An overview of food system options
There are many options for sustainable and efficient use of natural resources and reduced environmental impacts in food systems. Much of what you read below will be or has already been covered in more detail in this course. As you read this article, follow along using the diagram below to see where in the system these options generally occur. Important to note: almost all options to intervene in food systems are very context-specific.
Options to increase resource efficiency in primary food production
Sustainable intensification is a strategic objective of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). It involves simultaneously improving the productivity and sustainable management of natural resources. The core idea of sustainable intensification is to make better use of existing resources (e.g. land, water, biodiversity), so as to not undermine the capacity to produce food in the future.
From a biophysical perspective, there are many ways in which crop yields could be increased. These include improving soil fertility (e.g. through integrated nutrient management), adopting improved crop varieties, improving water management (including use of rainwater), and improved pest and weed management (e.g. through biological or integrated pest management).
Points to consider:
Increase feed efficiency of livestock and improve grassland use
Farmed animals consume around 35% of the total crops produced on arable land. In addition, grassland and other forages are being used, as well as large amounts of co-products (such as oil meals) and by-products (such as molasses). An increase in feed efficiency could help reduce demand for feed crops and thus ease pressure on all natural resources needed for crop production (land, minerals and water).
Concrete measures to increase overall feed efficiency include improving feed composition, reducing feed losses, better storage of feed, and improving animal health. “Overall feed efficiency” indicates that it is not only about the individual animal’s performance, but that aspects such as mortality, reproductive performance and longevity are important, too.
Reduction of food losses
A final overarching option at the farm level is the reduction of pre- and post-harvest food losses. Improving crop protection worldwide helps reduce losses to pests, disease and weeds, thereby increasing the input use efficiency of production. Substantial losses also occur post-harvest, i.e. in drying and storage. This represents a vast amount of food, along with the wasted cost and effort of producing it. Food losses can be reduced by better storage techniques (including cooling by natural techniques), on-farm processing, and better transport from rural areas to urban areas.
Options to increase resource efficiency along food systems
Reducing food waste
Reducing waste could have a significant effect on reducing resource use as well as on food availability. Some food “waste” could still be used for human consumption; for example, many grocers will reject fruits and vegetables simply because they fall short of specific standards for size, shape and colour. Food waste (as well as by-products) can also be used as feed and thus converted into high-value products such as meat and dairy. Finally, food waste can also be used for bioenergy or (in the form of compost) as a soil amendment. Recycling food waste can also ensure that the minerals used in their production are not lost, but go back into the soil.
Less resource-intensive (more ‘sustainable’) diets
A shift towards less resource-intensive diets would contribute to a significant reduction in resource use and environmental impacts of food production.
Main components of such a shift are:
Options outside the food system
Reducing the use of biofuels is an option largely beyond current food systems, but as their production requires similar resources as food (land, water and minerals), they should be briefly mentioned here. Biofuel crops (mainly maize, sugarcane and oil seeds) now occupy around 4–5% of the global cropland area. Their production and use is often stimulated by legislation that requires biofuels to be blended into petroleum-based fuels. A lower production of biofuels would in principle make more land available for food production and reduce the need for new cropland.
UNEP (2016). Food Systems and Natural Resources. A Report of the Working Group on Food Systems of the International Resource Panel. Westhoek, H, Ingram J., Van Berkum, S., Özay, L., and Hajer M.
Image Source: “The rice harvest in Nueva Vizcaya, the Philippines” by ILO in Asia and the Pacific / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
© Stockholm Environment Institute