A major overhaul of how food reaches our plates from farms is needed if the world is to combat hunger, use natural resources more efficiently and stem environmental damage.
A report launched at the second United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA2) in Nairobi calls for a switch to a “resource-smart” approach that changes the way food is farmed and transported to consumers.
There is reason for this change. Food systems – which include all processes and infrastructure involved in feeding a population, from growing to processing, packaging, transporting, marketing, consumption, and disposal – is the biggest single user of natural resources such as land, soil, water, biodiversity, minerals and fossil fuels.
These resources are commonly not managed sustainably and efficiently in food systems, resulting in a degraded environment, according to Maarten Hajer, lead author of “Food Systems and Natural Resources”. The report is published by the International Resource Panel (IRP), a consortium of scientists, governments and industries looking at ways to improve resource management based on science.
Hajer shares these figures at a press briefing at the sidelines of UNEA2: Food production is responsible for 60% of biodiversity loss and 24% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Some 29% of our fish stocks are overfished, 33% of soils are degraded and 20% of the world’s aquifers are over-exploited.
Food production has increased globally, yet over 800 million people still go hungry. Ironically, over two billion people are obese.
“One-third of food is wasted, it is unsustainable,” says Alexander Mueller of the Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity. “We’re using water, land, and generating greenhouse gases to produce food that is then thrown away. Can you imagine a phone company producing phones and then throwing them away? From an economic basis, something is wrong.”
\He says a more sustainable food system will allow us to produce and consume food without the detrimental effects on our natural resources and health.
Urging for a breakaway from the predominant way of looking at food, Hajer says many of the required changes are not at the stage of food production but elsewhere in the supply chain.
He describes the current way that food reaches consumers as “supermarketisation”. This afffects not just the supply chain but also eating habits and product sourcing. “If we don’t change the way food is supplied, we push fresh markets and farmers out of the food chain.
”He cites the example of the Netherlands, where there are 65,000 farmers, 16.7 million consumers and five food purchasing companies. “All the food the Dutch eat goes through five companies and 25 supermarket chains.”
He adds that the supermarket way of supplying food also requires packaging; this drains resources and generates waste.
Compounding current problems, growing affluence means more and more people adopting diets rich in resource-intensive products – meat, fish, dairy and highly processed foods – at a time when climate change will make producing food increasingly difficult. The report predicts a 20% rise in chicken and dairy consumption, and 14% increase in pig and beef over the next 10 years.
Since the food sector is the major use of natural resources, the people managing food systems naturally are the largest natural resource managers; they are the main players if we are to transform current consumption and production systems.
To make food production and supply more sustainable, the IRP recommends a “resource-smart” food system guided by three principles: low environmental impacts, sustainable use of renewable resources and efficient use of resources.
For a more sustainable food system, the IRP made various recommendations including: cutting out food waste; less consumption of meat, empty calorie food and highly processed food; include smallholders in the supply chain; make consumers aware of how their food is produced, and the health and environmental consequences of their dietary choices; use peripheral urban zones for farming; and phase out harmful farming inputs such as pesticide.
The IRP also recommends removing harmful subsidies, such as those on fossil fuel, that encourage unsustainable production and practices. If nothing is changed, the food systems upon which our food security depends will be undermined, as well as cause further degradation of ecosystems.