One of the most ambitious assessments yet of our global food system calculates the health, environmental, and economic losses of business as usual. It also outlines what governments can do to reap trillions of dollars’ worth of benefits by producing food more sustainably.
All in all, the damages caused by the current system — how food is produced, marketed, and consumed — add up to $15 trillion in losses a year. That includes health costs associated with poor nutrition, biodiversity loss, climate change, and other environmental harms. “In short, our food systems are destroying more value than they create,” says the report published today by economists and scientists with the Food System Economics Commission (FSEC).
It’s time for a makeover, the authors of the report argue, which could garner up to $10 trillion in health and economic benefits (equivalent to roughly 8 percent of global GDP in 2020). That means incentivizing better business practices and encouraging consumer habits that are healthier for people and the planet.
“We have to make choices, right? We’re either wasting $15 trillion, or we are saving that and [reapplying] it into saving the environment. I think the cost-benefit analysis overall is clear,” Vera Songwe, co-chair of the FSEC and executive secretary of the Economic Commission for Africa, said in a press call today.
The report models two pathways to starkly different outcomes possible in 2050, one based on “current trends” and another based on a “transformation” of the world’s food systems. Today, food is responsible for 6 million hectares of deforestation a year. It also accounts for a third of the greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change. If that continues, countries would be unable to meet the goal of stopping climate change set in the 2015 Paris Agreement. As a result, climate-driven disasters like drought and extreme weather pose much graver risks to food production.
Health costs alone related to failures in our food system add up to a bulk of current losses — $11 trillion a year, according to the FSEC report. It mostly stems from food-related noncommunicable diseases, including diabetes, hypertension, and cancer. Much of this burden is born by people who live with obesity, the report says. Growing reliance on ultra-processed products and foods high in sugar, salt, and fats would lead to a 70 percent increase in obesity around the world by 2050, the report estimates, affecting 1.5 billion people (15 percent of the expected global population). Continuing current trends would exacerbate undernutrition in other parts of the world, with food insecurity causing 640 million people to be underweight.
The good news is that there’s another path forward, albeit a hypothetical one for now. Governments could tax pollution from agriculture and shift subsidies toward healthy and sustainably grown foods. Deploying new technologies like remote sensing and in-field sensors could also reduce pollution. An overhaul in how the world makes its food would also require support for small farmers through subsidies and access to finance.
People would ultimately also have to tweak their diets. There’s no one-size-fits-all plan, but eating less meat is the prescription for a more sustainable diet in much of the world. After all, global meat consumption experienced a meteoric rise of 500 percent between 1992 and 2016. And livestock have the biggest impact on climate when it comes to food production.
Implementing all these changes could cost between $200 to $500 billion a year. But that’s a bargain compared to the $10 trillion benefits it would reap, the report says. Undernutrition could be eradicated by 2050. The world could avoid 174 million premature deaths from diet-related chronic disease. Nations might even have a better shot at reaching the ambitious Paris climate goals, which, in turn, would spur its own health benefits.
The report is the culmination of four years of investigation by the FSEC, including comprehensive literature reviews, case studies, and economic modeling. The FSEC is an independent academic commission with some big-name funders including The Rockefeller Foundation and the Ikea Foundation.
“There is no longer time to delay the inevitable — this report highlights the steps that policymakers must take now to create a healthier, more sustainable future,” food writer and Harvard professor Michael Pollan says in a press release accompanying the report today. “The restructuring of food systems is indisputably one of the greatest opportunities we have to reverse decades of damage to both the planet and to human health.”