The world faces a growing food systems crisis. The number of people who go to sleep hungry around the world grew by over 100 million in 2020. Obesity rates are up too, having tripled since 1975. Food supply chains continue to be disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change — and commodity-driven deforestation remains a problem in many tropical forest-rich countries.

At the same time, the human quest for food is responsible for about a quarter of all global greenhouse gas emissions. That quest uses more than 70% of all freshwater, pollutes water and drives forest and biodiversity loss. And that quest will become more difficult year after year as climate change impacts intensify, making it ever more challenging for many families around the world to put food on the table — unless we take immediate, effective action to reduce emissions and build resilience.

These crises are the reason for the inaugural UN Food Systems Summit, taking place virtually on September 23. It’s a first-of-its-kind opportunity for nations around the globe to tackle the question: How can we nutritiously feed a growing population amid worsening climate change while holding the line on further conversion of natural ecosystems, meeting the Paris Climate Agreement and lifting millions of farmers and fishers out of poverty?

Realizing the Full Potential of the Global Food System

A big part of the answer is that we need a cohesive plan for the food system to simultaneously produce, protect, reduce and restore. This strategy is laid out in WRI’s flagship World Resources Report, Creating a Sustainable Food Future.

  • Produce: The world needs to sustainably boost yields on existing agricultural lands to meet projected growth in demand for food without expanding agriculture’s land footprint.
  • Protect: The world needs to protect remaining native, natural ecosystems (e.g., forests, wetlands, grasslands) from agriculture-related conversion and degradation. These ecosystems store the majority of terrestrial carbon and provide critical ecosystem services that underpin food production such as water regulation, pollination and climate regulation.
  • Reduce: The world needs to “bend the curve” in demand growth for land-intensive products by reducing existing inefficiencies in the food system, such as by halving the rate of food loss and waste by 2030, shifting to more sustainable and healthy diets, and reducing competition for land and food from other sectors such as biofuel production.
  • Restore: The world needs to restore what’s been lost — revitalizing nature in some places and restoring productivity to degraded agriculture in other places.

The “produce, protect, reduce and restore” approach can nutritiously feed nearly 10 billion people by 2050 and help lift poor farmers and fishers out of poverty, while putting food and land use systems on a path to compliance with the mitigation goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change. From reducing food loss and waste to restoring peatlands, the below chart lays out how to achieve this.

A graphic showing how different solutions, including diet shifts and increased fish supply, can reduce food system emissions by 70-100% by 2050.

At the same time, farmers, herders and fishers, particularly those most vulnerable to climate and other types of shocks and stresses, will need additional support to adapt to climate change impacts. These issues are explored in Adapt Now, the flagship report of the Global Commission on Adaptation, and the report Food Systems at Risk.

The world’s 500 million small-scale food producers live and work on the front lines of climate change and have the fewest resources with which to adapt. This makes them highly vulnerable to climate change impacts, which stands to increase inequality and leave them further behind. These farmers, herders and fishers need help increasing their productivity and better managing increased climate risks. This can be achieved by diversifying their incomes, strengthening social security systems, improving access to insurance and finance, and increasing the availability of data to improve their daily decisions. Better data access specifically is addressed in the Blueprint for Digitally Informed Climate Services, which was selected by the UN Food Systems Summit Secretariat as one of the best game-changing solutions for the decade.

In addition, particular attention must be given to enhancing rights and access to resources for women and young people involved in food production, as they are an important and growing force in the future of the food system. Dedicated attention, funding and programs are needed for areas that will need to produce entirely new types of crops and livestock better suited to changing climates, or even transition out of agriculture altogether.

All of this requires, among other things, innovation, investment and inclusion. For instance, a number of breakthrough technology innovations can play a role. An estimated $300 billion to $350 billion in investment is needed to scale change in food systems, while an additional $7 billion would be required between 2021 and 2030 to effectively build the resilience of 300 million agricultural producers through digitally informed climate advisory services. And everyone — ranging from smallholder farmers and fishers to food companies to individual consumers — needs to be included in the decisions, actions and benefits of a better food system.

Altogether, creating a sustainable food system requires a suite of critical transitions that span food supply, food demand and human well-being. The Food and Land Use Coalition outlined 10 such transitions in the below graphic.

A graphic depicting a pyramid, which illustrates different levels of transformation for the food and land use sectors.

The Critical Role of the Food Systems Summit

It is important that the Food Systems Summit advance this framework for a better, more sustainable and equitable food system by driving concerted action and determined follow-up over the “decade of delivery” ahead. Although not an exhaustive list, a few key actions to land at the summit and in the follow-up include:

  • Taking a Whole-of-Government Approach to Food Systems: Every nation in the world must do more to bring together ministries of finance, health, trade, agriculture and environment to achieve ambitious action in the food system. Over the summer, more than 130 countries participated in national Food Systems Summit dialogues to this end. It’s now up to heads of state to step forward with ambitious, time-bound, national commitments that encompass climate, hunger, nutrition, equity, livelihoods and diets.
  • Cutting Food Loss and Waste in Half by 2030: Tackling the more than one billion tons of food that’s lost or wasted between farm and fork every year is vital if countries are to end hunger and meet climate targets. The summit is an opportunity for national governments, as well as businesses and other players, to prioritize the problem of food loss and waste by adopting the “Target, Measure, Act” approach: set a 50% reduction target, measure to identify hotspots of food loss and waste, and act on the hotspots.
  • Championing “Blue Food” Solutions: Aquatic or “blue” foods (including animals, plants and microorganisms) from marine and inland waters contribute significantly to healthy, nature-positive and resilient food systems and have the potential to do far more to help end malnutrition and support dignified work. Still, those “blue” foods are often missing from conversations about food systems. Systems-level change is needed to enable “blue food solutions,” which can include integrating aquatic foods into national food policy and school feeding programs, and supporting small-scale fishers and sustainable aquaculturists. Several international agreements are already in place to achieve these changes, but urgent action and investments are needed to step up the pace of implementation.
  • Mobilizing Agricultural Research, Finance and Information for Small-scale Food Producers to Build Resilience and Enhance Incomes: This includes doubling the scale of agricultural research around the world, including through the CGIAR System as it fully embeds climate change in every aspect of its new 10-year strategy, and the United States’ and other governments’ newly proposed AIM4C. It also means expanding access to climate-informed digital advisory services with enhanced information on weather and seasonal forecasts, pest and disease early warning, digital soil maps and adaptive production practices. Small-scale food producers’ access to insurance, finance, markets, adaptive technologies and agroecological practices must also be expanded to effectively build resilience.

Success requires strong engagement from nations to companies to producers to consumers. With the summit’s global focus on the entire food system, the world has the opportunity to create change at the scale needed. If we miss the opportunity, the consequences may be dire. But if we successfully seize it, the world can achieve a more sustainable food future.