Building sustainable food systems
G20 Summit

Building sustainable food systems

Today, one in nine people (795 million) are undernourished, with the vast majority of the world’s hungry people living in developing countries. What are the main issues behind global food insecurity?

We have made progress in the fight against hunger. Since 1990-92, over 216 million people have been rescued from a life of hunger and 72 countries have reached the Millennium Development Goals on hunger of halving the hungry share of the population. But 795 million is an unacceptably high number of people that lack the food they need to lead healthy and active lives.

There are many reasons behind hunger–food insecurity and malnutrition are the result of a complex interplay of factors:

Poverty: poor people cannot afford to buy food and meet the nutritional needs of themselves and their families. Extreme poverty and hunger deprive people of the most valuable resource they own: the energy and skills to work productively. And this can result in poverty traps with the hungry being weak and unhealthy and unable to earn money to escape poverty and hunger.

Conflict and civil unrest: hunger can be the direct result of war and political instability. Conflict disrupts livelihoods and forces people, especially women and children, to leave their homes and farms. Often, their land is taken. This results in deterioration of food production, the disruption of trade and also increasing unemployment. Both availability and access to food are significantly undermined. Famine caused by conflict and drought in Somalia between 2010 and 2012 resulted in the deaths of more than 250,000 people.

Natural disasters: when natural disasters strike, they have direct and indirect effects on food security. Drought, flooding and storm damage can result in significant losses of crops, livestock production, infrastructure and buildings, disrupting the livelihoods and food security of millions of people. Between 2003 and 2013, natural disasters in the developing world affected more than 1.9 billion people. In countries that are frequently exposed to natural hazards, uncertainty weakens the incentives to invest in agriculture, resulting in lower current and future incomes.

Low agricultural productivity: in developing countries, where most of the poor live in rural areas, farmers achieve yields that are only 10-30% of potential yields – the yields they would achieve if they had access to inputs and technology. Low productivity growth (together with increasing population) affects both the availability of food and incomes.

One of the FAO’s strategic objectives is to enable inclusive and efficient agricultural and food systems. What are the associated challenges, and are G20 governments doing enough to achieve this target?

Globalisation, freer trade and commercialisation have changed the way food is produced, distributed and consumed. Agricultural and food systems are characterised by increasingly integrated supply chains and have become more science and capital-intensive based. Increasing incomes and urbanisation have strengthened the demand for more and a higher level of processed products and food safety, nutrition and health require greater attention.

Smallholder farmers in many developing countries can easily be excluded from such global, complex and diverse value chains. It is important that actions and investments in food systems promote the production of healthy and safe food, improve efficiency, increase the participation of small farmers and business, ensure the responsible and productive use of natural resources, and increase incomes.

The G20 has contributed towards overcoming these challenges, but more can be done. It has committed to increase efforts to promote responsible investment in agriculture and food systems that lead to higher productivity, inclusive growth, poverty reduction and improved food security and nutrition. The G20 should translate this commitment into action.

The Meeting of G20 Agricultural Chief Scientists (MACS), launched in 2012 with the goal of identifying global research priorities and targets and facilitating collaboration between the public and private sectors, is also an important action. The Chief Agricultural Scientists are in a position to coordinate the G20 efforts on agricultural innovations and advise on research needs. The Tropical Agricultural Platform, a G20 initiative led by FAO, aims to promote agricultural innovation and capacity development in the least developed countries, more than 90% of which are located at least partly within the tropics.

At the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals Summit in September, global powers adopted the post-2015 development agenda. Among the 17 goals is SDG 2: end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture. In your view, what needs to be done between now and 2030 to reach this goal?

We can end poverty and hunger by 2030. Sustained political commitment at the highest level, with food security and nutrition as top priorities, is a prerequisite for hunger eradication. We will need a new approach that combines public investment in social protection with public and private efforts to raise investment levels in agriculture.

Both investments that can promote productivity sustainably and social protection mechanisms that enable the poorest of the poor to overcome poverty and hunger will be crucial.

Farmers themselves are the largest investors in agriculture and rural areas. Their on-farm investment is more than three times as large as all other sources of investment combined. Policies that make it easier for them to obtain finance will have a critical impact on agricultural growth.

