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A food system fit for the future?

by Marc Van Ameringen, Executive Director, GAIN
Wednesday, 15 October 2014 19:39 GMT

A girl hawks groundnuts arranged on a tray along a road in Nigeria's southwest city of Osogbo, on August 11, 2014.REUTERS/Akintunde Akinleye

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Poverty, climate change, conflict and humanitarian crises add up to enormous challenges for an over-burdened food system

On World Food Day GAIN is celebrating some real successes in tackling poverty and malnutrition. We have a long way to go but hunger is falling, child mortality is at its lowest point in history, the gender gap is narrowing and more children are in education than ever before. The spread of technologies like mobile phones is increasing access to essential services like banking, healthcare and agricultural support even to the most remote communities. For the first time in history we believe that it is possible to eradicate malnutrition in our lifetimes. But to achieve this we need to build a food system that is fit for the future.

Poverty, climate change, conflict and humanitarian crises add up to enormous challenges for an already over-burdened food system. Global trends like urbanisation complicate the picture further, moving people away from traditional, seasonal diets towards a reliance on pre-packaged, processed foods. The UN predicts that two-thirds of the world's population will live in cities by 2050, posing unique infrastructural challenges for Africa and Asia, where 90% of this growth will take place. Urban food systems in many countries are not developing rapidly enough to cope with the challenges of a fast growing population.

There are deep links between feeding the world and caring for the planet. Currently we are failing to do either successfully. We produce enough to feed everyone. Yet 805 million go hungry and 2 billion lack the vital nutrients to be healthy, while 1.4 billion struggle with overweight and obesity. Meanwhile, the way that we produce our food is damaging the planet. The inefficient agricultural system already contributes almost a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions. If trends towards Western diets continue, food production alone will reach, if not exceed, global targets for total greenhouse gases.

With the deadline for the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) just over a year away, now is a crucial time to galvanise efforts to correct the food system. It is encouraging that the UN Open Working Group has put ending hunger, improving nutrition and promoting sustainable agriculture high on the list of the proposed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Nutrition underpins the achievement of all development goals.

As governments take over the process for negotiating the SDGs, GAIN calls on the international community to create a framework that recognises the deep links between food, health and sustainability. Some of the top priorities are:

  • Getting to scale with proven interventions and programmes that can prevent stunting. These include exclusive breastfeeding up to 6 months and alongside, complementary foods from 6 months to at least 2 years of age; and programmes such as the fortification of staple foods with essential nutrients like vitamin A, iron and zinc.
  • Urgent attention to the epidemic of the double-burden of malnutrition. In many poor communities undernutrition exists alongside overweight and obesity, often in the same households. We need adequate regulations that protect consumers, especially children in the developing world, from unhealthy diets that are high in calories and low in micronutrients.
  • Support for farmers to grow, sell and eat more nutritious foods. Farmers in the developing world need extra assistance to deal with the impacts of climate change on crop production, and to adapt to climate-smart practices. Rural communities are among the most malnourished and will be the most severely affected by climate change. We can develop agricultural value chains to sustainably grow and sell more nutritious foods.
  • Encourage more investment from public, private and civil society sectors in a sustainable agriculture and food system that provides everyone with access to an affordable and nutritious diet.

 The food system can only be fixed by a collective global effort that focuses on two imperatives: showing evidence of what works, and driving new partnerships that attract new public and private investment for these solutions. We need clear structures, transparent working arrangements, and strong data and accountability mechanisms to support multi-stakeholder action. We also need a framework for knowledge sharing among countries that are making progress on nutrition and those that are lagging behind.

 With the world population set to reach and then exceed 9 billion by 2050, we need more ambition, more innovation and stronger leadership. Let’s work together to create a food system that feeds the planet and cares for the earth.

 Marc Van Ameringen is the executive director of GAIN, the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, UK.