Sustainable Food System Transformation: What Needs To Be Done?

by | Jan 25, 2023 | Sustainable Development

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Several imbalances in the food sector are evident, resulting in trade-offs between consumption patterns, livelihoods, the environment, and food supply. The 2021 United Nations Food System Summit (UNFSS) was mainly concerned with these issues such as sustainable food system transformation and what needs to be done.

The Rural Development Report (IFAD 2021), titled “Food System Transformation for Rural Prosperity,” discussed the problems and imbalances within food systems. The International Fund for Agricultural Development published the report in 2021. The 21st-century issues of malnutrition, poverty, global warming, and climate change reflect all the failures in global food systems.

A food system includes all components and practices related to food production, food processing, distribution, preparation, consumption, disposal, and various institutional and market networks for the system governance- they also include the results of these components for public health and livelihoods and the environment.

Food environments play a crucial role in the food system structure. It comprises all infrastructure, private and public institutions, and governance frameworks that guide food quality, availability, accessibility, safety, reliability, affordability, and sustainability. The imbalances in the food system prevent the delivery of desired results for healthy food, nutrition, inclusion, and environmental sustainability. Thus, there is a need for a sustainable food system transformation.

Sustainable Food System Transformation: What Needs To Be Done?


Imbalances Within The System

The current food system has several consequences on health and the environment. It is bankrupting the health systems all around the world. Food systems contribute to approximately 30 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. Natural resources are under extreme pressure- their sustainability and future use are continuously getting compromised. The system isn’t providing the coming generations with enough employment opportunities and livelihoods. Policymakers, authorities, and civil society must pay attention to these issues before they worsen.

Food systems today are able to produce much more food than the previous decades. However, the food is not high quality, resulting in numerous health and nutrition issues. Employment within the system is available, but most jobs are low-paid. Enough revenue tax is not generated- governments spend approximately USD600bn every year subsidizing staple crops. The prices of vegetables are too high for people living below the poverty line. Due to climate change and global warming, prices may increase in the coming years. This will further aggravate the issue of malnutrition.

How To Achieve The Transformation?

Opportunities to transform the food system into a sustainable one mostly depend on the scope for improving agricultural productivity by reducing the gap between the actual yields and the achievable yields and changing land use purpose from a calory-rich activity to a more nutrient-dense activity. Transforming the current food system into a sustainable and resilient one requires drastic changes in all food system elements: production, distribution, consumption, disposal, trade, and governance. The transition would require specific shifts within its system.

Sustainable Food System Transformation


Raising ambitions, achieving food security, and food system resilience

Food security requires much attention and improvement at the local, individual, national, and international levels. Food security can be achieved by improving returns on labor, raising productivity, and strengthening market connections. However, to be able to improve food security, it is also essential to enhance food system resilience.

Producers and consumers should be able to adapt to the sudden and unexpected changes in the environment by building strategies for diets, livelihoods, and markets. A few interventions cannot fix problems such as poverty, malnutrition, climate change, etc., but require a large-scale intervention within the entire food system. Thus, the formation of strategies for supporting food availability, safety, security, and desirability needs to be defined.

Balancing goals of efficient production with environmental sustainability, inclusive livelihoods, and affordable nutrition

Balancing healthy diets with sustainable food production is possible; however, it requires policy guidance. The sustainable food transformation system requires simultaneous improvement in health, nutrition, environmental sustainability, etc. Targeting or achieving only one is not going to transform the system.

Focus on agricultural production alone has led to undesirable and unintended results- it generated around 37 percent of greenhouse gas emissions globally. Similarly, solely focusing on increasing the yields of staple crops may lead to affordable calories for consumers. However, it may not provide sufficient and affordable nutrition required to address the issue of malnutrition.

Improving Connectivity

The transformation can be achieved by connecting rural and urban regions and increasing employment opportunities that will help absorb surplus labor. Investments in medium and small businesses for local storage, processing, and retail will help provide new opportunities for circular resource use and sources of employment.

Tailoring food production to food consumption is highly influenced by interactions between behavior and technology. The infrastructure available for communication and transport offers connections for interregional and local trade between urban and rural regions. New technology and infrastructure can surely help improve the distribution of information, thus ensuring the responsiveness of the food system.

Increasing responsiveness from linear agri-food value chains to circular food systems

Sustainable food system transformations are highly interactive processes that require rapid adaptive capabilities to be able to respond efficiently to sudden unexpected challenges. Food systems have different trends and procedures that need diverse methods for providing healthy, sustainable, and safe diets. Circular-based food systems offer a regeneration approach to food production, distribution, and consumption. Shifting to a circular system based on resource recycling can strengthen responsiveness and efficient resource use.

Anchoring Governance

So far, various innovations and investments in the agricultural sector have mainly focused on interventions to change incentives among producers. The incentives primarily enhance produce and value chain efficiency but hardly ever focus beyond profitability and production concerns. These types of approaches can result in several unintended consequences. Methods for promoting a sustainable and inclusive food system need a proper anchoring of policies, investments, and innovations. Sustainable food system transformation can only be achieved correctly by policy experiments. Relevant stakeholders need to support the innovations for connecting healthy consumption to a sustainable food supply.

Why It Matters?

Sustainable food system transformation is the only way to improve human health. The transformed food system will be able to provide the world’s malnourished people with sustainable and affordable nutritious diets. The system will not only improve public health but will also be safe and healthy for the environment. Considering the increasing rate of environmental degradation and destruction, shifting to a sustainable system will limit the brutal effects of climate change. It is time we pay attention to the food we produce and consume!

Also Read: How To Optimize Your Food Truck’s Electricity Usage


  • Dr. Emily Greenfield

    Dr. Emily Greenfield is a highly accomplished environmentalist with over 30 years of experience in writing, reviewing, and publishing content on various environmental topics. Hailing from the United States, she has dedicated her career to raising awareness about environmental issues and promoting sustainable practices.

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