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An infographic showing the 17 UN's Sustainable Development Goals
The UN's Sustainable Development Goals

Challenges in the food sector

The United Nations (UN), an international organisation that brings together its member states to confront common challenges, developed the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. This agenda outlined 17 Sustainable Development Goal’s (SDG’s) which all member states committed to achieving.

The food system is at the core of a number of these SDGs. In particular, the second of the UN’s SDG’s is Zero Hunger – to end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture. However, there are a number of challenges in the food system; and we will require a profound change in the global food and agriculture system if we are to achieve this goal by 2030.

Challenges in the Food System

  • Feeding a growing population

By 2050, global food systems will need to feed and nourish more than 9 billion people in a safe, responsible and sustainable way. Feeding a growing population and achieving food security has been defined as one of the most significant challenges for the next three decades due to the rapid rise in population from 7.7 billion people towards an estimated 9.8 billion by 2050. It has been proposed that global food production will need to increase 50% by 2050 to feed this growing population. As a result there will be an extra 219,000 people to feed each day and we will need to produce more food in the next 50 years than we have ever done! It is important to ensure this growth is achieved responsibly, without jeopardizing the future of our natural resources.

  • Competition for resources

Growing competition and scarcity of land, water and energy for food production and over exploitation of the wild fisheries will affect our ability to produce food. Currently one third of the world population lives in countries where there isn’t enough water or its quality has been compromised. It has been estimated that 220% more water and 43% more crop land will be required by 2050 to meet demands if current dietary trends continue. In parallel, there is an urgent need to reduce the negative effects of food production on the environment.

  • The complexity of the global food chain

Food and drink have become a global industry, with many positive aspects including access, affordability and variety of food on the market. However, the integrity of increasingly complex food supply chains is often compromised. This is because the sourcing and transport of ingredients and products across a range of countries and supply chain players for raw materials, processing and retail creates difficulties for surveillance and increases the number of opportunities for fraudulent activity.

  • Food Consumption

Overconsumption and waste put unnecessary pressure on the food system. Around one in three people suffer some form of malnutrition, i.e. under nutrition (wasting, stunting and underweight); micronutrient deficiency; and overweight, obesity and diet related noncommunicable diseases (such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes and some cancers). In 2016 1.9 billion adults, 340 million children aged 5-19 years old and 41 million under 5 were overweight or obese. At the same time, 462 million adults, 52 million children under 5 years of age were wasted, 17 million were severely wasted and 155 million stunted. Moreover, 1 billion people suffer from ‘hidden hunger’ whereby they are getting enough calories but not enough micronutrients (vitamins and minerals).

  • Climate change

Climate change has been described as one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century. The atmosphere and oceans have warmed, sea levels have risen, there is a strong decline in Arctic sea ice and other climate related changes are evident. Arguably, the most fundamental impact of global climate on the human population is its effect on the food production system.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) prepare and publish reports presenting the latest evidence for the physical science basis of observed global warming. The recent report by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states with high confidence:

Extreme climate and weather events will reduce food production with far reaching influences on crops, livestock, and fisheries and will change the prevalence of crop pests. These impacts on the food system are expected to be widespread, complex graphically and temporally variable and profoundly influenced by socioeconomic conditions

These effects are more severe in poorer countries and result in food crisis such as famine and poverty. The effects of climate change on food production can be categorised into five distinct impacts, including the:

  • Inundation of agriculture land and saline intrusion due to sea level rise
  • Desertification and deforestation due to drought, flood damage and soil erosion
  • Extreme weather events damaging food crops, livestock, and agriculture facilities
  • Reduced plant and livestock growth due to low and high temperatures and unexpected fluctuations
  • Reduced yields and pollinators due to pests and diseases

Moreover, control measures initiated in response to climate change may generate food safety problems due to the novelty of the climate-induced issues (e.g. new pest species) and the unfamiliarity of farmers in dealing with them. It is important for the food chain to understand how climate change will affect the provision of safe food and food safety practices. In parallel food production is a contributor to greenhouse gas emissions so we must strive to produce food with a low carbon footprint and impact on the environment.

The challenges facing the food system are enormous. However, where there are challenges, there are also opportunities. The actions of the industry, government, academia and consumers now will influence the integrity of our food system for future generations. We will explore these opportunities in more detail in the next section of the course.

What we would like you to do

Please share your thoughts on the challenges the food sector faces:

  • What do you think is the main challenge faced by the food system ?
  • Do you think we can produce safe and sustainable food for a growing population?
  • Is there anything you can do as a consumer to ensure this?

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This article is from the free online course:

Panic-Buying During Crisis: How Do Food Supply Chains Cope?

EIT Food