Opinion: 'Hot, hungry and crowded' — why fixing food systems is good for peace and planet

A floating market in the Solomon Islands. Photo by: Paul Cater Deaton / NOAA / CC BY

Today’s food systems are not fit for purpose and deliberate action is urgently required to address the needs of the people and the planet.

In 1992, more than 178 countries at the Earth Summit adopted Agenda 21, a plan of action to build a global partnership for sustainable development to improve human lives and protect the environment. Since then, these commitments have been reiterated in the Millennium Development Goals and the Sustainable Development Goals which offer a “shared vision for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future.”

Part of our The Future of Food Systems series

Find out how we can make food fair and healthy for all. Join the conversation using the hashtag #FoodSystems and visit our The Future of Food Systems page for more coverage.

Food systems lie at the heart of global peace and prosperity. This is recognized more than ever today with the World Food Programme winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2020. As WFP’s executive director, David Beasley stated: “Without peace, we cannot end world hunger; and while there is hunger, we will never have a peaceful world.”

Food for thought: Why we need to fix food systems

However, the statistics on the impact of food systems on human and planetary health are staggering:

• Worldwide, approximately 1 in 10 people do not have enough to eat and 3 billion cannot afford a healthy diet.

• Approximately 47 million children suffer from wasting, the most severe form of malnutrition, 144 million children are stunted, and 38 million children are overweight, the majority of whom living in low-and-middle-income countries.

• Global food production contributes to 21-37% of global greenhouse gas emissions, exacerbating climate change.

Rising temperatures, depleting resources, environmental degradation and broken food systems are leading to a hot, hungry, and crowded planet. While the global commitments have been in place for decades, we urgently need actions to transform food systems and achieve global peace, prosperity, and health for people and the planet.  

 A common understanding of the food system is essential

What is the Food Systems Dashboard?

Developed by GAIN, Johns Hopkins University, and FAO among others, the Food Systems Dashboard gives a comprehensive view of food production, distribution, and consumption patterns. Use the dashboard to compare data across regions and countries.

The food system is a complex web of activities and can mean different things to different people. Without a common understanding of all the elements of the food systems, we can’t fix it and it won’t nourish all people. Food is cultural, food production systems are diverse, and a one-size-fits-all approach will not work.

When the EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet and Health was published, while it was appreciated “for a step in the right direction, it is not as global in its outlook as it could be.”  We believe strong local data and insights could complement the EAT-Lancet work and make it “more global in its outlook”.

As referenced in the Economist back in 2017, “the world’s most valuable resource is no longer oil, but data.” Launched in 2020, the Food Systems Dashboard is a fantastic starting point and brings together data from all of the different elements of the food system, but more work is urgently required to make national and sub-national data on food systems available, accessible and usable. Policymakers at the country level need to be able to take decisions based on the evidence and understanding of their local data and context.

How to use the Food Systems Dashboard. Via YouTube

Protecting the vulnerable

Last year, it was estimated that an additional 6.7 million children would suffer from wasting due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Fragility of food systems is a major cause of this suffering and children are rapidly becoming the face of the pandemic. The Standing Together for Nutrition Consortium has projected that by 2022 the nutrition crisis could result in an additional 9.3 million wasted children.

Wasting remains one of the biggest killers among children in low- and middle-income countries. This increase in the number of wasted children could result in an additional 168,000 child deaths.

On the other hand, more than a third of low-and middle-income countries are now facing both extremes of malnutrition, high levels of overweight and obesity and undernutrition, partly due to rapidly changing food systems. Addressing the double burden of malnutrition is an integral part of fixing food systems and supporting the most vulnerable who are disproportionately affected by broken food systems is critical, among other factors.  Let’s make sure we don’t leave the most vulnerable behind.

It’s time for local action

Actions should be led locally in countries and be based on science and knowledge of consumer choices and local culture. Regional Policy to Practice Food Innovation Hubs could be a game-changer. According to the first large-scale U.N. poll on climate change, where more than 1 million people in 50 countries were surveyed, 64% of respondents considered climate change to be a global emergency. However, out of 18 policy suggestions, switching to a plant-based diet was the least favored option and backed by only 30% of respondents.

Consumer insights are essential for shaping sustainable diets. We have a lot to learn from the private sector which invests heavily in understanding consumers in order to market and sell their products effectively and shape consumer choices.

Locally driven innovation hubs to support local markets and small and medium enterprises can help shape the right context-specific food choices and environments based on consumer choices of flavor and taste. There’s also an opportunity to explore other innovations such as fortification, climate-friendly packaging, and improved shelf life of products.  

The 2021 Food Systems Summit is a key moment. We urgently need to expand the menu of game-changing solutions that consider local contexts if we want to achieve food systems transformation. As Agnes Kalibata, the U.N. special envoy for the 2021 Food Systems Summit said: “The Summit will only be effective at setting out the pathway to 2030 if we successfully leverage the collective knowledge and experience of the broadest possible cross-section of the population.”

The staggering impact of food systems on the health of the planet and billions of people, particularly the most vulnerable, will not change otherwise.

Visit the Future of Food Systems series for more coverage on food and nutrition — and importantly, how we can make food fair and healthy for all. You can join the conversation using the hashtag #FoodSystems.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the authors

  • Dr. Sufia Askari

    Dr. Sufia Askari is the director of evidence to policy and practice at the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation, where she leads CIFF’s global health and nutrition portfolio. A public health strategist, she has spent nearly 17 years working in policy, technical support, and research including in India, Bhutan, Australia, Uganda, and North Korea in the areas of maternal, newborn and child health, immunization, nutrition, and food security.
  • Sarah Gibson

    Sarah Gibson is a program officer at the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation. She is a public health nutritionist with program, policy, and research experience in maternal, infant, and young child nutrition in multiple countries. She has an M.Sc. in nutrition for global health from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
  • Anna Hakobyan

    Anna Hakobyan is CIFF’s chief impact officer and oversees evidence generation, monitoring and evaluation of CIFF’s portfolio of investments across all sectors. Before joining CIFF in 2009, Anna led the learning and evaluation function at Y Care International working on programs in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. She holds a master’s degree in international human rights law from the University of Essex and is a Soros Foundation scholar.