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What Challenges in the Food System Are We Facing?

The food system is at the centre of a number of the UN's Sustainable Development Goal's. However, there are a number of challenges we need to overcome
The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal's
© Wikipedia

By 2050, global food systems will need to feed and nourish more than 9 billion people in a safe, responsible and sustainable way.

What is Food Security and Food Integrity

At the World Food Summit (WFS) in 1996 a target was set to eradicate hunger in all countries, with an immediate view of reducing the number of undernourished people to half their present level no later than 2015. The international community accepted this overall target and strove to work towards Food Security.

Food Security exists when all people, at all times have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life
More recently, 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, Zero Hunger – to end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.
Now in 2020, we are striving to achieve a global food system that is not only safe, accessible and nutritious, but also, that our food is authentic, sustainable and ethical. To reflect this, Professor Christopher Elliott from Queens University, Belfast has taken the 1996 definition of food security and adapted it to what he thinks we need to concentrate on going forward:
Food Integrity exists when all people, at all times, have access to food which is safe, authentic and nutritious. The systems used to produce the food are sustainable, ethical, respect the environment and protect the human rights of all workers.
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

The integrity and security of food is of increasing concern due to a number of challenges which exist within our food system. These include:
  • A growing population
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. By 2050, global food systems will need to feed and nourish more than 9 billion people in a safe, responsible and sustainable way. 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 before! 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 agriculture and food production on the environment. For example, forests are cut down to make way for agricultural land, which destroys ecosystems, reduces biodiversity, and increases greenhouse gases and global warming.
  • 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 food 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 were malnourished and 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. 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.

Please have a look at our course on food production in a changing environment in the See Also section below if you are interested to find out more about how climate change can impact food production

Food Technology

It is evident the challenges facing the 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. In particular, science and technology have a role in developing new solutions to replace unsustainable food production methods; to help achieve food quality, safety and authenticity; and to connect consumers with the food system. Increasingly, extenisve data enable technologies are becoming more accessible and affordable, driving a revolution in how the food system operates.

Let’s have a look at these technologies in more detail and see how they can help us achieve the sustainable development goals and feed a growing population without jeopardising the future of our natrual resources and the integrity of food.

What we would like you to do

At the opening of the Belfast’s Summit on Global Food Integrity in May 2018, Professor Chris Elliott showcased these challenges in a short video. Please watch the video and think about the topic of food integrity:

You might want to share your thoughts on the following questions:

  • Did you realise the food system was facing the challenges listed?
  • What opportunities do you think exist to ensure the integrity of our food system for future generations?
  • Is there anything you can do as a consumer to ensure we can continue to produce safe and sustainable food for a growing population?
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Revolutionising the Food Chain with Technology

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