Pathways Leading to a More Sustainable and Healthy Global Food System

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Blaine O’Neill

What follows is a hypothetical executive summary from an imagined Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report on the state of the world’s food systems, written from the perspective of the 2050s. 

 

Executive Summary: FAO State of World Agriculture in 2050 Draft Report 

 

While significant challenges still remain, this FAO report presents evidence that the international food system of the second half of the 21st century is more sustainable than the food system of the late 20th or early 21st centuries. In particular, United Nations data illustrate that today more people are being fed on less land and that agriculture is requiring fewer inputs. For instance, despite there being 10 billion people on the planet, today agriculture requires 438 million hectares* less land than it did in 2015, yet produces more adequate nutrition for all.

 

[*Authors’ note: This figure was arrived at by assuming that: (1) agricultural production shifts away from the current over production of cereals, oils, and sugars, thus saving land from farming, but increases the amount of fruit and vegetables to ensure that we produce nine servings of fruit and vegetable / person / day; (2) the world population reaches 10 billion by 2050, as per one of the UN’s medium population scenarios; (3) agricultural yields increase an average of one percent / year between now and 2050. This yield increase is based on the past 30 years of yield data that show an approximate two percent / year increase but also accounts for possible problems caused by climate change that suggests a one percent / decade decline; (4) protein consumption shifts from today where 86 percent of global protein (measured in dietary servings) come from animals and 14 percent comes from plants such as legumes, to a situation where protein consumption is split between 50 percent animal and 50 percent plant-based proteins.  Please contact the authors for references etc. pertaining to these calculations.]

 

In part, technological developments have helped achieve this milestone and the application of big data analytics to farming systems in the 2010s and 2020s brought about a new agricultural revolution that was as significant for the early 21st century as the Green Revolution was in the 20th century. Although technological advancement provided numerous benefits in terms of boosting production while minimizing inputs, the impact of these tools was probably less than the effect that a change in consumer demand, linked with a change in policy, had on the nature of food and farming systems.

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Blaine O’Neill
A hydroponic vertical gardening plot growing produce in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

For instance, the 2010s were marked by a systemic overproduction of cereals and starches, oils and fats, and sugars. This meant that although there were enough calories (and UN estimates from the early 21st century suggest that there were close to 3,000 dietary calories per person per day on the planet) these calories were disproportionately cereals, fats, and sugars. By contrast, food systems only produced one third of the fruits and vegetables needed for everyone to enjoy a nutritious diet.

 

This mismatch between the nutritional requirements of the global human population and the agricultural production of the global food system had at least two major implications.  First, the overproduction of fats, cereals, and sugars underpinned the rising tide of obesity and Type 2 diabetes that was so prevalent in the early 21st century.  The second implication was that significant amounts of land were being used to produce agricultural products that were undermining human health, thus imposing both environmental and public health sector costs. The conclusion that many scholars from the time drew was that if agriculture were to shift away from sugars, fats, and cereals and rather prioritized fruits and vegetables, then agriculture’s footprint would shrink.

 

Luckily for humanity, starting in 2020, things shifted. Today, food and farming systems produce better food, on less land, and for more people. The specific drivers of this change have been debated by academics and policymakers around the world ever since. In particular, five core factors seem to have been at work.

 

Consumer Education

 

Much like it took a generation for education around the public health impacts of smoking to take effect, by the late 2020s there was an observable shift by middle class consumers around the world towards diets that were better for overall health. In part this was stimulated by a global initiative to promote better food literacy (including cooking skills) amongst middle class urban children as well as a global agreement by the industry to eliminate the marketing of unhealthy foods to children. These policies aimed at enhancing consumer education helped cause the demand for fruit and vegetables to rise faster than anticipated. Producers responded to this rising demand by shifting cultivation away from cereals, sugars, and oils replacing these lands with new areas devoted to fruits and vegetables. This shift in demand was amplified by the industry, as it developed and marketed new food products based on fruits and vegetables. Additionally, food literacy and cooking skills had an impact on reducing food waste at the household level.

