Why we need to transform our food systems urgently

Globally, 25% of children under 5 are stunted. They are stunted because their diet lacks critical vitamins and minerals and because of early exposure to illnesses. As a result, they are too small for their age. They will never reach their full potential, because stunting affects their brain development as well as their height. In South Asia 38% of children under 5 are stunted. Globally, 2 billion people are malnourished while another 2 billion people are overweight and obese. They have an increased risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease. In the United States 36% of adults are obese – although the majority of overweight and obese children in fact live in Asia and Africa. Type 2 diabetes is already exploding in India, as are coronary diseases in China.

Agriculture, on a global scale, is currently providing enough food to feed the seven billion people on the planet, but over half – four billion people – are eating in a way that is not healthy. Providing affordable access to healthy diets – solving malnutrition and obesity – has to join the imperative of providing enough food – solving hunger – as the number one priority for agriculture.

At the same time, agriculture is also the number one cause of planetary ill health. It causes some 30% of all greenhouse gas emissions, and is causing soil erosion on a scale that threatens future food security. Agriculture is the primary user of water in a water scarce world and the primary source of biodiversity loss. We cannot have a stable climate, food, health and water security, or safeguard biodiversity, if we do not transform our agri-food systems while we improve global diets.

So what is the future of agriculture? FAO tells us that the growing world population, with increasing income levels, will demand more food, in particular more meat, which will require a total growth in total food production of 60% by 2050. But while in the past increasing crop productivity was often the dominating concern for agriculture, in the future, far more focus needs to be placed on growing healthy food, on sustainable food systems that protect the environment, and on reducing the loss and waste of food post harvest. This requires major changes to our agri-food systems. And soon. Not impossible, but it’s also not so simple to shift the course of the Titanic when the iceberg is already too close for comfort.

We know we can produce healthier foods to help solve malnutrition. CGIAR’s program on biofortification, for example, has led to increases in vitamin and mineral contents of staple crops from beans, to sweet potatoes to rice. In rural Rwanda, where beans are often eaten twice a day, iron-rich varieties are helping combat deficiencies that lead to stunting and mental impairment. As more countries around the world adopt biofortification as part of a wider strategy to combat micronutrient deficiencies, CGIAR anticipates that more than 1 billion people will be benefitting from biofortified foods by 2030.

We can also help make food safer by reducing the toxic fungus that produces aflatoxin contamination in common foods such as maize or peanuts through a biocontrol product called Aflasafe, developed by CGIAR and USDA. A single application is effective for several years and in several crops. Aflasafe is now rapidly scaling up to reach millions of farmers and helping reduce the ill health caused by aflatoxin exposure that is widespread in poor African households.

We also know what to do to make agriculture more sustainable and to make it “climate smart”. For example, in addition to farm practices, farmers in CGIAR’s climate-smart villages project are also testing climate-smart services, such as tailored weather forecasts to plan planting, harvesting and other activities on the farm. Advisories and weather forecasts are being delivered by mobile phones, and phones are also being used to enable farmers to buy index-based insurance that gives them a measure of protection in the event of extreme weather.

Unfortunately, neither agriculture nor public health experts have yet found an effective solution to either prevent or reduce obesity. Obesity is a disease of poverty, inversely related to income levels, with many poor people living in food deserts. Providing healthy food that is affordable and accessible to all people, not only to those that can afford to shop for, cook and eat fruits and green vegetables, has to be an important contributing factor in the struggle against obesity, for which agriculture can take responsibility.

In the future, agricultural productivity can and must be increased in African farming systems, to provide food, income and employment for the next generation of Africans. This has now become one of the five top priorities of the African Development Bank, championed by its new President, Akin Adesina. At the same time, agriculture everywhere has to pay far more attention to providing climate-smart, healthier food that use natural resources more efficiently. We know how to do that but – critically – we need to develop the will to push far harder to ensure that it happens. This begins with greater increased awareness of the issues at all levels, from consumers to politicians. It will be a tough challenge to figure out how to prevent and reduce obesity, but agri-food systems can make a start with increased focus on making healthier food more affordable and accessible to poor consumers. If this all sounds like a tall order – it is, but we must stand up to the challenge.

Transforming agri-food systems is critical and urgent – we have no choice but to turn the big ship before it is too late. So many lives are at stake, and depend on our action. And, quite simply, we will not achieve sustainable development without it.

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