Food Systems and Environmental Change: Navigating the Two-way Street

While advances in food production have largely kept pace with demand on a global basis, nearly 1 billion people are hungry, and about 2 billion more lack sufficient nutrients. Paradoxically, more than 2 billion are overweight or obese. Meanwhile, current methods of producing, processing, packaging, transporting, retailing, and consuming food are significantly contributing to degrading the natural resource base upon which our food security depends. Food system outcomes related to both food security and environment are currently significantly suboptimal. A host of research opportunities spanning the whole food system exists to address this situation, balancing the traditional “production” viewpoint with a stronger “consumption” viewpoint.

The ultimate goal is resource-efficient food systems. Intermediate goals are improving input use efficiency (from the production side), and reducing food waste (from the consumption side). Key research areas span technical, institutional and behavioral domains, and the full set of food system stakeholders (policy, business, civil society, and researchers) need to be engaged to ensure research outputs are appropriate and viable.

A food systems approach promotes innovative research and policy agendas by (i) systematically relating the full set of food system activities to their food security and environment outcomes; (ii) raising awareness of the potential unintended consequences of policy and/or practice interventions aimed at enhancing food system outcomes; and (iii) allowing for a systematic analysis of synergies and tradeoffs between potential winning and losing strategies. The foods system approach thereby helps to navigate the food security/environment “two-way street.”

This paper was debated at the ISGP conference Food Safety, Security, and Defense: Focus on Food and the Environment, convened in partnership with Cornell University in October 2014.