Fixing the broken food system would unlock trillions of dollars in benefits, study finds

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Aerial view of fire burning the Amazon rainforest to make land for agriculture and cattle pasture in Para, Brazil.Our current food systems are unsustainably degrading natural resources, harming future economies to make a profit today. Image credit: Paralaxis, Getty Images.

Dr Steven Lord (Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford), who led the cost analysis of the study, said: ‘If the food system continues business as usual it will produce trillions of dollars of avoidable economic costs that will limit future economic growth and development. This analysis puts a first figure on the regional and global economic opportunity in transforming food systems. While not easy, the transformation is affordable on a global scale and the accumulating costs into the future of doing nothing pose a considerable economic risk.’

For the new analysis, the researchers developed a unique economic model to quantify the hidden costs of our food systems – bringing together costs of impacts on climate change, human health, nutrition and natural resources. With the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), they then compared a ‘business as usual’ approach based on current trends with a ‘Food System Transformation’ pathway.

Currently, our food systems destroy more value than they create, borrowing from the future to realise profits today. Research published last year by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) found that the hidden environmental, social and health costs of agrifood systems are well over $10 trillion globally in 2020.

The new analysis forecasts that a business as usual approach would mean that by 2050 food insecurity will leave 640 million people (including 121 million children) underweight in some parts of the world, while obesity will increase by 70% globally. Food systems will continue to drive a third of global greenhouse gas emissions, which will contribute to 2.7 degrees of warming by the end of the century compared to pre-industrial periods. In addition, food production will become increasingly vulnerable to climate change, with the likelihood of extreme events dramatically increasing.

In contrast, an alternative Food System Transformation approach could result in undernutrition being eradicated by 2050, 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. In addition, 400 million farm workers across the globe could enjoy a sufficient income.

According to the model, these benefits would result in economic gains equivalent to economies being 12% larger on average for 30 years across lower income countries, 3.4% across middle income countries, and 1.7% across high income countries.

Furthermore, the cost of achieving this transformation through better policies and practices was estimated to be equivalent to 0.2-0.4 % of global GDP per year – much less than the potential multi-trillion-dollar benefits that change could bring.

Dr Steven Lord added: ‘For perspective, for high-income countries, the total damages avoided through food system transformation would exceed their cumulative losses from the 2007-2008 financial crisis.’

A colourful array of plant-based foods including vegetables, fruit, cereals, grains, nuts, seeds, legumes & dips.A striking finding was that global adoption of a predominantly plant-based diet alone would realise immense health and environmental benefits. Image credit: marilyna, Getty Images.

A striking finding from the new study was the economic opportunity from changing diets alone. Global adoption of a predominantly plant-based diet accounted for around 75% of the total health and environmental benefits from food system transformation, and would contribute an additional 2% per year to global GDP on average. Importantly, an economic boost is experienced across all income groups, from low income countries to high income countries.

The new FSEC report urgently calls for countries to develop ambitious national food strategies to achieve food system transformation by 2050. Key areas of action include taxing the most damaging and unsustainable foods; subsidising farmers to produce healthy foods and use sustainable practices; and investing in new agricultural technologies – such as remote-sensing, in-field sensors and market access apps – that can improve efficiency while reducing emissions.

However, the authors warn that care must be taken to ensure that these strategies do not leave anyone behind, through potential knock-on impacts such as increases in food prices and job losses. Actions to mitigate this could include direct subsidies and support for both farmers and consumers.

Co-author Professor Michael Obersteiner (Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford) said: ‘This new analysis highlights the urgent need for global food system transformation, but this will look different for different countries. For instance, in many parts of the world strategies should focus on lowering consumptions of animal products to reduce poor health and environmental impacts, while in other areas, change should focus on increasing access to these to combat undernutrition.’

The report ‘Global Policy Report: The Economics of the Food System Transformation’ has been published on the FSEC website.

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