A Sweeping New Assessment Of World Food Systems Paints A Dire Picture

By Jemima McEvoy Thursday, October 8, 2020

It’s been over a decade since the last comprehensive assessment of the world’s food systems — processes that are integral to the wellbeing of the human race and the planet at large. Recently, a group of 40 international experts published a groundbreaking new book taking stock of how the direction of food production has changed and will continue to change, with a particular emphasis on the impacts of the coronavirus crisis.

These experts are members of the United Nations’ World Agriculture Report. Many were involved in the 2009 seminal text, “International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development,” whose central message to the world was, “Business, as usual, is not an option” in food production anymore. Since then, the situation has changed drastically. Here are the key takeaways from a vital assessment of today’s food production systems and what has been achieved since 2009.

Problems Have Gotten Worse

One of the book’s key takeaways is that problems have worsened over the past decade due to a slew of societal factors.

“Global warming has accelerated, biodiversity is decreasing at a breath-taking speed and we face a serious food crisis — hunger and malnutrition are on the rise again while ever-increasing numbers of people are suffering from obesity,” reads a summary from several of the book’s authors.

The reason for this is that while our theoretical understanding of subjects like global warming and biodiversity has increased, only small steps have been made to address these problems on the ground. The policy is still lacking and patchy in most countries.

Take the United States, for example. The West Coast is having its worst fire season in history. Millions of acres of land in California has been burned by dozens of fires that are still largely out of control after weeks of blazes. Meanwhile, the Southwest suffers from persistent droughts. Internationally, Europe and Africa have suffered from record flooding over the past year, and Greenland, known for its snowy terrain, has seen unprecedented heat waves.

All of this is indicative of how climate change has escalated. The world is, in the words of The New York Times, “dangerously close” to irreversible change. Global biodiversity has already been impacted, which has mounted problems within food systems, such as scarcity and the exhausting of natural resources.

The Coronavirus Pandemic Isn’t Helping

The coronavirus pandemic has had countless run-off impacts outside of its health implications. One is further — and sustained — damage to the food production and distribution chain.

According to this book, the pandemic is “dramatically accelerating corporate concentration in global food and agricultural input and trade industries and its impacts on farmers and rural livelihoods.” Thus, coronavirus has further driven dominance to big businesses, which often prioritize mass output over sustainable production — a larger contributor to the exacerbation of global warming.

Furthermore, the text’s authors suggest “these outbreaks … are more than bad luck,” and that the coronavirus pandemic may in fact relate to changes in production or land use associated with intensive agriculture, which if proven, could have large-scale implications for the future of intensive agriculture.

Digitalization and Mounting Pressure Pose Positive Solutions

Though the authors paint the situation as dire — the earth is nearing the point of no return — there are some hopeful developments that we should push for and support if we want food systems to recover.

Technical revelations, such as the relatively new and burgeoning process of digitalization, could support the development of agroecology, farming that “centers on food production that makes the best use of nature’s goods and services while not damaging these resources,” the book explains. Protecting the world’s remaining natural resources and developing production processes that don’t make irreversible changes are key.

In addition to presenting multiple strategies that would enable a transition toward more diversified agroecological systems, a core signal of positive movement, per the book, is the world’s heightened understanding of the problems it faces, which is a relatively new development. Knowing what we need to solve and how we can solve it will make it a lot easier to accomplish. The next step is getting it done.

“The answers still differ, but, unlike a decade ago, there is now agreement on the questions that need to be answered: How to stop global warming and the biodiversity crisis and adapt to the planetary boundaries? How can we transform our food systems so they can become just and sustainable?” reads the summary. “As business, as usual, is not an option, the need to find new ways of doing just and sustainable business along the food chain is more urgent than ever.”

About the Author


Headshot of Jemima McEvoy

Jemima is a journalist who enjoys reporting on business, particularly small business and entrepreneurship.

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