DOWN TO EARTH: Making global food systems more sustainable has economic benefits 20 times the cost, finds report

DOWN TO EARTH: Making global food systems more sustainable has economic benefits 20 times the cost, finds report
05 February 2024

Globally, current food systems cost significantly more than they contribute to development. A sustainable transformation of existing food systems is urgently required at an estimated total cost of $500 billion per year. This cost is equivalent to only 0.2–0.4 per cent of global GDP and is small relative to the multi-trillion dollar benefits it could bring, according to a new report.

The annual environmental cost of the current food systems was $3 trillion, and the additional costs to health was at least $11 trillion.

The socio-economic benefits of transforming food systems around the world are estimated to be between $5 trillion and $10 trillion annually, equivalent to between 4 and 8 per cent of global GDP in 2020, according to an estimate made by a committee of eminent scientists and academics.

It is feasible to transform the current global food system into one that is inclusive, health-enhancing and environmentally sustainable, said Food System Economics Commission in a new report released on January 30, 2024.

The transformation of global food systems into one that is inclusive, health-enhancing and environmentally sustainable is affordable at a global level. But its costs for lower-income countries are beyond their current financing capacity. Lifting their financing constraints is critical to unlocking the global benefits of transforming food systems, flagged the report.

The commission contrasted two science-based, quantitative pathways up to 2050: Current trends (CT) and the food system transformation (FST).

The CT pathway showed that by 2050, food insecurity will still leave 640 million people (including 121 million children) underweight in some parts of the world, while obesity will increase by 70 per cent globally.

Under the existing scenario, food systems will continue to drive a third of global greenhouse gas emissions, which will contribute to 2.7 degrees Celsius of warming by the end of the century compared to pre-industrial periods. Food production will become increasingly vulnerable to climate change, with the likelihood of extreme events dramatically increasing, the commission found.

But transforming food systems can instead be a significant contributor to economies and drive solutions to health and climate challenges. In fact, global convergence towards healthy diets would contribute as much as 70 per cent of the total economic benefits of pursuing the FST pathway through direct effects on dietary health and indirect impacts on the environment. This is roughly equivalent to a 5 per cent increase in global GDP in 2020.

By 2050, better policies and practices could lead to undernutrition being eradicated and cumulatively 174 million lives saved from premature death due to diet-related chronic disease.

The FST can reduce diet-related mortality from 12 million deaths per year attributable to poor diets in 2020 to 7.7 million in 2050 by decreasing rates of diet-related diseases such as cardiovascular conditions and cancer.

Food systems could become net carbon sinks by 2040, helping limit global warming to below 1.5°C 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.

For example, emissions under FST become net negative as early as 2040, with Brazil and the rest of Latin America becoming the most effective carbon sinks per hectare due to extensive reforestation. These positive developments will gradually help to reduce the occurrence of extreme weather events, according to United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and thus safeguard future agricultural production.

In addition, 400 million farm workers across the globe could enjoy a sufficient income.

The findings of the report takes forward message of the UN Food Systems Summit in 2021 which stressed on the need for comprehensive and sustainable pathways to guide a sustainable transformation of food systems.

This is also significant in view of the declaration on sustainable agriculture, resilient food systems and climate action signed by over 150 countries at 28th Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

“Rather than mortgaging our future and building up mounting costs leading to high hidden health and environmental costs that we will have to pay down the line, policymakers need to face the food system challenge head-on and make the changes which will reap huge short- and long-term benefits globally,” said Ottmar Edenhofer, director for Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and co-chair for the commission, in a statement.

“This report should open up a much-needed conversation among key stakeholders about how we can access those benefits whilst leaving no one behind,” he said.

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