Scientists have created the first ‘rigorous’ map of the sustainability of global food systems that moves beyond focusing solely on the agriculture-nutrition connection and introduces all the different elements of food systems, which the authors hope will lead to a new way of ‘food system thinking’. The results are presented in a new paper published on 25 November in Scientific Data, a Nature journal (1).
A combination of factors must be considered to fully assess the sustainability of food systems, according to the authors. So, for the first time, they have mapped the sustainability of food systems according to factors in four important categories: environment, social, food security and nutrition, and economic.
To compute the aggregate sustainability score for each country, the researchers from the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture in Columbia selected 27 indicators — condensed down from over 200 — related to environmental impacts, health and food security to social equity and income distribution.
They hope the scores will be used to track changes in sustainability over time and to guide policy and climate change action, and importantly, to address the challenges of rising populations and increased demand for food, which are placing unprecedented pressure on global food systems.
“Addressing the question of the (un)sustainability of our food systems is critical as the world is bracing for hard-choice challenges and potentially massive tradeoffs around issues related to food quality and food security in the coming decades,” the authors write.
The food we eat can have a significant impact on climate change, therefore, widespread changes in the human diet will be needed to meet sustainability goals and mitigate the effects of climate change. Food systems must be made a global priority in order to ease global warming while ensuring global food security, expected to reach 10 billion by 2050. Indeed, a poor diet can be linked to 11 million deaths per year, worldwide.
Food systems encompass everything from the way food is produced to how it is distributed and consumed. However, existing systems are failing us, according to lead author Dr Christopher Béné of the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture in Colombia. But there will need to be certain tradeoffs between producing enough food for a global population expected to reach 10 billion by 2050 while minimising environmental impacts.
At present, more than 800 million people face food insecurity, moreover, obesity is on the rise in many countries due to poor quality food and often simply a lack of education. Furthermore, whereas environmental impacts such as deforestation, pollution, soil degradation, loss of biodiversity, and greenhouse gas emissions are well studied, the impact of food systems on social and economic inequalities are not always considered in the bigger picture, claims Béné.
For instance, in addition to producing enough food to feed hungry mouths, many livelihoods depend on food systems, such as fishing, farming, and factory work. In fact, the entire food system network could be considered the biggest employer in the world. Therefore, “the economic and social dimensions of food system sustainability cannot be ignored”, says Béné.
Nonetheless, food systems are still a relatively new area of research and there is still no standardised method for researchers, governments, and international organizations to assess sustainability. However, the researchers hope this new data will contribute to the development of a new and much more comprehensive sustainability index.
“This is the first attempt to empirically measure and characterize the sustainability of the food systems worldwide considering not only the dimension food security and nutrition, or environment, but also economic, and social dimensions,” co-author Camila Bonilla at the University of California, Davis said in a press release.
(1) Béné, C. et al. Global map and indicators of food system sustainability. Scientific Data (2019). DOI: 10.1038/s41597-019-0301-5
Photo credit: Béné et al./International Centre for Tropical Agriculture