The world is in a ‘race against time’ to ensure it can sustainably feed a ballooning population. Can the UN’s new roadmap help achieve it? And what happens if it can’t?
Last month, as leaders and delegates from across the globe gathered in Dubai for COP28, United Nations secretary-general António Guterres delivered a stark warning: “We are in a race against time,” he said. It was the day before the UN’s climate conference was due to wrap, and Guterres has never been one to mince his words. “Our planet is minutes to midnight for the 1.5°C limit. And the clock keeps ticking.”
The alarm rang for those in the food and farming industry. They were under increased scrutiny this time around, as global food systems took centre stage at COP for the first time ever.
The UN’s Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO) agency was tasked with rolling out a global roadmap that set detailed goals for the food industry to remain within 1.5°C while feeding a growing population.
So what’s in the roadmap? And with the world’s population likely to grow by a billion people to nine billion over the next two decades, according to a new HSBC study, and total food consumption likely to rise by more than 50% by 2050, is food security just wishful thinking? Or can the new roadmap lead the way?
According to a study by WWF and Tesco, 2.5 billion tonnes of food is wasted every year across the world. And as of 2023, roughly 10% (783 million) of the global population doesn’t get enough food [HSBC]. “The question isn’t whether we’re able to produce food for that many people – that we can,” says HSBC global economist and author of its Future of Food report, James Pomeroy, “but whether we can do it sustainably and whilst abiding by 2050 net zero goals.”
The industry will likely adapt depending on where demand is coming from – and for which goods. Consumption is expected to grow at different rates across different regions, so while the trend in developed economies like the EU and the US points to a slowdown in consumption of animal protein, dairy and sugars, the opposite will take place in booming economies like China, India and many countries in Africa (see graph, p51).
These regions will also see a growing middle class with higher incomes, Pomeroy says, meaning people will be spending more on goods previously considered a luxury, such as meat and confectionery. Meanwhile, consumption of oils, dairy and pulses is rising quicker than cereals and sugars, likely because of shifts in wealth but also due to greater focus on healthier diets in developed economies, according to HSBC.
It’s not difficult to imagine the strain such demand will put on supply chains and, more crucially, the environment. Food and agriculture are responsible for nearly a third of all greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, they are two of the sectors more vulnerable to climate change. The industry needs to become smarter and more efficient, argues David Laborde, director of the FAO’s Agrifood Economics Division.
Laborde spearheaded the FAO’s new food systems roadmap, which looks at global food and farming systems from a holistic, integrated perspective, targeting all areas from the way we farm to how food is transported and disposed of.
“Today, we’re not even using the land we have in an optimal manner, so the goal is not to go for more land but to better use the land we have,” he says, citing intercropping, soil optimisation, production diversity and applying regenerative agriculture practices.
These are just some of the recommendations in the FAO’s long-term strategy. There is also a focus on technology development and greater automation across agriculture to bolster farmers’ chances of withstanding the effects of global warming in decades to come, including better irrigation technologies in drought-prone regions and using AI to improve land use.
But the problem is that “in many parts of the world where there’s more agricultural production, such as sub-Saharan Africa and south east Asia, people aren’t able to drop these technologies in quickly and effectively”, Pomeroy points out. “It’s unlikely we’ll see heavily automated farming across those regions in the next five to 10 years.”
This is a common criticism of the roadmap. Nusa Urbanic, CEO of the Changing Markets Foundation, says the FAO tried to “square the circle by relying on unproven techno-fixes to reduce the environmental impacts of livestock production”.
The agency also came under fire for stopping short of recommending a reduction in meat and dairy consumption. As to taxing those goods – a measure rumoured to be in Henry Dimbleby’s UK National Food Strategy paper, but which also didn’t make the final cut – that seems like a distant-future possibility at best.
Pomeroy says he “wouldn’t rule it out at some point in the next 20 years”, but even if those policies became a reality in the UK and Europe, they would “have no bearing whatsoever on global demand story for meat”.
Laborde is well aware that for the FAO’s 2050 plan to work, it will require “extraordinary co-operation” between the public and private sector as well as “significant political commitments” across the globe, especially in wealthier nations.
“Food security can absolutely be achieved in a sustainable way,” he maintains, as long as “we spend more money in our agrifood systems to make sure the incentives are right”. He argues that it’s the duty of net importer countries, such as the UK, to invest in their supply chains, particularly in poorer countries.
And he’s not just referring to agritech investments. “On the one hand we need technology, but we also need to tackle this question of inequalities,” he says, referring to a concept known in the UN as ‘just transition’ or ‘leave no one behind’. This is the idea that global supply chains are so interconnected we all share collective responsibility for one another – something the FAO intertwines heavily in its modelling.
“If we’re seeing there are more problems coming from one end [of the supply chain],” he says, “it can’t just be the law of the jungle, where the strongest will prevail.”
Geopolitics and disruption
However holistic the FAO’s plans to transform global food systems may be, geopolitical events can play a huge role in reshaping entire sections of the supply chain and thus affect food security. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine completely changed energy and agrifoods markets as well as trade relationships, making everyday staples such as petrol and bread more expensive for consumers across Europe. Meanwhile, the current disruption in the Red Sea places about 12% of the world’s goods under threat, with significant effects on availability and inflation, but more importantly on international relations and trade.
And this is without even mentioning Brexit. Countries like the UK that depend on the current ‘just in time’ international trade system for most of their food are far more exposed to unexpected events, warns Professor Aled Jones, who leads the Global Sustainability Institute at Anglia Ruskin University. Last year, Jones and fellow academics conducted research on the potential impacts of severe food insecurity on trade and communities, following the months-long fruit & veg shortages driven by extreme weather across the Mediterranean and Northern Africa – from where Britain gets nearly half its fresh produce.
