Extra efforts needed to achieve a sustainable food system

25-05-2016 | News item

If we really want a sustainable food system then we need an integrated approach with a focus on protecting natural resources. This will involve going beyond the current range of individual measures and initiatives generated by governments and parties such as supermarkets, restaurants and the food industry. It is vital that we manage our natural resources (such as land, water and minerals) sustainably and efficiently, if we are to ensure that there is enough food for everyone, both now and in the future. Right now, this is often not the case.

This is one of the conclusions of a report by the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) International Resource Panel, entitled ‘Food Systems and Natural Resources’, to which the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (PBL) has made a significant contribution. The report was presented today, at the second United Nations Environment Assembly meeting in Kenya. 

Large areas of land are currently being managed unsustainably, and food production is associated with numerous environmental problems, such as loss of biodiversity and greenhouse gas emissions. Rising prosperity and a global population that is projected to reach more than 9 billion by 2050 are placing increasing pressure on natural resources. These resources are needed to provide food for future generations.

Global development goals

Sustainable food systems are a central feature of the global sustainable development agenda for 2030, with the overarching goal of eradicating global poverty and hunger, while promoting prosperity and health.

If we want to ensure that, in the future, everyone will have access to sufficient amounts of safe and healthy food, then these natural resources must be managed sustainably and used efficiently. This is not happening at the moment. Soils are often not being sustainably managed, while the seas and oceans are being heavily overfished.

Only 15% to 20% of all of the nitrogen and phosphorus used in agriculture, in the form of artificial fertilizers, actually ends up on consumer’s plates. Most of the rest ends up in water and in the soil, which leads to problems such as water pollution. In addition, global food production is also responsible for about 24% of greenhouse gas emissions.

Food waste

There are many ways in which natural resources could be managed more efficiently and sustainably. On the production side, these include effective soil management, increased crop production (without an increased environmental impact) and closing the mineral cycles. This will require substantial investment in agriculture, education and infrastructure, especially in developing countries.

On the consumption side, it is about reducing food waste, preventing over-consumption and achieving a better balance between the consumption of plant and animal products. Changes in consumption can also help to improve people’s health.

Integrated approach to the food problem

While many of these individual measures are not new, the report demonstrates the importance of an integrated approach. To date, global policy in Western countries and in developing countries has often focused directly on farmers and fishermen. These very farmers and fishermen are often well aware of how the situation could be improved, but they lack the financial means to achieve this. Parties such as supermarkets, restaurants and the food industry occupy a very strong position between consumers and food producers.

This means that they are well placed to make a significant contribution to the more sustainable and efficient use of natural resources, as has occasionally happened in the Netherlands. National governments and local authorities can also do a lot, ranging from effective legislation and environmental impact pricing, to education and information provision that target healthy and sustainable food choices.