Transforming the Global Food System for a More Sustainable Future

Transforming the Global Food System for a More Sustainable Future

It has become clearer than ever that climate change affects our daily lives and poses a deadly threat to a sustainable future. Increasing global temperatures—caused primarily by greenhouse gases— are strong contributors which in turn shift the dynamics of ecosystems.

The Paris Agreement, a legally binding international treaty on climate change which entered into force in November 2016, is aiming to limit global warming to 1.5-2°C. The plan outlined by the Paris Agreement requires social and economic transformation within 5 years, where countries should establish individual climate action plans. Fossil fuels supply about 80% of the world’s energy and therefore account for more than 50% of the carbon emissions. Eliminating non-renewable resources alone will not prevent global warming, reaching the goals outlined by  the Paris Agreement will only be possible through a total transformation of the global food system.

The global food system can be defined as the “production, processing, and distribution of food throughout the world.” How we manage this system within the next ten years will play a critical role in determining whether or not we can achieve the targets of the Paris Agreement. The current global food system has consequences for individuals as well as the global environment. Transformational changes in how food is grown, harvested, distributed, eaten and disposed of are crucial for decreasing the negative environmental and social impacts of the food system. Unsustainable agricultural practices, especially those related to harvesting, is one of the vital problems with our current global food system. Agricultural production accounts for one-fifth of total greenhouse gas emissions, serving as a major driver of climate change. Big agriculture companies utilize poor agricultural practices to lower production costs and consequently cause severe deforestation and result in over 5-10 million hectares of farmland becoming unusable every year. Climate sensitive production methods such as soil enrichment and crop rotation should be enhanced in order to protect our environment.

Although companies in the food sector that set scientific targets based on reduction of greenhouse gasses in the production of food increase every year, there are still many barriers to overcome. Since companies are focused on expanding into new markets by developing new goods and services, taking into account scientific frameworks within their business plans generally isn’t a very high priority.  For instance, in order to meet rapidly changing consumer demands, food value chain companies have to change their products constantly and quickly while often neglecting scientific frameworks that suggest transitions to more productive and regenerative forms of agriculture and the establishment of transparent, deforestation-free and water secure supply chains. This can be improved by deploying innovative financing to reach underdeveloped parts of the supply chain and setting company-specific targets to reduce GHG emissions according to statistics.

As for transforming the way food is distributed around the world, the consumer’s role should be considered. Especially in regions with high per capita meat consumption like the United States, transitioning to more plant-based diets that include a variety of protein sources is a key example of consumer-based intervention for a sustainable future for food distribution. Companies can work to redesign product portfolios and increase research & development spending in alternative protein innovation, thus steadily incentivizing necessary dietary shifts among consumers. Moreover, local production must be encouraged. This way, the international food distribution will become much less problematic for the environment. 

Transforming the whole global food system will take a lot of effort and time, the latter of which is becoming dangerously scarce as the consequences of global warming rapidly exacerbate. However, the ongoing pandemic has reshaped traditional economic systems built on globalization, extraction and commodification. Instead of restoring pre-existing business systems, the economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, such as low rates of trade, could actually catalyze the necessary transformation in the global food system. Indeed, green recovery plans can be initiated to minimize deforestation, water pollution, and all other negative externalities caused by global warming .

Transformation in the global food system starts at a regional level, where each company starts to make small adjustments until change occurs around the world. Rebuilding on the negative consequences caused by the pandemic can lead to a sustainable food supply chain in the near future.

Edited by Olivia Shan

Photo credits: Featured image by US Department of Agriculture in the public domain. No changes were made.

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