Philippe Thomas

The lack of sustainability of food systems


Agricultural production has continually increased since the 1960s, to such an extent that there is enough food available to meet the needs of the global population. And yet, undernutrition has been increasing regularly since 2015, whereas it had been falling continuously for decades. Around 820 million people went hungry in 2018, one in three people suffered from malnutrition, 600 million people were considered obese and annual food waste represented a third of global production. The current structural imbalances of global agri-food systems are increasingly obvious, but that is not all: the prospects for the future are that these systems will face unprecedented challenges, with 2.5 billion extra people to feed by 2050, as well as the potential impacts of climate change and biodiversity loss, including those directly related to the intensification, and artificialisation, of agricultural production.

Indeed, food systems are faced with several simultaneous threats that could lead to an increased number of food crises:

  • The soaring population growth in certain countries is going to increase the demand for food and lead to added pressure on the earth. This growth will be particularly high in low income countries, notably in Sub-Saharan Africa.
  • Changing diets, and particularly the increasing demand for meat in growing urban contexts, mean that the triple burden of malnutrition (under-nutrition, deficiencies and diseases caused by excess) will need to be managed, as well as new (microbiological and chemical) health risks.
  • The increasing demand for work, particularly in rural parts of low-income countries, is a major issue at stake for food security. On the one hand, food systems, and notably processing, are a significant potential source of jobs and income, particularly for women. On the other hand, there is frustration among young people in rural areas due to the lack of jobs available, which leads to socio-political instability.
  • Environmental degradation is accelerating, is being made worse by climate change, and is affecting all countries. This is threatening agricultural production via several factors that are contributing to lower yields and a drop in global productive potential: i) the loss of soil fertility due to its rapid degradation; ii) the loss of agricultural land due to the expansion of urban and industrial areas, and the flooding of areas due to rising sea levels; iii) the rapid decline in the number of pollinators and other aspects of biological diversity; iv) the reduced availability of water that can be used for agricultural production due to changes in water systems and rainfall, the over-exploitation of water basins, pollution, etc.; v) the emergence of new diseases and their increased geographic mobility; vi) the increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather, and, consequently, the greater impact of natural disasters.
  • There is a risk that international markets will be under greater stress, and, above all, more volatile in the future due to changes in farming conditions and the increased demand for products, and also due to the effects of financial mechanisms as was seen during the 2008-2011 food price crisis.
  • Man-made disasters (conflicts, violence, insecurity…), which destroy food markets, reverse development gains and lead to displacement and migration, are the main reason that food insecurity has begun to rise again. Displacements threaten the security and socio-economic stability of host areas, with a negative impact on food systems, which can cause a domino effect and further crises.
  • The predictable depletion of non-renewable natural resources, notably mineral phosphate, also shows that the current agri-food system is not sustainable. According to experts, the exploitation of mineral phosphate could peak around 2030-2040. In concrete terms, this means that, to increase food production, it will be necessary to find other sources of phosphate, for example, by returning to the increased use of organic fertilizer.All these things are contributing to change at the global level, but which nevertheless takes different forms from one region to the next. Within the same country, there are agri-food systems that are affected by different kinds of constraints. Generally speaking, countries in the Global South need to increase their production in order to meet the challenges of population growth (there is agreement among experts that food needs will increase by 50% by 2050), whereas regions like Europe need to manage excessive intensification which, though it has helped to avert the threat of shortages, has brought major negative externalities, notably of an environmental nature.

As underlined by Sandrine Dury (co-author of the joint CIRAD-EU-FAO report, ‘Food systems at risk: trends and challenges): “This combination of risks puts us in an unprecedented situation in which snowball effects have been observed and the point of no return has been reached in some fields, such as biodiversity”.


Beyond irrefutable facts, the future remains to be built


Even those who are the most sceptical about climate change cannot deny that agricultural and food systems will need to adapt to all these current and future changes.

