The $10 trillion benefits of overhauling our food system

One of the most ambitious assessments to date of our global food system calculates the health, environmental and economic losses of business as usual. It also outlines what governments can do to reap trillions of dollars in benefits by producing food more sustainably.

Overall, the damage caused by the current system – the way food is produced, marketed and consumed – amounts to $15 trillion in losses per year. That includes health costs related to poor nutrition, biodiversity loss, climate change and other environmental damage. “In short, our food systems are destroying more value than they create,” says the report published today by economists and scientists at the Food System Economics Commission (FSEC).

It’s time for a makeover, the report’s authors say, which could deliver up to $10 trillion in health and economic benefits (equivalent to about 8 percent of global GDP in 2020). That means driving better business practices and encouraging consumer habits that are healthier for people and the planet.

“Our food systems destroy more value than they create.”

“We have to make choices, right? We’re wasting $15 trillion, or we’re saving that and [reapplying] it to save the environment. I think the cost-benefit analysis is generally clear,” Vera Songwe, co-chair of the FSEC and executive secretary of the Economic Commission for Africa, said in a press call today.

The report models two pathways to starkly different outcomes possible by 2050, one based on “current trends” and another based on a “transformation” of the world’s food systems. Today, food is responsible for 6 million hectares of deforestation per year. It is also responsible for a third of the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change. If this continues, countries will not be able to achieve the target of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. As a result, climate-induced disasters such as drought and extreme weather events pose much greater risks to food production.

The health costs alone associated with the failure of our food system account for a large portion of current losses: $11 trillion per year, according to the FSEC report. It usually results from food-related non-communicable diseases, including diabetes, hypertension and cancer. Much of this burden is borne by people living with obesity, the report said. The growing reliance on ultra-processed products and foods high in sugar, salt and fat would lead to a 70 percent increase in obesity worldwide by 2050, the report estimates, affecting 1.5 billion people (15 percent of the expected world population). Continuing current trends would worsen malnutrition in other parts of the world, with food insecurity leaving 640 million people underweight.

The good news is that there is another path forward, albeit a hypothetical one for now. Governments could tax pollution from agriculture and shift subsidies to healthy and sustainably grown food. Deploying new technologies such as remote sensing and sensors in the field could also reduce pollution. An overhaul of the way the world produces its food would also require support for small farmers through subsidies and access to finance.

People would eventually have to change their diet as well. There is no one-size-fits-all plan, but eating less meat is the recipe for a more sustainable diet in much of the world. After all, global meat consumption experienced a rapid increase of 500 percent between 1992 and 2016. And livestock has the biggest impact on the climate when it comes to food production.

Implementing all these changes could cost between $200 and $500 billion per year. But that’s a bargain compared to the $10 trillion in benefits it would deliver, the report said. Malnutrition could be eradicated by 2050. The world could avoid 174 million premature deaths from diet-related chronic diseases. Countries could even have a better chance of reaching the ambitious Paris climate goals, which would in turn boost their own health benefits.

The report is the result of four years of research by the FSEC, including extensive literature reviews, case studies and economic models. The FSEC is an independent academic committee with several major funders, including the Rockefeller Foundation and the Ikea Foundation.

“There is no more time to delay the inevitable – this report highlights the steps policymakers must take now to create a healthier, more sustainable future,” said food writer and Harvard professor Michael Pollan in a press release accompanying the report. Today. “Restructuring food systems is undoubtedly one of the greatest opportunities we have to reverse decades of damage to both the planet and human health.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *