By overhauling the global food system with investments in innovation and creating a new framework, we can tackle hunger and unleash economic opportunities at the same time
The world is not on track to eliminate hunger and malnutrition. Even before the devastating impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on people everywhere, undernourishment was on the rise. During 2020, more than 2.3 billion people (or 30% of the global population) lacked year-round access to adequate food, a one-year increase that was as much as the preceding five years combined. Even more people (3 billion) cannot afford a healthy diet. Food systems, despite being the main source of employment for poor people, have failed to ensure their food and nutrition security and livelihoods, and have left a large environmental footprint on a warming planet.
The United Nations Food Systems Summit offered world leaders a unique opportunity to showcase their commitments to achieving sustainable, resilient and health-driven food systems. It was the result of impressive efforts on behalf of development, community, business and research leaders to clearly communicate that transforming food systems, which comprise nearly 20% of the global economy, have the potential to unleash vast economic opportunities for the world’s poor, while averting devastating costs to human and planetary health. If the goal was to project this message on to the world stage, then the summit succeeded. But in response to concerns about the inclusivity of the process, it should not be seen as a singular event but rather as a launching pad for globally concerted action for change.
G20 agriculture ministers have taken note. In their latest communiqué from September 2021, they recognise the need for transformative change. But words are not enough. We need concrete action and strong leadership. G20 leaders should make food system transformation a central priority. They should lead by example and take decisive action on three fronts:
Catalyse investments in research and innovation. Although there has been enormous scientific progress, much more investment in both technological and institutional food-system innovation is needed. Agricultural productivity growth has slowed in recent decades, both because of climate change and because funding for new research and development has lagged. The investment gap for R&D in sustainable agricultural intensification has been estimated at $15 billion per year. Filling this gap will have enormous payoffs. Impact assessments of CGIAR research estimate that the rate of return is at least $10 to each dollar spent on CGIAR research. This includes not just the research on high-yielding varieties, but also our research on sustainable production and resource management and policy analysis.
Repurpose public support to food and agriculture. G20 countries spend almost all of the $720 billion that is allocated globally every year on support to farmers and food production. This support has good intentions, but it is not providing the right incentives for sustainable production and consumption decisions. Less than 3% of that massive support is for agricultural innovation and knowledge systems. Doubling the spending for R&D to fill the R&D investment gap would still be a small share but would generate enormous benefits. Existing support should also be repurposed to create greater incentives for producers to adopt sustainable practices and for consumers to make healthy dietary choices. Studies by the International Food Policy Research Institute for the UN Food Systems Summit and the G20 show that this can be a game-changing solution to achieve the food system transformation we want.
Provide a framework for coordination. Reorienting policies is obviously a choice for national governments to make. But the choices by one country also have implications for those available to other countries. More importantly, the UN Food Systems Summit and COP26 stand for the achievement of common and global goals. This requires concerted action. The G20 could help provide the framework for such coordinated action.
Sometimes shocks are needed to overcome entrenched obstacles. The shock of the COVID-19 pandemic has brought about profound innovations in e-commerce and technology, showing that rapid and innovative change is possible, and that the ways in which food systems currently operate are malleable. By investing in R&D, repurposing agricultural support, and using the global events of 2021 and beyond to coordinate action, G20 leaders can treat widespread food insecurity, malnutrition and poverty as the shocks that they truly are, and transform food systems now to meet the Sustainable Development Goals.