World’s food system must be transformed for health of people and planet, study finds
Combine harvester in a wheat field in northeastern Colorado | Danny Wood/AP

According to a new global policy report — The Economics of the Food System Transformation by the Food System Economics Commission (FSEC) — how food is produced and consumed worldwide is leading to environmental damage and health impacts that add up to about 12 percent of the world’s annual gross domestic product.

The researchers found that a global transformation of food systems could help achieve worldwide climate targetsprevent 174 million early deaths, and result in $5 trillion to $10 trillion in economic benefits, reported AFP.

“Our food systems — the way we produce, market, and consume food — are part of the political, social, economic, ecological, and cultural fabric of our communities,” the report said. “The recent evolution of food systems has fueled – and continues to inflame – some of the greatest and gravest challenges facing humanity, notably persistent hunger, undernutrition, the obesity epidemic, loss of biodiversity, environmental damage, and climate change. The economic value of this human suffering and planetary harm is well above 10 trillion USD a year, more than food systems contribute to global GDP. In short, our food systems are destroying more value than they create.”

FSEC is a joint initiative of The Food and Land Use Coalition, EAT, and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), which is the report’s lead research partner. The commission brought together a consortium of experts on climate change economics, nutrition, health, natural resources, and agriculture to develop a comprehensive economic model of two possible future trajectories for the planet’s food system: the “Current Trends” path and the “Food System Transformation” path, a press release from nonprofit EAT Forum said.

The world’s population has doubled since the 1970s, and food production has had to make changes to keep up. However, the report discovered that intensive food production creates an ever-increasing burden on humans and the planet, AFP said.

“We have an amazing food system,” said Vera Songwe, an economist with the Brookings Institution’s Africa Growth Initiative who is also part of the FSEC, as AFP reported. “But it has done that with a lot of cost to the environment, to people’s health, and to the future and to our economics.”

The total underappreciated costs generated by food systems each year are as much as $15 trillion, including roughly $11 trillion in productivity loss from illnesses caused by food such as hypertension, diabetes, and cancer.

An estimated $3 trillion in environmental costs come from current food production and agricultural land use practices, which make up a third of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to scientists.

The study’s authors warned we are currently on course for our food systems alone to push global heating past the 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming scientists have said will lead to the worst effects of climate change.

The experts said temperatures could heat up to as much as 2.7 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial average by 2100. Meanwhile, food production would be progressively affected by the climate crisis.

They added that implementing better policies would reduce chronic diseases and deaths caused by diet, as well as transform food systems into a means of carbon sequestration.

“In the Food System Transformation pathway, economists model that by 2050 better policies and practices could lead to undernutrition being eradicated, and cumulatively 174 million lives saved from premature death due to diet-related chronic disease. Food systems could become net carbon sinks by 2040, helping to limit global warming to below 1.5 degrees by the end of the century, protecting an additional 1.4 billion hectares of land, almost halving nitrogen surplus from agriculture, and reversing biodiversity loss. Furthermore, 400 million farm workers across the globe could enjoy a sufficient income,” the press release said.

Johan Rockström, PIK director and principal of FSEC, cautioned against not acting to fix the food system since inaction alone could cause Earth to breach 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming.

“The costs of inaction to transform the broken food system will probably exceed the estimates in this assessment, given that the world continues to rapidly move along an extremely dangerous path whereby it is likely to not only breach the 1.5°C limit but also face decades of overshoot, before potentially coming back to 1.5°C by the end of this century,” Rockström said in the press release.

Rockström added that phasing out fossil fuels, turning food systems into a carbon sink rather than a producer of greenhouse gases, and preserving the natural world would be the only path back to 1.5 degrees Celsius once we overshoot it.

“The global food system thereby holds the future of humanity on Earth in its hand,” Rockström said.

This article was reposted from Ecowatch.

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Cristen Hemingway Jaynes
Cristen Hemingway Jaynes

Cristen Hemingway Jaynes covers the environment, climate change, oceans, the Arctic, animals, anthropology, astronomy, plastics pollution, and politics. She holds a JD and an Ocean & Coastal Law Certificate from the University of Oregon School of Law.