“At the moment the UK does seem to think: ‘We’ll just be able to buy internationally from somewhere,’” Jones says, “but trade isn’t always going to be a source of resilience – we need to think a bit wider than that… There are regions where, if drought happens or there are particular tensions, you can see these pinch points of trade being switched off, and that kind of supply chain disruption has a huge impact on price.”
It’s likely that big sourcing countries in Africa and Latin America will have more bilateral agreements with booming nations that have growing populations, such as China and India, he warns, with the EU and the UK unable to compete with such skyrocketing demand. There is a chance Britain could increase its domestic production to improve self-sufficiency, but Jones notes “we will also be hit by extreme climate events” such as the major floods of recent weeks. “So, we do need to play nicely internationally and try to encourage the rest of the world to develop a more resilient system.”
This is something lawmakers are finally taking seriously. At the Global Food Security Summit in November, Rishi Sunak unveiled a new white paper setting out how Britain will work in partnership with climate-vulnerable countries to tackle hunger, extreme poverty and global warming. The PM pledged to provide up to £100m in humanitarian funding to countries worst hit by food insecurity, including Ethiopia, Afghanistan and South Sudan, as well as to countries affected by extreme climate effects, such as Malawi.
Allowing food systems to reach breaking point should be treated with utmost seriousness by governments, Jones warns, as it could also lead to major civil unrest. “You don’t need empty shelves for very long before people go out and protest,” he says. “They see the supply chain breaking down and it’s not always clear how, or how quickly, it will get repaired.”
Food riots are certainly not a new concept. Food insecurity, generally linked to political instability, extreme weather events and/or a lack of support for agriculture, has been the catalyst for many protests over the years. Recent examples include the 2010s Arab Spring revolutions, which were linked to increasing food prices, and Indian farmers’ year-long protests in 2021, which heavily disrupted global supply chains.
In a hypothetical worst-case scenario, Britain could see similar levels of unrest, Jones argues: “There’s this feeling the UK is slower to protest than other countries, but we’ve actually seen lots of food and climate-related protests in the UK.”
Additionally, these events don’t happen in a vacuum, Jones points out. People would “see decades of use of food banks and massive inequality as a sort of background to this – they won’t feel like the system is standing up for them”.
Indeed, the political landscape will determine much of the response from the public to any potential threats to food supply. Jones has worked with the Foreign Office to risk-map different longer-term scenarios based on the direction of world politics and how that will influence public mood. They found riots were “much more likely” to end in violence in an environment of growing polarisation and alienation – say, if Donald Trump won the next presidency in the US at the same time as the far-right movement continued to pick up across Europe.
This is because those types of leaders tend “to blame some other part of the system or other people” to shift the narrative away from policymaking, Jones says. “When the people think the problem in the food system is because there’s too many immigrants, for instance, that becomes their attack rather than the fact [leaders] didn’t put a food security policy in place 20 years ago like we needed.”
He warns that “the kind of language we’re getting out of certain parts of the current UK government doesn’t help build resilience into any system”. The Conservative government has also backtracked on a series of health and environmental policies that have been dubbed ‘nanny state’ by some more right-wing backbenchers, including HFSS restrictions and DRS plans, all of which will help delay net zero goals and contribute to long-term volatility in food supply chains.
Remembering what is at stake
While this all feels rather doomsday-ish, it’s by constantly remembering what’s at stake that both industry and consumers can avoid the worst-case scenario. HSBC’s Pomeroy reiterates this can be done not only by investing in technology and addressing unsustainable agricultural practices, but also by shifting diets away from animal protein and towards plant proteins. Plus, crucially, slashing food waste.
On those fronts, the public is fortunately “waking up to what science has known for a long time”, says Tim Lang, professor of food policy at London’s City University. Lang says that, traditionally, businesses and governments have needed ‘shocks’ to actually change. For example, increasing and often devastating climate events, or civil discontent and unrest. Nonetheless, he remains optimistic because “more people at the top of the food industries are now seeing the enormity of the challenge that’s coming”. That “gives me hope”, he says.
Jones agrees there are positive signs but feels there’s still a way to go. “The simple answer is that not enough is being done,” he says. “There are some really senior people within governments, the UN, the FAO and others that do really take this seriously. And it’s that global systems view of food that’s needed now.”
FAO’s global food systems roadmap – key targets
- Chronic hunger eliminated. Reduce by 50% per capita global food waste at retail and consumer levels.
- Achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all.
- Gross GHG emissions of agrifood systems cut by 25%, with methane emissions from the livestock sector reduced by 25% compared to 2020. All farmers and ranchers have access to globally recognised solutions to monitor their GHG emissions.
- 100% of fisheries under effective management and all illegal, unreported and unregulated activities phased out.
- All countries have updated their food-based dietary guidelines to provide recommendations on dietary patterns, as well as legislation restricting food advertisements targeting children.
- Zero gross-deforestation is achieved globally. Agrifood systems are CO2 neutral, only other GHG are net emitters.
- At least 75% growth in global sustainable aquaculture production compared to 2020 level.
- N2O emissions of agrifood are halved compared to 2020.
- Gender productivity between female- and male-managed farms of the same size is halved compared with 2020.
- Agrifood systems are a net carbon-sink.
- Total factor productivity for livestock has grown at 1.7% per year globally. Total factor productivity for crops has grown by 2.3% per year for low-income countries.
- All food loss and waste are integrated in a circular bioeconomy and used for feed, soil enhancement or bioenergy production.