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Envisioning the Future of Food in Times of Change

Children sit and eat outside in La Paz, Bolivia.

Todd Post from Bread for the World provides guest commentary to explain the future of food in times of change.


This is a guest commentary post from Bread for the World. They envision the future of food in the context of ending hunger, a goal that has defined the organization’s priorities since it was founded 46 years ago. The prevalence of hunger around the world has fallen drastically during this time, more than any period in recorded history, and there can be no doubt historic progress is due in part to exponential increases in food production.

Food systems

Bread for the World applauds the Chicago Council for making food systems the topic of its 2020 Global Food Security Report and the focus of this year’s symposium. Bread for the World Institute will publish its own flagship report on food systems in April. We join a wave of reports and initiatives in recent years on food system transformation. A conversation on the future of food deserves broad interpretation. Kudos again to Chicago Council for promoting a productive dialogue.  

By 2050, the global population is expected to soar to 10 billion. Increases in food productivity will continue to matter. But let’s not exaggerate it as the thing that matters most. The world already produces more than enough to feed everyone. People go hungry mainly because they are too poor to afford the food they need. Most of the world’s additional inhabitants in the coming decades will be living in countries that struggle with high levels of extreme poverty. 

The food system itself keeps many people in poverty. Let us train our attention on how people who are hungry earn their living. In low- and middle-income countries, smallholder farm households account for the largest share of the population living in extreme poverty. Most people who produce, pack, process, and serve the food consumed around the world do not earn enough to meet basic dietary needs. These are among the lowest paying jobs in any country. In the United States, the food system is the largest sector of employment among the working poor. 

The Sustainable Development Goals, which include a zero-hunger goal, flicker as a beacon of hope. There is a depressing lack of urgency in meeting the SDG deadline of 2030. While ending hunger remains within reach, it isn’t getting any easier. The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World, published annually by the UN food and agriculture agencies, reports the global hunger rate edging up every year since 2015, reaching 822 million by 2018. In 2021, the United Nations will convene a Food Systems Summit, and we should demand strengthened resolve to achieve the zero-hunger goal. 

Climate change is implicated in the recent reversal in progress against hunger; therefore, so are food systems. Food systems are responsible for one-third of greenhouse gas emissions. Most of the carbon dioxide emissions in agriculture come from soil management. Beef cattle release methane, one of the most potent of all greenhouse gases. Agricultural policies should be promoting environmental stewardship at least as much as increasing the sector’s productive capacity. 

The climate footprints of food systems are not the same. Meat is rich in protein and provides essential micronutrients that are lacking in billions of people’s diets. High-income countries on average consume more than enough animal protein than is needed for health. For people in low-income countries, where meat consumption is very low among the poor, there are clear advantages to increasing consumption levels. 

We’ve known for some time the harmful effects of chemical inputs used in industrial agriculture. Silent Spring appeared in 1962, leading to widespread public concern about pesticide use. The book focused on DDT, a commonly used pesticide at the time, and eventually the substance was banned. But that hardly put an end to problems associated with intensive use of pesticides or other chemicals. The organic matter in soil is essential part of the biodiversity in food systems. Intensive use of chemical inputs depletes soils of nutrients. Healthy soils are not only crucial to sequestering carbon but also providing seeds with more nutrients and making the foods we eat more nutritious. 

Climate change has pushed countless species to the edge of extinction. No one knows for sure how the magnitude of biodiversity loss abetted by the climate crisis will affect food systems over the long term. Fires and drought linked to climate change are a direct threat to plant and animal habitat. The bushfires in Australia reportedly have killed upwards of a billion animals. Conservation International defines a biodiversity hotspot as a place with a high percentage of endangered plant and animal life found nowhere else on the planet. Most of California is considered a biodiversity hotspot: the state supplies one-half of all agricultural products consumed in the United States each year. 

The SDGs call for ending hunger and all forms of malnutrition. Healthy diets include a diversity of nutrient-rich foods. Feeding people should never be simply putting calories in them. More than two billion people have diets lacking in essential vitamins and minerals. Hidden hunger, a term used to describe this condition, very often is unnoticeable until it is too late to reverse. Iron, zinc and vitamin A are among the most essential for good health. Iron-deficiency anemia increases the risk of women dying in child birth, and vitamin A and zinc deficits impede children’s physiological and cognitive development. 

High-income countries can fortify foods during processing to add nutrients. Not all countries have this capacity or the ability to reach scale. Processed foods that are imported are much less likely to be the healthier varieties. Transnational food companies are much more proficient at delivering calories than nutrients. The biggest return on investment in the food industry comes from ultra-processed products engineered to increase consumption. Foods full of sugar, sodium, and saturated fat are reshaping diets everywhere, and often displacing local producers of traditional foods higher in nutrition. Overweight and obesity are a global pandemic, driving up rates of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and certain cancers. The spread of diet-related chronic diseases, now the leading risk factor in premature death, is directly linked to food systems. 

I do not intend to end this essay to bashing the private sector. The private sector has long been a partner in ending hunger. There are purpose-driven companies having positive impacts on food systems. It is not up to them to convince their peers. Ending hunger requires political will. Look at any country in the world that has been successful in reducing hunger. Invariably, policies have been the juggernaut of progress. It was governments who signed onto the SDGs, although it is legitimate to wonder if the SDGs would even exist without civil society advocating for them. Should this decade prove to be a turning point in history and herald the end of hunger, it will be due to a critical mass of actors in government, private sector, and civil society who were committed to making it happen.