The food system’s impact on daily life is widespread. Food production encompasses the supply of agricultural inputs; crop, livestock, fish, and commodities; storage, transportation, processing, and packaging; retailing; and preparation. On the consumption side, whether individuals eat nutritiously or are hungry or malnourished, whether they are healthy, obese, or underweight, whether they live in urban or rural areas, they are involved in, and greatly affected by, the food system. Although Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 2 speaks to ending hunger, food systems impact all 17 SDGs. Achieving the SDGs will be impossible without a holistic reform of the food system, taking into account environmental, economic, and social considerations.
The food system, starting with agricultural production, has large-scale environmental impacts. It accounts for one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions (Crippa et al., 2021), while irrigation for agriculture accounts for approximately 70 percent of global water use (World Bank, 2022b). Agriculture is also responsible for 80 percent of changes that threaten biodiversity and other planetary resources and processes (Müller, 2022).
Despite improved agricultural techniques, between 720 and 811 million people in the world went hungry and approximately 2.4 billion people (30 percent of the global population) lacked access to adequately nutritious food in 2020, even before the current rise in global food prices (UN, 2021c) and supply chain disruption. This population includes 38.3 million people in the United States (USDA, 2021). Tragically, an abundance of food alongside a high incidence of
food insecurity is also accompanied by an abundance of food loss and waste (NASEM, 2019). The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that 30 to 40 percent of U.S. food is lost or wasted each year (USDA, 2022), and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation produced similar worldwide estimates (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2022). Food loss and waste occur throughout the supply chain, with most loss occurring in the early and middle stages of the food chain in developing countries (on-farm activities, transport, storage, processing, and wholesaling) and significant waste occurring in the consumption stage in developed countries (UNDP, 2022c). Given the realities of geopolitics and supply and demand, reducing food waste is unfortunately not an automatic solution to food insecurity and urban hunger (Grantham, 2022).
Food-system policies and programs have complex interactions with equity. Cities with high poverty rates and high costs of living generally have the highest food insecurity, and such factors as population density, household size, and income affect the incidence of this insecurity (Grantham, 2022). Poverty and equity play out in access to nutritious food, with implications for human health. In Washington, DC, for example, access to grocery stores is extremely limited in lower-income neighborhoods, whose populations are predominantly non-Hispanic Black. These neighborhoods also have the highest percentage of adult residents who are obese and/or have diabetes (Figure 4-1).
Also important is consideration of how new changes to food systems affect culture, affordability, and the livelihoods of those who practice the “business as usual” (Kanbur, 2022). As shown through work by the Food Systems Economic Commission, transformation creates winners and losers, and distributional consequences of such need to be addressed.1 For example, reducing beef consumption is promoted for health and environmental benefits, but millions of people worldwide rely on cattle for their livelihoods. In terms of food security, it is essential to recognize the importance of availability, access, diversity, and stability for a food system that serves the needs of diverse stakeholders.
CASE STUDIES AND SYNERGIES
During the workshop, presenters suggested new approaches to food production, including regenerative (Box 4-1) and restorative urban (Box 4-2) agriculture. Regenerative agriculture involves “a system of farming principles that rehabilitates the entire ecosystem and enhances natural resources, rather than depleting them” (Rodale Institute, 2020). Restorative urban agriculture involves investing in decentralized, neighborhood-based, controlled environment agriculture that uses water, heat, and light in energy-efficient ways and brings sustainable, regenerative food production closer to poor urban neighborhoods that currently lack affordable access to healthy foods (O’Hara, 2022).
1 See https://www.foodsystemeconomics.org/about-the-commision.
Discussion of sustainable food systems occurred throughout the committee’s workshop series. For example, during the session on decarbonization (see Chapter 6), biochar was presented as having the potential to improve soil fertility and crop productivity and mitigate global warming by efficiently sequestering large amounts of carbon in soil over the long term, as well as to improve yield and reduce the need for chemical fertilizers (Draper, 2022; Semida et al., 2019). New York City’s efforts to increase local food supply have included establishment of the city’s first Office of Urban Agriculture and plans for the private sector to convert Riker’s Island from a prison to an urban farm serving predominantly poorer New York City neighborhoods (Koval, 2022).
KEY RESEARCH PRIORITIES FOR FOOD SYSTEMS
The concept of food systems is much broader than agriculture. Based on the presentations and discussions during the April 2022 workshop and its literature review, the committee identified key priorities for research in order to operationalize sustainable development in the area of sustainable and equitable food systems:
- Conduct a comprehensive analysis of the entire food system, including production, processing, distribution, consumption, and waste disposal involving social, economic, and environmental outcomes in urban and rural areas.
- Examine how to transform food systems to achieve critical progress on the SDGs and to contribute to a better future, including reducing inequalities and promoting well-being along economic, environmental, and social dimensions of sustainability.
- Examine the future of alternative proteins, precision fermentation, 3D printing of meat, fish, and plant-based proteins to support sustainable, nutritious, and equitable food systems including consumer acceptance.
- Explore the potential impacts of targeted technological innovations on urban and rural agriculture, agribusiness, food supply chain, animal welfare, climate change, energy, water, land use, biodiversity, health, and food loss and waste, as well as societal and cultural barriers they may encounter.
POSSIBLE ACTIONABLE STEPS FOR FOOD SYSTEMS
The committee proposes the following possible actionable steps to operationalize sustainable development in the area of sustainable and equitable food systems:
- Urban leaders and planners could be convened to discuss challenges, opportunities, and innovative strategies for sustainable and equitable urban food systems in the United States in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, geopolitical conflict, and climate change. An example is the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact (2022), an international agreement on urban food policies signed by more than 200 cities from across the globe.
- Mayors and city officials could enhance cross-sector collaborations and engage communities to transform urban food systems rather than impose solutions from above or continue working in silos.
- Urban leaders could accelerate initiatives toward sustainable and equitable food systems with an appropriate sense of urgency, given that the urban population is projected to increase rapidly in the coming decades.
- Federal and local governments could work together to transform food systems in the United States and to promote supply chains that are resilient and sustainable in the short and long terms.
- Academic leaders and the private sector could support training and workforce development at universities, community colleges, and tribal colleges to promote sustainable and equitable food systems, taking into account environmental, economic, and social considerations.
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