A consensus is therefore beginning to take shape based on two major strategic areas:

  • First of all, by being more attentive to resilience trajectories and local/territorial solutions: many populations already live with these constraints and we therefore need to be more attentive to their resilience capacity because they are inventing new solutions and applying existing ones. In the face of global risks, solutions cannot be limited to the universal and general level. They also depend on local situations, both in the North and South, and should recognize the importance of local actors. As such, the circular economy brings obvious environmental and social added value.
  • The other area is the systemic approach: whereas, up till now, we have dealt with sector-based risks individually, we are now facing systemic risks which, though they are concentrated in certain areas that are already fragile, they increasingly affect the rest of the world: Europe, the United States, Canada, Australia, and the most developed countries in Asia are also beginning to be concerned. The accumulated effects of the different combinations of these risks and the way that they are evolving, the speed of the changes taking place, which are always worse than researchers’ most pessimistic predictions, with thresholds being passed, and the emergence of complex negative chain reactions increasing the risk of more serious crises. It is therefore urgent that we mitigate these risks, insofar as it is still possible to do so…

Carrying out this transition towards sustainable systems will require major investment, notably in terms of research and innovation. The private sector will have an essential role to play, but only those who are ‘blissfully optimistic’ continue to consider (or want us to believe) that the current system – and particularly ‘economic liberalism’ – is the solution to meet the challenges ahead, without needing to make any major changes in terms of policies or public investments. Another myth is that we can return to a golden age (which perhaps never existed), as if the solutions of the past could solve the problems of the future.

Conscious of these challenges, the Secretary-General of the United Nations has called for a World Food Systems Summit to be held, which should take place in September 2021, during the United Nations General Assembly. Only the future will tell if this summit will really be able to create a new global dynamic.


The European Union’s response


For its part, the European Union did not wait for this evidence to be established before acting. It has made food and nutritional security and sustainable agriculture the main focus of its development aid by raising more than 8 billion euros over the period 2014-2020. Four complementary areas help to accompany agri-food systems towards greater sustainability: i) innovation and research, ii) inclusive investment, iii) food crisis prevention and response, and iv) the fight against malnutrition, notably stunting.
Numerous studies, such as those carried out by the Global Network Against Food Crises (a network that was launched by the EU, with FAO and WFP, and which has been joined by numerous other partners), are key references that help to clarify the challenges ahead and also to define and implement the approaches that need to be developed urgently. The DeSIRA initiative – ‘Generating and exchanging knowledge and fostering innovation-support to climate relevant Development-Smart Innovation through Research in Agriculture’ – is another flagship project that aims to overcome environmental and climatic challenges and establish global food and nutritional security.
Nevertheless, more needs to be done, and faster: the proposal drafted for the Commission’s next financial framework is even more ambitious, with the ‘European Green Deal’, which aims to meet the challenges of the ‘Sustainable Development Goals’. This approach aims to improve shared assets related to the stability and resilience of global food systems, beginning with the revision of internal policies, for example, by pursuing the reforms that have begun of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), to make Europe the first climate neutral continent by 2050. The CAP has evolved a great deal in the last decade and the ‘Farm to Fork’ section of the Green Deal will accentuate these changes.

Though the European Commission has shown that it has woken up to the dangers of climate change, the change of paradigm will still need to be ambitious and it will need to be put into place rapidly. This would mean not only that the Member States of the European Union were prepared to follow this political impetus and that they provide it with the necessary means, but also that Europe is followed by other regions and continents. The clock is ticking and the risk of a major crisis – in the form of ‘systemic collapse’ – is becoming more and more real: pack ice and glaciers are melting more and more quickly, there are more and more mega fires, pollinating insects are disappearing, earthworm and soil arthropod populations are rapidly becoming smaller… Collapse is not inevitable, but the longer we fail to take action, the more probable it becomes.


Philippe THOMAS – European Commission, Directorate-General for International Cooperation and Development

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the official position of the European Commission or its General-Directorate for International Cooperation and Development, and are those of the author alone.



Dury, S., Bendjebbar, P., Hainzelin, E., Giordano, T. and Bricas, N. (2019), Food Systems at risk: new trends and challenges, Rome, Montpellier, Brussels, FAO, CIRAD and the European Commission.


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