Public investment in infrastructure in rural areas, in particular, transportation, soil and water conservation, irrigation systems, electrification warehouses, storage facilities and information technologies, allow smallholders to connect to markets and help increase productivity and incomes. Often, infrastructure and road development are ranked among the top two sources of overall agricultural growth, second to research and development (R&D) investments.

In developing countries, the dollar-for-dollar impact of R&D investments on the value of agricultural production is generally within the range of 6-12% across countries. Those countries that have heavily invested in R&D while simultaneously investing in extension and supporting infrastructure have had the strongest productivity growth.

These efforts need to go hand in hand with investments in social protection interventions. Social protection can help the poor to escape poverty traps and enter into a virtuous cycle of higher productivity and income generation. Social protection programmes promote food security, health, nutrition and educational status, particularly of women and children. Integrating nutrition objectives into safety net programmes can accelerate progress in reducing undernutrition and raising productivity. Social protection is about investing in human capital and livelihoods. But social protection mechanisms (such as, for example, cash transfers) can also influence the productive capacity of farmers (in particular women) that are subject to limited access to financial services for investment and risk mitigation.

G20 agriculture ministers have committed to minimise food waste. With a rising global population, is this a realistic target?

Globally, about one third of the volume of food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted each year. Rough estimates suggest that the cost for producing food that is wasted amounts to $750 billion each year. A reduction of food loss and waste (FLW) to zero would provide additional food to feed 2 billion people. FLW also has negative environmental impacts. Huge amounts of water, land, energy and other natural resources are used to produce food that no one consumes.

It is possible to minimise FLW. Sustainable Development Goal 12.3 sets a target of halving per capita food waste by 2030. Food loss and waste are heavily dependent upon the specific conditions in a given country. The causes of food waste in medium- and high-income countries relate mainly to consumer behaviour and to retail and distribution practices and standards. In low-income countries, food losses are the result of a lack of storage and cooling facilities, poor transportation infrastructure and inefficient marketing systems.

We need to raise awareness; invest in research on policy, strategy and programme development for food loss and waste reduction; and support the piloting and implementation of food loss reduction strategies by the private and public sectors. For example, in high-income countries, better packaging has a role to play. In low-income countries, low-cost, innovative technologies and other measures can help to reduce post-harvest losses, estimated in some cases to represent up to 40% of production.

At this year’s G20 summit, supporting food security in the developing world is being given particular attention, with the focus on sustainable food systems and improving productivity in smallholder farms. In addition, Turkey will be the first G20 presidency to implement the Food Security and Nutrition Framework. Is there more that the group could do in this area?

Food security and nutrition are closely linked to economic growth and job creation, and the G20 economies are not only major players in the global food system, but also have unique strengths as a coordinating forum, involving the emerging and advanced countries at the highest level to add value to efforts for food security and nutrition.

This year, under the Turkish Presidency, the G20 put forward a number of actions to implement the G20 Food Security and Nutrition Framework–a broad conceptual structure for G20 actions on food security.

A concrete deliverable towards the implementation of the G20 Framework is the establishment of the G20 Technical Platform on the Measurement and Reduction of Food Loss and Waste. By creating global partnerships and building on the knowledge and expertise of G20 members and international organisations, this platform can provide impetus on global actions to reduce food loss and waste, benefiting low-income countries and contributing to the achievement of global goals.

The G20’s engagement in agriculture and food security should continue to focus on systemic issues to help shape the international environment so that it is conducive to growth and development, thereby fostering food security. G20 collective action is an important vehicle for the delivery of global public goods. The G20 Technical Platform on the Measurement and Reduction of Food Loss and Waste, the Agricultural Market Information System, the Tropical Agricultural Platform, the Platform of Agricultural Risk Management, AgResults and the Meeting of Agricultural Chief Scientists are all mechanisms that aim to close gaps in different aspects of the international food security architecture.

There are key actions that are listed in the Implementation Plan of the G20 Food Security and Nutrition Framework that have to be realised. These include practical mechanisms to promote responsible investment in agriculture and food systems that originate in G20 countries; fostering productivity growth in agriculture; and supporting human resource development, particularly the empowerment of rural women and rural youth.