 

Policies Aimed at Increasing the Cost of Unhealthy Food

 

The global food literacy program referred to in the previous paragraph was itself funded by a combination of industry and public funds set up following a landmark US Supreme Court ruling from 2022 that declared the industry, in part, responsible for fueling the public health crisis associated with rising obesity, Type 2 diabetes, and other chronic public health problems associated with diets. This ruling, in combination with a fear of similar rulings from other G8 nations, led to an unprecedented global agreement between industry and nation-states under the auspices of the World Health Organization. After over 10 years of negotiation, the World Health Organization was able to bring about a global “junk food tax,” severe restrictions on marketing, and the dedication of funds to promote food literacy. Overall, these policies had the effect of increasing the cost of unhealthy food, and the industry responded through research and innovation that marketed healthier food products as alternatives.

 

Policies Geared at Capturing the Hidden Environmental Costs Associated with Farming

 

The initiatives described above were further reinforced by two key environmental initiatives. The first of these was a comprehensive price on carbon executed through the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Early in the 21st century, agriculture had been responsible for approximately 25 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. By setting up a global carbon market, low-input farming became more competitive, and this in particular favored perennial farming systems such as berries, tree fruits, nuts, and low carbon emission protein sources such as legumes.

 

Policy also affected the livestock industry through restrictions on antibiotic use. One of the key public health problems of the early 21st century was the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Livestock production, which in the 2010s used approximately 75 percent of all antibiotics worldwide, was one of the causes of this problem. Starting in the late 2010s, governments around the world increasingly restricted the use of antibiotics in livestock as a way of reducing the speed at which antibiotic-resistant bacteria spread. These policies had the effect of raising the costs associated with animal-based proteins. Much like the price on carbon created an opportunity for low-emission proteins to enter the market, restrictions on antibiotic use created an opportunity for non-animal-based proteins to become established in the minds of the consumer.

 

A Reduction in the American Corn Subsidy

Liz West
Agricultural producers of 2050 respond to higher demand for fruits and vegetables by shifting cultivation back to fruits and vegetables, like this red pepper.

The effect of the first three initiatives described in this report was to either raise awareness or costs associated with unhealthy food. At the same time, a comprehensive reform to the US Farm Bill resulted in a long-term decline in the extent to which the US government subsidized domestic corn production. Reforms to the Farm Bill began during the Barack Obama administration in the 2010s and continued throughout the 2020s. In the end, these policy changes caused prices to rise for livestock feed and products like high fructose corn syrup and cornstarch—both major components of processed foods. On its own, the reduction in the US corn subsidy would probably not have been sufficient to shift consumer demand away from conventional livestock and sugary foods. However, in conjunction with the already mentioned initiatives—and in combination with new food products that featured low input and low antibiotic production methods entering the market—a momentum emerged that swung consumers away from dietary patterns that were conventional at the turn-of-the-century and towards a food and farming system that used less animal protein and occupied a smaller amount of land.

 

Enhanced Storage and Processing Facilities in the Developing World

 

While the majority of the policies described above changed the relative prices and demand for healthy diets amongst middle class and urban consumers, concurrent strategies were also affecting the ability of poor rural consumers in the Global South to obtain more healthy diets. In particular, development interventions as well as economic growth meant increasing investments in food storage and processing facilities across Asia, Latin America, and Africa. This meant a significant reduction in postharvest losses, an increase in the ability of farmers to store their food long enough to bring it to market, and an economic opportunity to diversify farms away from a narrow focus on cereal production.

 

Conclusion

 

While disagreement exists on the relative strength of the aforementioned drivers, a broad consensus has emerged in the literature. In particular, there is undeniable evidence that the food and farming systems of the early 21st century overproduced cereals, oils, and sugars and under-produced fruits and vegetables. Hence, there was a mismatch between what the world needed for everyone to enjoy a nutritious diet and what the world was actually producing. Shifting this scenario towards a system that ensured farmers produced the right kinds of food for balanced nutrition resulted in more healthy food being produced on less land. This shift itself required a combination of the following: (1) economic incentives for healthy food, (2) financial penalties and restrictions on marketing unhealthy food, (3) policies designed to protect the environment and public health (and in particular restrictions on antibiotic use in livestock combined with a global carbon price mechanism), (4) better infrastructure for food processing and storage in poor parts of the world, and (5) innovations made by food processors that resulted in food products that made use of lower input ingredients and, in particular, lower input and non-animal-based proteins.