Scientists have created a new global map of food system sustainability that rates each country on a sweeping series of metrics ranging from environmental impacts, health and food security to social equity and income distribution.
The map is designed to provide a benchmark for countries to help them improve and monitor the sustainability of their food systems and related policies or interventions, making it much like agriculture’s answer to the Sustainable Development Goals.
Current food systems, which include the way food is produced, transformed, distributed and consumed, are failing us, says lead author Christopher Béné from the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture in Colombia.
It’s critical to address their sustainability, he and colleagues write in the journal Nature Scientific Data, “as the world is bracing for hard-choice challenges and potentially massive trade-offs around issues related to food quality and food security in the coming decades”.
The global food system’s escalating environmental toll is well-established, through deforestation, pollution, soil degradation, biodiversity erosion, diminishing freshwater resources and greenhouse gas emissions.
As the world’s biggest employer, it also contributes to social and economic inequalities, which can’t be ignored, says Béné. Yet this has not been adequately or clearly considered in the bigger picture.
People whose livelihoods depend on the system – from farmers and fishermen to street vendors and factory employees – should derive a fair share of benefits, and minority groups should not suffer environmental impacts such as climate change.
Added to that, more than 800 million people face food insecurity and undernutrition, impacting health and child development, while rates of overweight and obesity are spiralling – sometimes in the same countries.
The team thus argued that all these variables need to be included to establish how truly sustainable (or unsustainable) global food systems are.
To create the map, they condensed an exhaustive list of nearly 200 indicators from more than 80 scientific papers to 27, covering environmental, social, nutrition and food security and economic dimensions, from which to calculate an aggregate score.
Many countries didn’t have enough information, so to avoid their exclusion, the researchers navigated a trade-off between data availability and the number of indicators from each dimension.
The result is a standardised index computed from 20 indicators for 97 countries.
As well as highlighting knowledge gaps, the team hopes the map will broaden the big-picture debate about “food system thinking”.
This means moving beyond the agriculture-nutrition discussion, which only looks at links between agriculture and health, says Béné.
“In order to address the current and forthcoming big challenge of this century we need to adopt a more holistic, systemic approach that includes all the different elements of the food system.”
The study also aims to add a more transparent, rigorous protocol to document the steps needed to build a sustainability index as more information comes to light.
Natalie Parletta is a freelance science writer based in Adelaide and an adjunct senior research fellow with the University of South Australia.
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