At over $8 trillion, the global food system is worth more than a tenth of the entire world economy yet nearly a billion people are still crushed by hunger and millions more sink into malnutrition every day.
For the first time, credible science-based ideas have emerged to put an end to this extraordinary scale of preventable human suffering. They will be the highlight of UN chief Antonio Guterres’s Food Systems Summit on September 23.
The summit on food will be the sixth since 1943 but this one will be the first to bring together heads of state at the UN General Assembly on the systems aspects of food and world hunger.
Guterres will seek concrete commitments from the US, Europe, China and developing countries to change how they deal with every aspect of food. Hopefully, President Joe Biden will use it as an opportunity to do what American has done best in the past, i.e., helping those in need around the world. This time, to put nutritious food on the table for everyone.
Guterres says inefficient global food systems are at the root of a huge rise in hunger as well as one-third of all harmful carbon emissions and 80 per cent of biodiversity loss. Food disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have resulted in three billion people not being able to afford healthy diets.
The hidden costs of inefficient food systems is estimated at $12-trillion. The term “food system” encompasses every person and every process involved in growing, raising or making food and getting it to people.
Science brings pointers on healthy eating and policy guidelines for food labels and using taxes and regulations to discourage unhealthy foods. Large American and European industrial food processing companies will try to slow down the spread of such ideas to poorer countries, even though they are already applied in most developed economies. So, the summit’s outcomes are unlikely to have smooth passage.
The encouraging new element is that the specific ideas before the summit will be based on advice from a group of leading scientists that was asked to ensure that the science underpinning the 2021 summit is robust, broad and independent.
Although the international community has regularly followed scientific advice on climate change and biodiversity, this is the first time that scientists have been explicitly brought into top-level negotiations on food.
This is important because billions of people make a living in the world’s food systems, especially in heavily populated poorer regions. Farming accounts for nearly 70% of rural income in Africa and about half of rural income in South Asia.
Food systems profoundly affect people’s health as well as the environment, economies and societies. The summit will discuss science-based findings on reforming food systems to make healthy and nutritious foods more available, affordable and accessible.
Reformed systems would place much higher priority on research and development in agriculture to increase productivity without harming the earth while slashing food waste and losses.
The agri-food system covers the journey of food from tillage to table – from when it is planted, grown, harvested, processed, packaged, transported, distributed, traded, bought, prepared, eaten and disposed of.
It encompasses non-food products such as forestry, animal rearing, use of feedstock, biomass to produce biofuels and fibers. It constitutes all of the activities, investments and choices made in agri-food products and impacts on the livelihoods of all the people involved.
This is a vast range of activities that call for much more scientific expertise on technological innovations, including land and water, livestock and fisheries, and biodiversity and climate.
The use of high-tech methods in poorer countries could cut waste, e.g., by scaling up solar energy and battery storage technologies to make food processing and preservation more affordable. New forms of packaging using recycled materials, coatings of nanomaterials and even edible films would keep foods fresh for longer.
Next week’s UN summit is a step towards winning consensus on how to organize and implement the diverse solutions required to end hunger around the world by 2030.