Fix the broken food system in three steps

Build a global network for mapping, modelling and managing agriculture, biodiversity, trade and nutrition, argue Guido Schmidt-Traub, Michael Obersteiner and Aline Mosnier.


Guido Schmidt-Traub, Michael Obersteiner & Aline Mosnier, Nature

08 May 2019


Land use and food production are not meeting people’s needs1. Agriculture destroys forests and biodiversity, squanders water and releases one-quarter of global greenhouse-gas emissions. Yet one-third of food is wasted, 800 million people remain undernourished, 2 billion are deficient in micronutrients, and obesity is on the rise. These figures will worsen as the planet warms, soils degrade and the global population grows, urbanizes and consumes more.


Threats to agriculture, climate and health are entwined. Yet policies treat each in isolation and are misaligned. National strategies for mitigating climate change pay scant attention to biodiversity and food security. The European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy includes steps to reduce emissions from livestock and fertilizers, for example, but offers no way of improving diets.


Ambitious targets have proved hard to attain. France has failed to halve its use of pesticides since 2008, as it proposed to do to recover biodiversity2. Brazil’s strides in reducing deforestation in the 2000s are at risk of being reversed3. Meat eating is on the rise, even though it has high health and environmental costs1. Improvements in agricultural productivity are slowing.


And good intentions can have unforeseen consequences. For example, US and EU efforts to use more biofuels since 2000 have increased demand for palm oil, driving deforestation in tropical countries such as Indonesia4. Food systems and supply chains are prone to shocks. For instance, following a dry summer, poor harvests in Europe and the United States in 2012 drove the prices of maize (corn) and soya beans to all-time highs, triggering food riots, particularly in Africa.


What is needed are strategies for managing land-use and food systems together. These would consider links between agriculture, water, pollution, biodiversity, diets and greenhouse-gas emissions. Each sector and country can tailor solutions. But global coordination, learning and knowledge-sharing will also be necessary to ensure that the net result is sustainable and resilient, and in line with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the 2015 Paris climate agreement.


Here we describe three steps for developing such integrated approaches.


All together now


These steps are guided by analyses from a global network of teams of researchers from most G20 countries and nations with large agriculture and forestry sectors, such as Colombia and Ethiopia. Called the Food, Agriculture, Biodiversity, Land Use and Energy (FABLE) Pathways Consortium, it was set up in 2018 as part of the Food and Land-use Coalition by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network and the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria (see We also draw on lessons from the Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project5.


Governments and researchers need to:


Agree a framework. First, agronomists, ecologists, nutritionists, climate scientists, economists and members of other technical communities must agree an overarching approach to describing the challenges of integrating land-use and food systems, and for developing solutions. The FABLE Consortium proposes balancing three ‘pillars’ when managing land: efficient and resilient agriculture and fisheries; biodiversity conservation and restoration; and healthy diets (see ‘Three priorities for land and food’). All are equally important and interdependent.


For example, agronomists should consider dietary requirements and biodiversity when designing strategies for providing nutritious food for all. In many countries, this will mean growing more fruits, vegetables and legumes. Agricultural practices should minimize damage to the environment. And trade-offs between conserving biodiversity and producing food intensively must be considered.


Researchers will have to work out how to produce more food on limited land. Improvements in plant and animal genetics would increase yields. New agricultural practices that minimize environmental damage and use resources efficiently should be expanded. These include precision farming (which uses GPS and other technologies to measure and respond to variability within and between agricultural production systems), drip irrigation and integrated pest management. Robotics, sensor webs and artificial intelligence could help to increase farmers’ incomes by linking markets, optimizing inputs and reducing food loss and waste6.


Governments must conserve forests, peatlands, wetlands, savannahs and coastal and marine areas to deliver crucial ecosystem services and store carbon. Similarly, food-consumption patterns need to be changed — in most countries, these are unhealthy, wasteful and harmful to the environment1. Unprecedented changes in behaviour, food-production methods and supply chains will be required to reduce food waste at the scale required to meet the SDGs, and to alter people’s diets so that they contain less processed food and meat, and more fruits, nuts, vegetables and whole grains. Although there have been isolated successes, such as bans of trans-unsaturated fatty acids in some countries, including Denmark and the United States, most interventions so far have been insufficient1.


Countries should take into account competing demands for land, including urban sprawl, industry and infrastructure development. And they should examine the impacts of international trade and global supply chains on their own resources. The aim is to find integrated strategies that are balanced across the three pillars. For example, intensifying cattle ranching in Brazil would reduce deforestation locally and internationally, while mitigating global greenhouse-gas emissions7.


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