Addressing the world's food systems and how they affect the planet's health

The empty grocery shelves and miles-long food bank queues we have seen during the COVID-19 pandemic have underscored the fragility of the highly centralized, “just-in-time” global food supply chain on which we all depend.

Food produced through the overuse of chemicals, monoculture cropping systems and intensive animal farming on land and at sea degrades natural resources faster than they can regenerate and causes over a third of all human-made greenhouse gas emissions. Crucially, this flawed system fails to feed the world efficiently, with billions of people chronically under- or overnourished.

“The global financial system is facing rather extraordinary new pressures to become more sustainable,” Ann Florini, clinical professor at the Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University, said during a recent event. “Not only financially stable, but also and simultaneously, environmentally friendly and socially inclusive. All of this is happening in the context of the increasingly obvious need to be thinking about whole systems, not tweaking little pieces. The global energy system, the global food system, all the systems that make civilization possible. Because it is becoming apparent that the current arrangements of all of these systems are not compatible with what humanity needs and what the planet can allow.”

Florini moderated a discussion to explore the economic and financial policies needed to make food systems healthy for people and the planet and to preserve the future of food security. The "Food Systems at a Crossroads" event, which was co-sponsored by ASU and the George Washington University, was a part of Thunderbird’s ongoing Finance and Sustainability webinar series.

“The food system is complex,” said Nicoletta Batini, lead evaluator of the International Monetary Fund’s independent evaluation office and editor of the new book “The Economics of Sustainable Food.

“We need to act on many solutions to address this system," she said. "That includes changes to diet, eliminating food waste, improvements to agriculture practices, resilience and efficiency, and technologies that make low-carbon food alternatives scalable and affordable.”

Batini explained that agriculture, forestry and land use cause about one-fifth of the greenhouse gas emissions that we worry about with regard to climate change. While this might not seem significant, emissions from food systems as a whole have increased from 26% to 34% from 2018 to 2021. And Batini said that even if we ceased burning all fossil fuels tomorrow, food systems alone would still cause serious climate-related problems.

“Emissions are not the only problem with the food system,” said Batini. “Right now, the food system is the greatest scavenger of all of life’s essential natural resources that we have. Most of the soil on Earth is degraded or very degraded. Fresh water is being depleted at a rate that I cannot even quantify. Ecosystems are being destroyed. There is an estimate that says by 2048 there will be no more fish in the oceans, and by the end of the century there will be no more rainforests at this pace. Air has greater and greater concentrations of ammonia.”

There are four policy action areas that are essential to fixing these issues: food demand, food supply, food waste and conservation. This comprehensive “food system redressing” can actually reverse the planetary imbalances of our systems, event participants said — but biggest impact on food demand would be found by more people moving toward a plant-based diet.

“What we have found, even in the United States, is that per-capita meat consumption just keeps going up,” said Bruce Friedrich, co-founder and executive director of the Good Food Institute. “In the United States, 2019 was the highest per-capita meat consumption in recorded history. Even in the United States, where we are more aware of these issues than probably any other place in the rest of the world, it seems like simply educating people is not working.”

Friedrich said that meat-based diets cause more harmful emissions and incentivize monocropping, which leads to soil desertification.

“The solution is that we definitely need to educate people,” said Friedrich. “But the solution doesn’t seem to be trying to convince people to eat less meat. That has been tried for decades, and it’s a good thing to do, but it’s probably not going to work at the macro level. At GFI, we think the solution is to make meat better.” 

Friedrich suggested continuing to improve plant-based “meat,” making it indistinguishable from animal-based meat. 

“The world is on fire,” he said. “And this is how we put it out.”

Top photo courtesy of pixabay.com