A field of beautiful wheat

A Short Introduction to the Global Food System

What is it?

The Global Food System includes the production, processing, transport, and consumption of the food required to feed our growing population. We are now at 8 billion people with a forecast of over 10 billion by 2100.

In the words of the World Bank “The world’s food system, which millions of people around the world rely on for nourishment, jobs and economic opportunities, is no longer fit for purpose.”

Another report shows that “A radical transformation of the global food system is urgently needed. Without action, the world risks failing to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Agreement, (to keep average global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees C) and today’s children will inherit a planet that has been severely degraded and where much of the population will increasingly suffer from malnutrition and preventable disease.”

Sounds pretty drastic! Which it is. This is an enormous system, or series of systems, that has evolved out of each government’s need to feed their populations but which is now causing us considerable challenges.

However, there are also many possibilities of doing much better: reducing our carbon emissions, producing more food that is healthier and tastier, and vastly reducing our destruction of the biodiversity that we rely on and that brings beauty to our world.

Why do we need to transform our food system?

Wherever we look there are reasons why it is not working. Let’s look here at agricultural production and biodiversity loss. These are probably the major challenges with the food system and its ability to feed the world.

The Amazon Rain Forest

A lush tropical jungle

The Amazon, this wonderfully biodiverse rainforest, is now seriously threatened by deforestation created through raising beef cattle and also by Climate Change. It has up till now acted as a “sink” to soak carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, but it is in serious danger of losing that ability. The present-day forest is an example of the damage farming on an industrial scale can do to our world.

Our modern methods of industrial farming are causing about a fifth of our annual global emissions of greenhouse gases. Our change of land use, for example through deforestation, and the degradation of land caused by bad farming practices, exacerbated by Climate Change adds a similar amount. Clearly there is a huge potential here for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Industrial Farming

This is destroying our soil, degrading our land, poisoning our waters with chemical agricultural run-off, contributing hugely to biodiversity loss and is major cause of ill-health in the developed world.

We also need to change our factory rearing of animals. This contributes to loss of biodiversity from land-use changes, injects huge amounts of methane (a potent greenhouse gas) from cattle into the atmosphere and is morally unacceptable because of our ill-treatment of those animals.

A recent report by the United Nations Environment Programme has said that we need to reform our food systems as a matter of urgency and that we must:

  • Change our global dietary patterns to a more plant-based diet.
  • Protect biodiversity and put land aside for nature.
  • Farm in a more nature friendly way – i.e. with less artificial inputs and more land-friendly practices.

Biodiversity Loss

In another major threat to humanity we are driving nature to destruction with our lifestyles. Already one quarter of all species is under threat of extinction. See this report and also my more detailed blog.

We have greatly reduced genetic diversity in food sources, such as cereals. This is leading to vastly reduced resilience to threats from pests, pathogens, and extreme weather events. In other words if those existing food sources are destroyed for whatever reason our food supplies become very vulnerable. We need to be planting a much wider variety of food crops.

Biodiversity loss does not just mean things like the loss of the humble hedgehog (much as I miss them in my garden). It means a huge threat to our global food supplies.

Loss of bees and other pollinating insects already means some farmers are having to hand pollinate their fruit trees.

When we poison our rivers and seas with agricultural run-off we also kill off marine life which we could potentially eat. The death of corals due to overheating of the oceans means the fish nurseries they protect will no longer produce shoals of adult fish to be available as protein sources for millions of people.

The overuse of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides is ruining the fertility of our soil by killing off all the wonderfully diverse creatures that live there and that are responsible for nourishing and protecting the plants that will become our food.

Other biodiversity loss could mean the loss of clean water and clean air through clearing the trees and plants that help provide them. We seem oblivious to the bounty that nature offers us with these plants.

Massive tree-felling can Lead to Drought

Degraded land caused by drought

Climate Change

The Food System and Climate Change is a vicious circle. The warming climate and the related extreme weather are a serious threat to food production. As the atmosphere warms, beyond a certain point crop productivity drops, which threatens our ability to feed populations. However, the food system itself contributes about one quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions due to the use of fossil fuels for transport and the production of fertilisers. Methane from cows also contributes, and of course there is a huge contribution from the change of land use and deforestation.

So clearly, looking at simply the challenges we face from industrial farming, loss of biodiversity and also Climate Change there are some fundamental changes that need to be made.

There are as always, things we can do to make a difference.

What Can We Do?

Probably the most important change we can make is to cut down the amount of meat (in particular beef) that we eat. You don’t have to become a vegetarian or vegan, although it would really make a difference if lots of us did.

You can buy from local farmers. That helps them: even if they are not organic they will look after their food better and use less pesticides. Talk to stallholders in your local market (if you have one) and find someone that does what you would like. Organic, if you can afford it, is of course better as it cuts down on the amounts of pesticides being used and is thus much healthier.

Organic farming also avoids chemicals from artificial fertilizers being washed off the fields and into the rivers where they can encourage the growth of green algae. These cause dead zones in rivers and seas where nothing can grow due to lack of oxygen.

We can eat less fish and only eat sustainably caught fish. The less we eat the more the fish stocks can recover.

We shouldn’t buy wooden furniture unless the wood has been sustainably grown.

You can fund reputable organisations to grow trees or replant mangrove swamps. Trees stabilise the land and encourage water to return. They also extract carbon dioxide from the air. Mangrove swamps also act as carbon sinks.

Buying locally grown food saves on transport emissions and probably ensures the food is healthier when you eat it. Eating seasonal food is great too.

I hope to cover waste in my next blog but obviously cutting down on food waste helps.

Using supermarkets as little as possible is great if you can manage it as they have some very dubious food practices.

There really are lots of things we can do, most of them just common sense. But do get your cookery books out and start working on the beans and lentils to replace the beef!

To subscribe to my blog, please use the form on the Home page.

(Photographs above are all on Unsplash: 1. by Polina Rytova, 2. by Chris Abney, 3. by Oleksandr Sushko