Archimedes was an ancient Greek thinker, and he taught us that if we lean on the right levers, we can move the world. In the fight towards sustainable food systems, there are 3 key levers we can lean on: environmental impact, food production, and finally, how food effects our growing and changing society.
Over the past four decades, there has been a significant increase in global food production. Thanks to the global food system and free trade agreements, food prices in nearly all major markets are at a historical low, allowing individuals to have access to a wider variety of foods. Canadians can buy pineapples, mangos and other tropical fruits and can export their canola, wheat and beef to areas where these products are lacking. Due to the competitive nature of the market, the global food system encourages high yields and efficiency from farmers. This results in large scale farming, technological innovations, animal and plant domestication and even pressured the decrease of communication and transport costs to further globalize the food system. These increases in productivity has resulted in the global food market to produce enough product to feed every individual on the planet however, distribution still needs improvements.
The global food system fails to effectively carry out its primary function – to provide adequate nutrition for all people. Roughly one in nine people in the world are food-insecure with insecurity continually growing worldwide. Amongst the extreme poor, one in three children are stunted from proper development due to lack of food availability and one in ten die before the age of 5. Shaping food systems to deliver improved nutrition and health required a combination of improved knowledge, policies, regulations and investments all three levers of food system sustainability. Furthermore, countries need to tailor a combination of interventions to suit their specific needs and different combinations of actions are needed across low- middle- and high- income countries.
The challenge of feeding a population of >9 billion people is daunting, and with arable land and clean water resources already limiting, how we approach this task will determine our race’s fate a century from now. The rapid depletion of key natural resources further compounds the difficulties in achieving a sustainable food system. To address these challenges, the food system must substantially increase output while simultaneously reducing its negative environmental impact. After energy production, food production is the second highest contributor to atmosphere green-house gases, with nearly 1/5th generated by livestock production.
Sustainability challenges occur throughout all stages of the food system from production through processing, distribution and retailing to consumption and waste disposal. As food production continues to increase, the concern from greenhouse gases grows to encompass its impact on soil, water and biodiversity. Moreover, the environmental effects of food production are intertwined with the 3 levers: economic, health and social demands.