Small-scale farmers in Tanzania are receiving support to improve food security in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic.

United Nations Environment Program (Nairobi)

Since the Green Revolution of the 1950s, agricultural innovations, like synthetic fertilizers, chemical pesticides and high-yield cereal crops, have created an abundance of low-cost food. That has helped to feed a fast-growing world and, in many places, usher in an era of economic prosperity.

But humanity’s food systems often emphasize quantity over quality, giving rise to a host of health and environmental concerns, say experts. With the landmark United Nations Food Systems Summit set for later this month, here are 9 things to know about the global food system.

The global food system is not quite the bargain it seems.

The low retail cost of industrialized food can obscure its very high environmental price tag. According to some estimates, conventional agriculture – which produces greenhouse gas emissions, pollutes air and water, and destroys wildlife – costs the environment the about $3 trillion every year. Externalized costs, such as the funds required to purify contaminated drinking water or to treat diseases related to poor nutrition, are also unaccounted for by the industry, meaning that communities and tax payers may be picking up the tab without realizing it.

The global food system can facilitate the spread of viruses from animals to humans.

While their genetic diversity provides animals with natural disease resistance, intensive livestock farming can produce genetic similarities within flocks and herds. This makes animals more susceptible to pathogens and, when they are kept in close proximity, viruses can then spread easily among them. Intensive livestock farming can also serve as a bridge for pathogens, allowing them to jump from wild animals to farm animals and then to humans.

The global food system has been linked to zoonotic diseases.

Clearing forests to make space for agriculture and moving farms nearer to urban centres can destroy the natural buffers that protect humans from viruses circulating among wildlife. According to a United Nations Environment Programme assessment, climate change and the rising demand for animal protein are also affecting the emergence of what are known as zoonotic diseases – pathogens that can jump from animals to people and vice versa.

The global food system fosters antimicrobial resistance.

In addition to preventing and treating disease, antimicrobials are commonly used to accelerate livestock growth. Over time, microorganisms develop resistance, making antimicrobials less effective as medicine. In fact, about 700,000 people die of resistant infections every year. By 2050, those diseases may cause more deaths than cancer. According to the World Health Organization, antimicrobial resistance “threatens the achievements of modern medicine” and may precipitate “a post-antibiotic era, in which common infections and minor injuries can kill.”

The global food system’s use of pesticides may be sickening people.

Large volumes of chemical fertilizers and pesticides are used to increase agricultural yields and humans may be exposed to these potentially-toxic pesticides through the food they consume, resulting in adverse health effects. Some pesticides have been proven to act as endocrine disruptors, potentially affecting reproductive functions, increasing the incidence of breast cancer, causing abnormal growth patterns and developmental delays in children, and altering immune function.

The global food system contaminates water and soil and affects human health.

Agriculture plays a major role in pollution, releasing large volumes of manure, chemicals, antibiotics, and growth hormones into water sources. This poses risks to both aquatic ecosystems and human health. In fact, agriculture’s most common chemical contaminant , nitrate, can cause “blue baby syndrome”, which can kill infants.

The global food system has been blamed for epidemics of obesity and chronic disease.

Industrial agriculture produces mainly commodity crops, which are then used in a wide variety of inexpensive, calorie-dense and widely available foods. Consequently, 60 per cent of all dietary energy is derived from just three cereal crops – rice, maize and wheat.

Although it has effectively lowered the proportion of people suffering from hunger, this calorie-based approach fails to meet nutritional recommendations, such as those for the consumption of fruits, vegetables and pulses. The popularity of processed, packaged and prepared foods has increased in almost all communities. Worldwide, obesity is also on the rise and many suffer from preventable diseases often related to diet, like heart disease, stroke, diabetes and some cancers.

The global food system is an inefficient use of land.

In spite of an insufficient global supply of pulses, fruits and vegetables, livestock farming is ever more ubiquitous, perpetuating a self-sustaining cycle of supply and demand. Between 1970 and 2011, livestock increased from 7.3 billion to 24.2 billion units worldwide, with about 60 per cent of all agricultural land used for grazing. Meanwhile, while there may be fewer people in the world who are undernourished, there are many more people who are now malnourished.

The global food system entrenches inequality.

Although small farms make up 72 per cent of all farms, they occupy just 8 per cent of all agricultural land. In contrast, large farms – which account for only 1 per cent of the world’s farms – occupy 65 per cent of agricultural land. This gives large farms disproportionate control, and there is little incentive to develop technologies that could benefit resource-poor small-hold farmers, including those in developing countries.

At the other end of the food supply chain, food that is affordable to the poor may be energy-dense but is often nutrient poor. Micronutrient deficiencies may impair cognitive development, lower resistance to disease, increase risks during childbirth and, ultimately, affect economic productivity. The poor are effectively disadvantaged both as producers and consumers.

Envisaging a global transformation, UN Secretary-General, António Guterres will convene the UN Food Systems Summit in September 2021. Supporting the transition toward food systems that provide net positive impacts on nutrition, the environment and livelihoods, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is a contributor to the One Planet Network Sustainable Food Systems Programme, leading the development of a guideline for collaborative policymaking and improved governance; and a member of the Transformative Partnership Platform, informing donors and policy makers and fostering innovation. UNEP is also the custodian of the food waste element of Sustainable Development Goal 12.3, committing member states to halve their per capita food waste at the consumer retail level; and has developed the Food Waste Index a common methodology for countries to measure and report food waste and track their progress towards the goal.

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