Sustainable Food Systems

ID-100143900Food demand is expected to rise by 70% to 2050. Urbanisation and increasing incomes per capita are shifting diets to those more demanding of meat and other animal products, which has serious implications for the use of natural resources to produce food. Today around 1 in 8 people are malnourished and 870 million people chronically hungry, indicating our current food systems cannot meet present demand let alone future. Modifying the world’s food production systems to produce more food and perhaps distribute it more evenly, is made harder by a growing recognition of the negative impacts agriculture can have on the environment. Conversion of land to agriculture is the biggest threat to biodiversity. Agriculture places large demands on scarce natural resources, the overuse of which not only threatens the wider global environment and human wellbeing, but the very processes agriculture relies on e.g. pest control, pollination and rainfall.

A new report by the European Commission’s Science for Environment Policy, entitled Sustainable Food: A Recipe for Food Security and Environmental Protection, lays out the changes we need to make to our entire food system and the urgency with which we need to make them.

The report begins with a summary of the pressures on food production and the drivers of food demand namely: population growth; natural resource scarcity including land, biodiversity, water, climate change, and biofuels; changing dietary patterns and; rising food prices.

The report then turns to some of the solutions and pathways to making food systems more sustainable, advocating action around the following areas:

  • Minimising food waste
  • Rethinking land management and agricultural practices:
    • Using agroecological principles such as building soil organic matter, which the EU claim can reduce negative impacts and at the same time increase yields, although evidence of this potential win-win is scarce
    • Conservation agriculture and land sparing versus land sharing
    • Replenishing water supplies through, for example, no-till agriculture
    • Ensuring the long-term sustainability of fish stocks through expanding aquaculture
    • Reducing carbon emissions and mitigating climate change
    • Increasing the efficiency of agriculture through the application of science and technology
    • Understanding consumption patterns in a bid to contain the demand for the most resource-intensive types of food
    • Investing in smallholder farmers to help them increase their productivity and integration with global markets

Of course knowing that we need to undertake many of these actions is relatively easy. Understanding how to take action is hard and the report acknowledges that considerable policy and knowledge gaps exist, for example, what future per capita consumption levels will be, the benefits or impacts of different agricultural practices and ways of integrating multiple objectives in policy making.

The EU acknowledges its role in influencing agriculture and food production in member countries, and recent work highlights the leadership they are taking around sustainable food systems. For example, the EU Standing Committee on Agriculture Research (SCAR) concluded in their latest report that “many of today´s food production systems compromise the capacity of Earth to produce food in the future”, while the Europe 2020 Strategy – A resource-efficient Europe and Roadmap to a Resource-Efficient Europe,  call for an increase in resource efficiency and to: “…find new ways to reduce inputs, minimise waste, improve management of resource stocks, change consumption patterns, optimise production processes, management and business methods, and improve logistics.” The EU have also set the goal of halving the disposal of edible food by 2020.

“Sustainable Food” is very convincing as to why we need to act and why it is urgent.

Climate change is going to happen to some degree whatever our mitigation activities are from this point onwards so we need to ensure are food systems can cope. Competition for land, water and other natural resources will only get worse without efforts to reduce their use in food production. We need to increase the rate of productivity gains, which are currently slowing down due to declines in funding of agricultural research and development, if we are to cope with rising food demand and future threats. Without efforts to make agriculture more sustainable we run the risk of pushing food production to the brink at which ecosystems collapse, resources are depleted and biodiversity pushed past a threshold of no return.

If the strategies discussed in the report are implemented simultaneously, Foley et al, 2011, estimate that global food availability would be increased 100-180%, meeting projected demands while lowering greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity losses, water use and water pollution.  As the report concludes though we have a long way to go, “The ‘revolutionary’ changes that will be required will mean a complete redesign of the whole food system to incorporate sustainability at every step of the way, from farm to fork.”



  1. Reblogged this on Dr. B. A. Usman's Blog.

  2. Dear Liz and Gordon,

    I like the idea that we need to be looking at more sustainable production practices and that we need to better manage what we do produce, however, the solutions and pathways from the ECSEP report appear to be limiting the discussion. Unless this is the only feasible political solution we can find at the moment – which very well may be the case – I believe instead of focusing on the supply side, we should be focusing on the demand side (pull approach).

    While it is true that land management and ag policies currently favor the larger scale farmers, the food system to which they belong – no matter how sustainable and environmentally friendly the land practices and policies are – will not deter the supermarket (or retail) model of giving consumers food delivery, packaging, and marketing that is causing many of our challenges in the overall food system. The consolidation of food distribution to those who can afford it in tandem with the consolidation of distributors adds to the list of problems when trying to make shifts and changes to more sustainable consumption behavior and to a more equitable food system that values farmers and locals. Of course a new restaurateur would opt to go with what is most accessible and available (at lowest price) over what may be more sustainable (socially, environmentally, for labor, for long term profits, long term brand, etc.) if distributors are only able to get what’s currently being produced in our food system – the alternative is too risky.

    However, even with the solutions and pathways suggested, there is no shift towards smaller farmers, locally retailed opps, or using capital that can stay within the region/community (for true sustainability). The question, I believe, needs to be re-framed. It should no longer be about our ability to produce for our growing population, we’ve always found a way to do that; our focus should be on the capital resources available for local markets to thrive – thereby facilitating local producers and local food systems which could inherently utilize more sustainable farming practices for the benefit of our land and the consumer (since this food would be cheaper and healthier/more nutritious). As long as the current power base for retailing remains with large supermarkets with distant capital sources, a sustainable food system will continue to be solely a dream.

    I write further about this here:

    Thanks for the work you are doing at Ag for Impact; let’s re-consider the economics too.,
    With every good wish,

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