Food systems at risk: trends and challenges

Just out 2 April 2019
Food systems are currently under an unprecedented number of threats. This was the conclusion drawn by some forty researchers working on the trends and challenges for food systems. The collective study, commissioned by the European Commission, will be presented by CIRAD at the opening plenary session of the High Level Event of the Global Network against Food Crises in Brussels on 2 and 3 April 2019. A handout containing numerous maps and charts summarizes the presentation.
Systèmes alimentaires en danger : tendances et défis, synthèse d’un rapport commandé au Cirad par la Commission européenne (Illustration : Laurence Laffont)

The food security paradox

Never in human history has global food production per inhabitant has been so high. It already exceeds nutritional requirements, and is continuing to rise. However, under-nutrition has been on the rise since 2015, after falling for decades. Is this a glitch or a real underlying trend? The latter assumption unfortunately looks likely, given the many threats to food systems.

The thing is, these systems do not just produce food. They also provide jobs, revenue and infrastructures. They play a central role in the lives of rural people, link rural and urban areas, and have numerous effects on the environment. All of those aspects must be considered when studying and assessing food systems.

Food systems: the risks are increasingly urgent, serious and combined

As things currently stand, food systems are under several simultaneous threats, which suggests food crises could become increasingly common.

  • Galloping population growth in some countries will inevitably increase demand for food and pressure on land. That growth looks like being particularly substantial in low-income countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa
  • Dietary changes mean a triple malnutrition burden (under-nutrition, deficiencies and diseases of plenty) and new health risks (both microbiological and chemical).
  • Job creation, particularly in rural areas, in low-income countries is a major issue for food security. Food systems, notably food processing, are a major source of jobs, particularly for women.
  • Environmental degradation is gaining speed and affects all countries. It is a threat to agricultural production on several levels: falling yields, pollination issues, new diseases, increasingly frequent climatic accidents, etc.
  • Global markets are likely to be tighter and more unstable in future.
  • Natural disasters and conflicts cause displacement and migration, which are largely responsible for current increased food insecurity. These movements threaten food systems in host regions, with a domino effect of new crises.

Paying greater attention to resilience pathways and local solutions

This combination of risks puts us in an unprecedented situation in which snowball effects have been observed and the point of no return has been reached in some fields, such as biodiversity. However, we must not let this alarming picture shock us into inaction. Many communities already live with these constraints. We must look more closely at their capacity for resilience and how they find new solutions and make use of existing ones. There is no magic bullet; the solutions depend on the local situation and mean recognizing the importance of local players and their dynamics.