiplied and food prices tanked: Earth had been successfully transformed into a giant and cheap food-vending machine.

In retrospect, turning up the dial on natural processes to produce food industrially was clever but not smart. Policies aimed at increasing the production of meat, dairy and eggs eventually led to the replacement of the planet’s natural wildlife with farmed animals. To make this happen, entire ecosystems were brought to the verge of biological collapse through deforestation, soil degradation, the over-pumping of nonrenewable aquifers, and waterways and ocean contamination.

At 10 times the human population, farmed animals on land are now so many that, even if we stopped burning fossil fuels tomorrow – an impossibility – food emissions on their own would push us two to three times over our 1.5°C target by 2100, and make us nearly miss our 2°C target.

At the same time, factory farms and our constant interference with wildlife for food have led to an escalation of emergent zoonoses that are making antibiotics ineffective.

The human and economic toll

Worst of all, today’s highly subsidised food systems centred on animal products leave billions of people, typically those with lower incomes but not only, chronically malnourished and sick with obesity, diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular diseases that compromise immune health. Most people lost to COVID-19 had one of these morbidities.

The human toll comes with huge economic costs, because chronically ill people are both less employable and productive, and tend to retire earlier, leading to lost income and soaring public and private debt.

At the same time, food systems are neither inclusive nor supportive of “smallholders”, because production is heavily concentrated, globalised and financialised, with a few dominant players managing the world’s entire seed, grains and livestock markets. The concern is that agri-food companies have become too big to feed humanity sustainably, too big to operate on equitable terms with other food system actors, and too big to deliver the types of innovation we need.

Worryingly, these problems are bound to get worse as food supply dwindles, under the stranglehold of rising temperatures, water scarcity and biodiversity loss, and food demand continues to rise with population growth and dietary shifts up the food chain in emerging market countries.

Reflecting these fundamentals, it is no surprise, then, that both the UN Food Price Index and the Global Farmland Index have been on a sharp upward trend since the 2000s, with the latter recording average annualised value growth of 12% between 2002 and 2018.

The good news is that it is not too late to redress our food systems and avoid a humanitarian and planetary catastrophe. Three shifts tailored to individual countries can fix the problem.

First, a transition to healthy and sustainable diets is needed. This can be achieved by repurposing agricultural subsidies to support the global supply of animal-alternative proteins, and align procurement practices, education programmes and healthcare systems toward better dietary choices. Levies on unhealthy foods, like taxes on carbon for fossil fuels, can help reflect the true cost of these foods on their price tags.

Second, farming must become regenerative. This involves government support for sustainable farming and fishing; levelling the financial and regulatory playing field for smaller, poly-cultural farming operations relative to large intensive farms; and instituting collective procurement practices that support foods sourced locally and regionally.

What is the World Economic Forum’s Sustainable Development Impact summit?

It’s an annual meeting featuring top examples of public-private cooperation and Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies being used to develop the sustainable development agenda.

It runs alongside the United Nations General Assembly, which this year features a one-day climate summit. This is timely given rising public fears – and citizen action – over weather conditions, pollution, ocean health and dwindling wildlife. It also reflects the understanding of the growing business case for action.

The UN’s Strategic Development Goals and the Paris Agreement provide the architecture for resolving many of these challenges. But to achieve this, we need to change the patterns of production, operation and consumption.

The World Economic Forum’s work is key, with the summit offering the opportunity to debate, discuss and engage on these issues at a global policy level.

Third, we need to reduce the ecological footprint of agriculture and fisheries, and boost nature’s ecosystems’ services that are essential to continue to produce our food. This calls for policies to rapidly align national regulations with recent proposals by the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) for a global framework to protect the Earth's wildlife. Also needed are measures to eradicate the trade of wild animals for human consumption and traditional medicine, which are contributing to the extinction of key species, threatening entire ecosystems and creating conditions for new pandemics.

Food systems are at the crossroads of human, animal, economic and environmental health. By prioritising food system reforms in our recovery plans, we can bring desperately needed energy to both the global economy, the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Climate Agreement agendas.