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2016 Global Food Policy Report: Toward a more sustainable food system

April 5, 2016
by Peter Shelton

At the recent launch of the 2016 Global Food Policy Report in Washington, DC, IFPRI Director General Shenggen Fan saw something of a mixed bag for global food security leading into 2016. On the positive side, the international development community made major strides in 2015 in securing the passage of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as well global commitments to curb greenhouse gas emissions and end distortionary trade policies, which were adopted at the 2015 Paris Climate Conference (COP21) and the World Trade Organization’s Tenth Ministerial Conference, respectively. On the negative side, ongoing humanitarian conflicts in places like Syria have left more than eight million people without basic food security, and slowed economic growth in emerging markets such as China and Brazil has resulted in an economic slowdown at the global level.

All of these developments carry significant impacts on global food policy and the corresponding efforts to end hunger and undernutrition worldwide. As Fan underscored in his opening remarks, at least half of the UN SDGs are related to the food system.

“Right now, the global food system is not sustainable,” Fan asserted.

Juergen Voegele, senior director of the World Bank's Agriculture Global Practice, shared Fan’s grim outlook on the global food system, echoing the assessment that it is unsustainable and needs to change. “The bottom line,” he said, “is that [agriculture is] a huge part of the problem. We are a huge part of land waste and overuse, water waste and overuse. We have pollution: we’re probably culprit one or two… And we produce food that is not accessible, doesn’t have the right vitamins, doesn’t have the right quality, and is not consumed in the way we should.”

According to Voegele, a new food system that focuses on delivering improved nutrition and health is needed to replace the existing one. Citing data related to the triple burden of malnutrition, he argued that the current trends for the number of hungry, micronutrient malnourished, and overweight/obese people will not get us to our global targets. Current trends for child stunting are particularly worrisome, as impacts such as impaired cognitive development and reduced education levels and incomes, can be felt over lifetimes or even across generations. “There is clear evidence to suggest that if we don’t get on top of [undernutrition under the age of five],” he said, “we have a serious problem for the next generation or two.”

For its part, the United States Agency for International Development’s Feed the Future Initiative is focused on increasing agricultural production and farmer incomes while also improving nutrition among rural populations who depend on agriculture. Beth Dunford, deputy coordinator for development at Feed the Future, shared that they have achieved remarkable success in reaching some of their targets to reduce poverty and stunting rates by 20 percent across 19 focus countries. In Kenya, for example, child stunting was reduced by more than 25 percent from 2009 to 2014; in Bangladesh, child stunting rates have fallen 14 percent while poverty rates have declined by more than 16 percent since 2011.

Presenting on behalf of the World Resources Institute (WRI), Janet Ranganathan declared, “Food is the mother of all sustainability challenges.” For example, the world will need to produce 70 percent more calories than it currently produces in order to feed 9.7 billion people by 2050, which is more than a third greater increase in global yields than we experienced during the Green Revolution. Adding to the difficulty of this task, Ranganathan said that the agricultural system must now account for carbon taxes, the declining availability of water resources in many areas of the world, and the effects of global climate change.

To meet this challenge of producing more food while protecting natural resources for future use, Ranganathan shared a menu of policy options for helping fill that 70 percent gap in required calories by 2050. On one side of the equation, there are several areas of the world where production can be increased through improved crop or livestock varieties, for example; on the other side, “consumption-based solutions,” which entail shifting diets to curb overconsumption of calories and protein and increase the share of plant-based proteins in diets, also hold promise.

“It’s not just more mouths that we have to feed in 2050,” Ranganathan said, “it’s putting different food in those mouths.”

Aside from shifting diets and increasing production, the global food system also must increase its efficiency and reduce waste. According to Maximo Torero, director of IFPRI’s Markets, Trade, and Institutions Division, reducing food loss and waste can be a major driver of global food security and sustainability. Estimates of global food loss  and waste vary widely—from 27 percent (1 billion tons) to 32 percent (1.3 billion tons) of all food produced in the world—and the range increases even more when different commodity types are examined. “There is a significant lack of knowledge about the real magnitude because of the methodologies being used,” Torero stated, “and this creates a significant barrier to addressing the problem.”

For Torero and his colleagues involved in the development of the Technical Platform on the Measurement and Reduction of Food Loss and Waste, a value chain approach is needed in order to better identify losses all the way from production to consumption.  In addition, a more comprehensive measurement of potential food loss and waste—key to reaching major global goals—should include opportunity costs at the production phase, such as the inefficient use of land and water resources. For example, a recent study of the Cassava value chain in Nigeria revealed that the bulk of losses occurred at the processing phase, indicating a need for improved technology among Cassava processors. Partners at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) are working with processors in Nigeria to develop simple machines and tools that reduce processing time and labor while cutting production losses in half.

Yet according to Torero, the problem in many developing countries extends beyond what is typically measured since other opportunity costs at the production phase, such as the inefficient use of land and water resources, are not included in such measurements. For example, if a farmer knew how much more food he or she could produce by through the efficient use of resources, this too could be accounted for via a more comprehensive measurement of potential food loss and waste (PLFW). Torero believes that developing clear measurements and setting concrete goals for reducing PFLW will be key for reaching major global goals, such as SDG 12.

Collectively, the SDGs will lead the way toward measuring the future success of the global food system, even as many of the details of how we get there remain unclear. One thing that is clear, however, is that business as usual will not be enough to help us reach SDG targets.

As Dunford stated, “In 2016, we stand at a crossroads with many, many competing challenges around the world. We need a common vision… that articulates how food security can help us achieve many of the SDGs—not just hunger and poverty, but also health, economic growth, gender, jobs, climate, partnerships. With strong buy-in and support from the global food security community, donors, researchers, developing nations, we can energize these efforts to achieve the SDG targets.”