Food systems are essential to economic development as they have the resources, we need for living and working. But macroeconomists have long ignored them in the belief that the highly mechanized, subsidized and concentrated global agri-food industry now offers everything we could wish for in food.
2020 will be a year of reckoning for food systems around the world. COVID-19 shut down half the globe in just months. Photos of panic shopping, bare supermarket shelves and miles of lines at food banks all of a sudden reminded us of how important food systems are in our lives and how imbalanced they are.
Cracks in the structure of the global food system have been visible for a long time. According to the current State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World, about 820 million people had already gone to bed hungry in 2018 and a third of all people missed basic nutrients. At the same time, 600 million people were classified as obese and 2 billion overweight due to imbalanced diets, which were also associated with obesity, diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular diseases which compromised immune health. Immunoexpressed and malnourished citizens worldwide today suffer overwhelmingly from COVID-19's lethal effects. The human toll comes with significant economic costs in all these situations, including loss of employment and soaring public debt.
The food system's shortcomings go beyond struggling to feed the planet well. Food created by overuse of pesticides, in monoculture cropping systems, and intensive farming of animals on land and at sea degrades natural resources faster than they can reproduce and causes a quarter of all man-made greenhouse gas emissions, with livestock responsible for around half of that.
According to scientific research, including from the Food and Agriculture Organization, industrial animal farming operations that rear large numbers of animals in confined spaces breed deadly viruses, such as swine flu in 2009, and propagate "superbugs" resistant to antibiotics due to overuse of antibiotics to encourage their growth and prevent infections.
Since the COVID-19 crisis, restoring economies provides a rare opportunity to reinvent the global food system and make it resilient to future shocks, ensuring safe, environmentally sound nutrition for all. To do this, agencies of the United Nations, such as the Food and Agriculture Organization, the United Nations Environment Programme, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the International Fund for Agricultural Development and the World Food Program jointly propose four specific changes in the food system:
Resilient food supply chains. Efficient and effective food supply chains are key to reducing the risks of food insecurity, malnutrition, fluctuations in food prices and can create jobs at the same time. Rural transformation for empowering and mainstreaming small producers and retailers in the economy of food systems can help build resilient food supply chains.
Healthy diets. Curbing over-consumption of animal and highly processed food in wealthier countries and increasing access to good nutrition in poorer ones will improve well-being and land-use productivity, make healthier food more available globally, and slash carbon emissions. Retargeting agricultural subsidies for nutritious products, taxing unhealthy foods and aligning procurement methods, educational services and health care systems for healthier diets will go a long way towards achieving this. This, in effect, will reduce global health-care costs, reduce inequality, and help us survive the next pandemic with healthier people.
Regenerative Agriculture. A change towards sustainable, regenerative land and ocean farming linked to strong local and regional food systems will restore our soils, air and water, improving economic resilience and local employment. It can be achieved by promoting sustainable farming, facilitating market access and levelling the financial and regulatory playing field relative to large intensive farmers for smaller, sustainable farmers.
Conservation. Breeding fewer animals in wealthier countries to support a move toward more plant-based diets is vital to preserving fragile habitats. Conservation initiatives are key to preserving biodiversity, improving carbon sequestration and reducing the risk of potential pandemics, in line with recent UN Environment Assembly plans for a global system to protect plant and wildlife on Earth, along with ambitious steps to eliminate trade in wildlife.
Food systems are on human, livestock, economic and environmental safety crossroads. Ignoring this exposes the global economy to ever-widening health and financial shocks as climate change and global population rise. Instead we will make concrete inroads towards the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Climate Agreement by prioritizing food system changes in our "move forward" agendas. And as once famously said by Winston Churchill: "Healthy people are the greatest assets any nation can have."