When we sit around our dinner tables or have a drink at a café with family or friends, the food and drink we enjoy has journeyed through a huge and complex system that ends with us - the consumer.
That makes us part of a global system of food production and consumption that is highly resource-intensive. Large-scale conventional agricultural production sucks up the lion’s share of the planet’s fixed volume of available freshwater, and 75 per cent of fisheries are either being fully exploited or overfished.
Global food systems rely on natural resources such as water, biodiversity, healthy and fertile soil, or the sea. All of these resources are under intense pressure— not least from climate change— and we are failing to manage those natural resources sustainably or efficiently.
This year’s theme for World Food Day (14 October 2016) is “Climate is changing. Food and agriculture must too.”
In fact, farmers are already changing the way they produce food to adapt to the early impacts of climate change. For example, there’s been a revival of traditional agricultural techniques and resilient, nutritious indigenous crops, and farming methods with lower environmental impacts are gaining traction. Increasing attention is trained on supporting smallholder farmers, who feed the majority of the developing world. UN Environment manages a portfolio of projects funded under several climate change Funds that help farmers adapt to different aspects of climate change.
At the international level, the Paris Agreement on Climate Change of 2015 explicitly considered adaptation as urgent and important as mitigation for the first time. Finance through the Green Climate Fund was to be divided equally between the two. Adaptation efforts and plans have evolved in the last two decades; governments are learning to make sure adaptation to current and future climate change impacts are worked into development plans— these are likely to include food systems.
Food systems and natural resources under pressure
But the required change in question is much bigger than responsive or reactive measures, and climate change is only one of many pressures that are stressing the ability of our planet to support our lifestyles.
We have long known of the likely consequences of several trends that must guide change in food systems and agriculture. These pressures on natural resources are expected to increase over the coming decade and will lead to risks for future food production. Three of these stand out.
The first is simple maths. Current food systems are already unsustainable, and population growth means we’ll have to feed more mouths on a finite amount of natural resources, while ensuring that everyone has adequate nutrition.
The second is wealth, which is increasing in many developing countries, leading to a much larger global middle class; and this typically leads to diets that are richer in resource-intensive products and ultra-processed food, and to the “supermarketization” of food.
Growing urbanization is the third pressure, and mingles with the other two stressors to throw an extra element of complexity into the mix.
From this perspective, resource-smart food systems are crucial to achieving sustainable development, alongside the many policy, structural and behavioural changes needed to support entire sustainable lifestyles.
A resource-smart or environmentally-sustainable food system is one in which the environmental basis to deliver food security for future generations is not compromised.
Resource-smart food systems are not only about sustainable and efficient food production— the main challenge is to be effective in delivering overall food security, livelihoods and human health while protecting essential natural resources.
In fact, one could argue that they are at the heart of sustainable development, whose multidisciplinary nature is reflected in the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, which includes the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) on which all countries agreed last year.
Consumers essential part of sustainable food systems
So where to start? The people who directly or indirectly manage our food systems are the largest group of natural resource managers in the world and could become critical agents of change in the transformation of current consumption and production systems.
But consumers are links in the chain of responsibility, and our most immediate actions as consumers that create impact revolve around not wasting food and responsible consumption. Nearly one-third of all food is lost or wasted globally, costing US$940 billion per year. This takes place against a global backdrop of 800 million hungry people, two billion malnourished people, and two billion overweight or obese people.
Food waste and food loss earned special mention in the SDGs, enshrined in a specific target that gives definition to Goal 12 on sustainable consumption and production patterns. UN Environment, FAO and Messe Düsseldorf launched the SAVE FOOD initiative to reduce food loss and waste. UN Environment also collaborates with other partners in the Think.Eat.Save. campaign, which focuses on getting consumers, retailers, restaurants, etc to eliminate food waste.
The movement against food waste has been growing. The last decade has witnessed an upsurge of creative action that has made news: supermarkets running innovative campaigns to encourage consumers to buy “ugly” but perfectly edible fruits and vegetables; governments legislating that supermarkets must give unsold food to the poor; trends like dumpster-diving; celebrity chefs cooking up creative ways to use food that would otherwise go to waste; collectives springing up to preserve crop variety and encourage urban kitchen gardens and environmentally friendly cultivation; and so on.
To fulfil the sustainable development package that came out of 2015— including the agreements on climate change, sustainable development, disaster risk reduction and financing for development— sustainable food systems must become the norm, not the novelty. Governments, companies, organizations, producers and consumers hold different but equally important responsibilities in ensuring that this happens.