Akila Wijerathna notes the need to develop a sustainable global food system

Our food system is vital for the nutrition necessary for good health; it is fundamental to the wellbeing of our ecosystem. Feeding more people in tougher conditions arising from climate change will present a growing challenge for food producers. Over the next 50 years, global agricultural demand will grow by as much as 50 percent while water scarcity is expected to worsen.

Ensuring the sustainability of the food system is one of our defining challenges. And therefore, businesses producing food across the world will need to adapt to these circumstances. This is the opportune moment to consider the challenges facing food systems, how they can be addressed and our role in helping to build a sustainable system.

Agriculture accounts for around 70 percent of the world’s freshwater consumption and around a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions; but this will only grow as the demand for food increases. The future of agriculture will be in discovering how to meet this demand while improving efficiency so that more is produced with less.

Many product lives begin with farmers. We’re already sustainably sourcing rice, vegetables and tubers from rural farmers – so we should aim to advance positive social, environmental and economic outcomes in direct agricultural supply chains.

Sustainability has become a guiding principle and the primary goal of human development. Environmental degradation, social distress and economic fluctuations are global concerns challenging conventional views on development, and forcing a reconsideration of everyday behaviours.

Rapid climate change has occurred for several decades, and is predicted to continue and possibly accelerate. Meanwhile, global biodiversity is declining with substantial ongoing losses of populations, species and habitats.

Agriculture and food systems are at the centre of debates over sustainability. Processes underlying environmental, economic and social unsustainability derive in part from the global food system while significant trade-offs have accompanied the increase in food supply.

In addition, processes along the food chain from agricultural production to consumption produce outputs other than food, which are returned to the natural environment as pollution or waste. Sustainable eating entails selecting food that is healthy for us and the environment. This means that food that contributes to a balanced diet also facilitates environmental conservation.

Agro-biodiversity is arguably the most important requisite for a healthy and strong regional food system. The FAO defines this as “the variety and variability of animals, plants and microorganisms that are used directly or indirectly for food and agriculture, including crops, livestock, forestry and fisheries.”

It comprises the diversity of genetic resources and species used for food, fodder, fibre, fuel and pharmaceuticals. Agro-biodiversity also includes the diversity of non-harvested species that support production, and those in the wider environment that underscore agro-ecosystems as well as diversity.

The rural poor’s most important asset is diverse resources from which to draw on for food and nutrition. This acts as insurance against the vagaries of nature; so if drought, disease or pests destroy certain crops one year, they’re able to obtain nutrition from other sources, forest products or minor crops.

These alternative sources of nutrition, which are crucial to rural communities’ survival, are available because farmers have carefully selected crops for thousands of years; and this has resulted in today’s agro-biodiversity, which is the foundation for local food security.

The management of an agricultural system rich in diversity doesn’t require intensive chemical inputs. Therefore, negative externalities are minimised. Instead, this system responds well to agro-ecological practices such as integrated pest management, nitrogen-fixing crops, vermicomposting and multi-cropping.

Agro-ecological practices are often labour-intensive rather than capital-intensive, which is better suited to rural communities that are labour rich but cash poor. Furthermore, these practices produce positive externalities since they strengthen and gradually improve the ecosystem, leading to greater resilience to stresses.

It’s clear that a strong regional food system is predicated on the maintenance of agro-biodiversity through an agro-ecological approach to production instead of intensive chemical monocultures.

Shifting our food system to a sustainable path requires thoughtful and systemic collaboration. The initiatives needed represent difficult tasks that call for long-term commitment, openness to working with new partners, purposeful funding and ongoing monitoring to ensure they deliver.

While difficult, these initiatives provide opportunities for project partners. Stakeholders can improve food outcomes, drive efficiency and innovation, manage risks, build new markets and supply chains, and provide commercial opportunities.