This week, Heads of States gather in New York City at the 72nd session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) to take stock on progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Of the 17 SDGs, more than half relate to global food security and nutrition. This is deliberate, as our global food systems are grossly inadequate, if not obsolete, to achieving the SDGs.
From a purely nutritional perspective, our current systems has 815 million people hungry, 2 billion micronutrient deficient, and 700 million obese—108 million of these children. It allows for subsistence but not prosperity of half a billion smallholder farmers. It is also depleting our natural resources and polluting our environment.
“Of the 17 SDGs, more than half relate to global food security and nutrition.”
To be able to right these wrongs, the global food systems need to be re-designed on several levels. To be climate-smart and so adapt to today’s adverse climatic conditions and unpredictability. To promote ethical sourcing and so be inclusive of smallholder farmers. To be much more efficient in resource use, and therefore more sustainable. To promote more nutritious crops and diets. Overall, redesigned to be friendlier to investments and businesses, and most of all, to people.
This sounds like a lot, right?
Allow me to share a few ideas to look deeper into, and that could bear quick wins on this issue.
With food continuing to be affordable in some parts of the world, it might be difficult to finance the required re-engineering of global food and distribution systems. It might sound counter-intuitive, but cheap food provides negative incentives for consumers. Each year, 1.3 billion metric tons of food are either lost or wasted. Consumers in the developed world alone waste almost as much food (222 million tons) as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa (230 million metric tons). In Turkey, a loaf of bread costs USD 0.3, yet before a national campaign was carried out, the country wasted 6 million loaves daily.
With current margins—which are slim and being squeezed with mergers and e-commerce firms entering into the food sector—global food businesses do not prioritize investing in developing more inclusive sourcing models or promoting sustainable production systems. Food companies are trying to get around this challenge by offering progressive consumers additional “food attributes” (e.g. sustainable sources, organic, certified, etc.), and therefore passing the cost of financing more sustainable systems and costs to the consumer. To have the desired impact, we need to go beyond niche markets in developed nations. To assist small producers around the world to get out of poverty and reinvest into their production systems, higher commodity prices would be required.
While we produce sufficient food to feed the current world population, it is estimated that we would require 70% more food to feed the estimated 9.7 billion global population expected by 2050. To both achieve this, and protect the environment, we need a ‘green’ intensification of food production systems. This would promote more nutritious crops, reduce our exposure and dependency on the 20 crops that currently constitute our food system, and also bring data to the center of the food production decision making process.
Over the last few years, we have seen growing interest in the US market in crops high in protein such as quinoa and amaranth. National and international markets are focusing on legumes commonly consumed in Asia and Africa. Such intensification would assist us in closing the current yield gap in developing countries, and increase the amount of food, without expanding to new lands. Additionally, we would show zero tolerance for wasting food—at the production, retail or household levels, because as we speak, one quarter of freshwater and one-fifth of land is wasted on the production of unconsumed foods, not to mention the amount of greenhouse gases generated.
Moving to the Protein Economy
Let’s move beyond the carbohydrate economy to the protein economy. As the global population grows in numbers and wealth, demand for meat and fish protein will increase. Raising animals for protein puts pressure on the environment, with a quarter of land used for grazing, and animals consuming 30% of the world’s crops. Also, a large portion of freshwater is used to hydrate the animals. Our consumer behavior would need to adjust, to accommodate alternatives such as farmed fish instead of farmed meat, and fish and pork are more efficient in converting carbohydrates into protein than cattle. In addition, we need to invest in alternatives for animal feed, and take up the likes of proteins produced from insects that are raised on manure and organic waste, or bacteria feed out of natural gas.
Regulating Processed Food
Our governments should formalize regulation of processed food, especially those with high sugar, salt and fat content. In recent years we have seen attempts by governments in New York City and Brazil to try to promote healthy foods and increase awareness on the negative consequences of “chuck and processed food.” Governments need to do more to execute this regulation, and to control the amount of processed foods entering markets. Food companies need to offer healthier choices and proper labelling so that consumers are aware of what they are eating. Failure to do these by both parties ultimately costs local and national governments large sums of money in health care costs for their citizens.
Innovation is Key
Agriculture is perceived to be intrinsically risky, but we also have a well-established, risk-averse industrial culture, where things have been done the same way for generations. We need carbon neutral fertilizers that through nanotechnology, target roots for critical nutrients. We need business models that promote a basket of commodities in a given farming system and are able to source from small holder farmers as a cost-competitive option. Innovation that would increase efficiency in producing protein, such as the case of a new venture in Norway that produces farmed salmon and one-fifth faster than the usual pace. We need industrial leaders showing us the way to a more innovative and sustainable future.
Perhaps these and more solutions are being included in the UN General Assembly discussions. For us as a foundation, we remain committed to taking on these challenges and continuing to build on our legacy in the agriculture and food sectors. For a century, our focus has been on promoting ways to produce more food for a growing population. We continue to believe in innovation, but our approach is adapting to look at the continuum of the agriculture and food system and build a more sustainable and equitable food system.
We believe in global cooperation and hope that through the Sustainable Development Goals agenda, we will continue to forge new partnerships that allow us to have greater impact in supporting small producers to feed the planet.