ighting hunger is a central element of the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to build a better world. However, since the goals came into effect in January 2016, the world has actually witnessed an increase in the number of persons suffering from hunger. In many parts of the world, progress towards addressing hunger and malnutrition has stalled primarily due to violent conflicts combined with climate variability with more frequent and intense climate extremes.

According to the 2019 report on “The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World,” the world faces an unacceptably high burden of malnutrition. Over 820 million people do not get enough food to eat, and malnutrition is responsible for more ill health than any other cause. At the same time, obesity has contributed to 4 million deaths globally. The way the world produces, consumes, and wastes food is far from sustainable. The agricultural sector, together with forestry, accounts for 24% of the total greenhouse gas emissions. Producing, processing, and delivering food is resource- and energy-intensive. The UN estimates that each year, a third of the food produced worldwide worth US $1 trillion ends up rotting in waste bins or spoils because of poor transportation or harvesting practices. If the world fails to increase efforts and to implement more targeted measures, it will fall far short of achieving the ambitious SDGs.

Crucial for Developing Food Systems

The food system serves as the basis for the livelihood of billions of people worldwide from the small-scale farmer to the inhabitants of megacities. Food and nutrition security, environmental health and quality, and social well-being represent key outcomes of sustainable food systems. Most issues and challenges addressed by the 17 SDGs; therefore, also play a crucial role in the development of sustainable food systems.

A secure and decent living, including appropriate nutrition year-round, is a fundamental right of a family unit. The small-scale farming household, for example, demonstrates the connections between security and social well-being. Changing climate conditions, decreasing quality of soil resources, and insecure political, legal, and economic circumstances endanger a small-scale farming family’s access to healthy and diverse food. The way a family invests its scarce resources is crucial for developing food systems. Striking the right balance between producing food for sale or for personal consumption and buying food highly depends on available capabilities and resources. It also depends on the ability to invest time in off-farm employment and the possibilities to integrate into existing value chains. Rural farming households are, in one form or another, connected to global developments. Their future depends directly on many of the aspects tackled by the SDGs.  

Further investment in well-adapted practices, new technologies, and innovations along the entire value chain - from the small farms to supermarkets - will facilitate the transition towards sustainable food systems and could bring the 2030 Agenda a big step forward. Switzerland and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN presented their view on investment in a recently renewed framework agreement. The framework places the 2030 Agenda at the center of the Swiss cooperation with the UN in order to intensify cooperation to promote the transformation of food and agriculture.

Engaging a Consumer Approach

The five principles for sustainable food and agriculture proposed by FAO are key for developing more sustainable food systems. Ultimately, achieving many of the SDGs requires the definition of focus areas that allow adapted measures and instruments as well as consider the local context and relevant expertise and knowledge. Accordingly, a food system is only sustainable if all actors involved manage to (i) improve efficiency in the use of resources to increase addition in food systems; (ii) protect and enhance natural resources and ecosystems; (iii) protect and improve livelihoods and foster inclusive economic growth; (iv) enhance the resilience of people, communities, and ecosystems; and (v) adapt governance to address upcoming challenges responsibly and effectively. If the actors in the food system apply these principles as guidelines to identify priorities and design targeted actions, then, from a production perspective, a more sustainable future is possible.

However, one important actor group is not explicitly considered in these principles: consumers. A shift away from a supply-focused approach to a one that includes a consumption perspective is a vital, yet missing element in the FAO principles. Waiting until consumers change their behavior and choose a more sustainable and healthy diet may be a naive approach. A better approach could include incentives for the food industry to improve both the nutrition and environmental footprint of products. Additionally, if governments, together with civil society, supported educational programs it could raise both awareness of the consequences of certain consumption patterns on human and environmental health and spark possible alternatives.

Knowledge + Understanding = Change

Environmental, socio-economic, and current political conditions drive decisions and impact all actors along the entire food value chain. Incorporating multidisciplinary perspectives enables a better understanding of the complexity of the food system and inspires change. By knowing the system, smart solutions can be developed for the way food is produced, processed, and distributed and can even inspire drastic shifts in consumption.

One way that the World Food System Center at ETH Zurich incorporates differing perspectives is by bringing academia, industry, and society together to create real-world solutions. Through solid research and education, the Center seeks to inspire and eventually support the development of participant-led local initiatives like a small-farmers’ cooperative and organic seed company in India; building a data exchange platform in the Ukraine; and creating digital tools to improve climate resilience for farmers in Africa. Scientifically grounded, yet practically-oriented and socially-inclusive, such living examples expand the capacity of next generation leaders as change makers.

By understanding the food system from different perspectives, policy makers, industry professionals, and consumers can identify levers and synergies. A systems approach is complicated but necessary to create solutions to achieve a more sustainable and resilient food system and reach the SDGs.

Martijn Sonnevelt
Dr. Martijn Sonnevelt is an agricultural economist and Executive Director of the World Food System Center at ETH Zurich. He also has faculty position at ETH Zurich and teaches courses on environmental systems and food security.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.