A major overhaul of the global food system is urgently needed if the world is to combat hunger, use natural resources more efficiently and stem environmental damage, the International Resource Panel (IRP) says. In its latest report, the IRP – a consortium of 34 internationally renowned scientists, over 30 national governments and other groups hosted by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) – calls for a switch to a “resource-smart” food system that changes the way food is grown, harvested, processed, traded, transported, stored, sold and consumed.
Current food systems, which the IRP says are “inefficient” and “unsustainable”, are responsible for 60 per cent of global terrestrial biodiversity loss and about 24 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. They are also responsible for the overfishing of 29 per cent of commercial fish populations and the overexploitation of 20 per cent of the world’s aquifers.
Although food production has increased across the world, more than 800 million people remain hungry, more than two billion suffer from micronutrient deficiencies – mainly vitamin A, iodine, iron and zinc – and more than two billion people are overweight or obese, the report notes. Compounding the problem, pressure on natural resources is expected to rise as populations grow and demand for food increases.
To combat these problems, the IRP says a “resource-smart” food system should be adopted, a system that adheres to three principles: low environmental impacts, the sustainable use of renewable resources and the efficient use of all resources.
UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner said, “We have the knowledge and the tools at our disposal to feed all the people in the world while minimizing harm to the environment. A better, more sustainable food system can allow us to produce and consume food without the detrimental effects on our natural resources. The environment is not the only beneficiary of this system. More sustainable consumption and production of food will also be a boon to human health and the goal to end hunger throughout the world.”
To help the world shifts to a more sustainable food system, the IRP has come up with a list of 12 key recommendations for governments, private companies, civil society and citizens. Among them are:
Reduce food loss and waste.
Move away from resource-intensive products such as meat, ’empty calories’ and highly processed food.
Connect rural and urban centres, especially in developing regions, where urban actors (e.g. supermarkets) could invest in regional supply chains and improve the position of smallholders.
Connect urban consumers with how their food is produced and how it reaches their plates, and inform them about both the health and environmental consequences of dietary choices.
Protect peri-urban zones around cities and use them for local food production.
Decouple food production from resource use and environmental impacts, and replace certain inputs (such as pesticides) with ecosystem services.
The IRP report also recommends removing harmful subsidies, such as fossil fuel subsidies, that encourage unsustainable production and practices.
Compounding current problems, rising wealth in developing countries will lead people to adopt diets that are richer in resource-intensive products – meat, fish, fruits, vegetables and highly processed foods – at a time when climate change will make producing food increasingly difficult.
As per-capita income rises, people’s diets change from one that is largely rich in carbohydrates to a diet richer in calories, sugars, and lipids, with more livestock-based products. In combination with an increasingly sedentary lifestyle, this has led to a sharp increase in obesity, the report states.
It blames the high consumption of animal-based products and highly processed foods for triggering “disproportionate environmental costs” while undermining public health due to obesity related disease.
Globally, chicken meat and dairy consumption are expected to increase by 20 per cent over the next 10 years while the consumption of pig meat and beef is also projected to increase, both by around 14 per cent, according to data reviewed in the IRP report.
A combination of the various options listed in the IRP report, at different points of intervention and by diverse actors throughout the system, could lead to resource efficiency gains of up to 30 per cent for certain resources and impacts.
Some of these options include:
‘Sustainable intensification’ of crop production – higher yields without increasing environmental impacts
Better feed conversion and higher productivity of pastoral systems
Higher nutrient efficiency along the food chain – better recycling of minerals in animal manure and use of by-products or food waste as feed or compost
More efficient aquaculture systems – lower nutrient losses and less impact on coastal systems
Reduction of overconsumption and change of unhealthy dietary patterns – shift in affluent societies from animal-based to more plant-based diets
“If the above changes are not made, land degradation, the depletion of aquifers and fish stocks and contamination of the environment will lower future food production capacity,” the report warns. “It will undermine the food systems upon which our food security depends, as well as cause further degradation of other ecosystem functions.”
NOTE TO EDITORS
Preview copies of the report can be downloaded Here.
About the IRP
The International Resource Panel assesses the latest scientific, technical and socio-economic findings on global resource use to provide science-based advice for policy-makers, industry and the global community on ways to improve global and local resource management. The Panel works to steer the world away from overconsumption, waste and ecological harm to a more prosperous and sustainable future.
UNEP, established in 1972, is the voice for the environment within the United Nations system. UNEP acts as a catalyst, advocate, educator and facilitator to promote the wise use and sustainable development of the global environment. UNEP work encompasses: assessing global, regional and national environmental conditions and trends, developing international and national environmental instruments and strengthening institutions for the wise management of the environment.
The United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) is the world’s most powerful decision-making body on the environment, responsible for tackling some of the most critical issues of our time. The assembly holds the power to dramatically change the fate of the planet and improve the lives of everyone, impacting everything from health to national security, from the plastic in our oceans to the trafficking of wildlife. Thanks to UNEA, the environment is now considered one of the world’s most pressing concerns alongside other major global issues such as peace, security, finance and health.
This year, hundreds of key decision makers, businesses and representatives of intergovernmental organizations and civil society will in May gather at UNEA-2, taking place at the United Nations Environment Programme headquarters in Nairobi, for one of the first major meetings since the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Climate Agreement. The resolutions passed at UNEA-2 will set the stage for early action on implementation of the 2030 Agenda, and drive the world towards a better future, more-just future. UNEA-2 is also inclusive, with myunea.org allowing citizens to feed their concerns into the meeting and take personal ownership of the collective challenges we face. http://web.unep.org/unea.