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A substantial shift for a sustainable food system

Credit: Global Communities / Juozas Cernius

As the world is reaching the halfway point of the 2030 Agenda, the release of the second Global Sustainable Development Report (GSDR) takes stock of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) progress. This Report supplements the 2019 edition with evidence adapted to a world that is struck by a confluence of crises. Although the world is off-track to fulfil SDGs, the aim is to provide practical solutions to enable decision-makers to quicken actions towards sustainable development with science as a cornerstone to spur this momentum.

One necessary security that urgently needs to be speeded up is food security. In that sense, in the GSDR 2019, sustainable food systems and healthy nutrition patterns were already an entry point for transformation. However, recent crises threaten the progress in this sector. Therefore, the current Report, analysed here, aims to build on the 2019 report by accelerating transformation through essential entry points and enabling science to support this acceleration.

“Transformation is possible, and inevitable” GSDR 2023

Despite a derailing trajectory, what can be done to accelerate transformative actions towards sustainable food systems and healthy nutrition, diets and consumption and how can it be achieved?

Impediments curtailing a transformation

Food systems can be described as a “complex combination of local, national and global unsustainable agricultural, processing, trade and transport, and retail systems” with direct relation to health and equity aspects worldwide. Thus, the entire food value chain needs to shift.

To support this transformation, changing the rules of the market by reforming subsidies is a crucial leverage point. Currently, public sector subsidies are often directed towards unsustainable activities. Additionally, increasing subsidies for smallholder farmers facing inflation caused by multiple crises is important.

The pandemic triggered an increase in food prices which rose further because of the war in Ukraine. The conflict has disrupted the supply of food imports from Russia and Ukraine, which account for 12% of traded calories, 73% of sunflower oil, and 30% of the world’s wheat production. In 2022, wheat imports from Ukraine and Russia represented 90% of total wheat imports in Somalia and more than 70% for Madagascar. Consequently, the reduced amount of available food resources worldwide translates into inflation.

From June to September 2022, over 89% of Least Developed Countries, 93% of Landlocked Developing Countries, and 94% of Small Island Development States saw food inflation above 5%, highlighting the disproportionate impact of crises, according to the report. These countries often rely on a few exporting countries meaning that have a low resilience when imports are cut. The people experiencing poverty are always the worst affected by food price increases as food represents an important part of their budget and inflation renders these commodities unaffordable.

Climate change adds another layer that further exacerbates food crises through droughts, floods and low rainfall.

Institutional barriers, concentration of landownership, weak governance, trade-offs between goals and behavioural and social norms around consumption and diet are common impediments hampering the transformation. For example, actions to achieve SDG 2 may create competition and conflict over land and intensive farming can cause soil degradation, pollution, and biodiversity loss.

Another example is sunk investments in existing capital such as food production as well as trade-offs among development objectives generate reluctance from vested interests and political will. Sometimes, legislation can also be repealed due to strong lobbying and political changes.

Scenario projections indicate that significant progress toward achieving SDGs can be made by implementing new policies, technologies, investments, and behaviours.

A shift of model and patterns

The worldwide proportion of people suffering from hunger keeps rising steadily. As of 2021, almost 10% of the world’s population suffers from hunger, with Africa being the hardest hit at nearly 20%. Against this backdrop, it has become clear that the transformation of our food systems is inevitable.

Food systems must strive for a shift towards “regenerative, ecological and multifunctional agricultural systems, irrigation efficiency improvements and environmental flow protection, global optimised redistribution of agricultural land, reach maximum yields before allocating new cropland, intensifying livestock systems, shift from grassland-based to mixed systems, enhanced carbon sequestration and reduced methane emissions and improved management of soil carbon loss”. Important shifts are needed including an improvement of fertiliser efficiency of 70% and a global yield increase of 32%, states the report.

Consumption patterns must also transition to reach healthy nutrition. By 2030, the consumption of meat in high-consumptive regions must halve or diminish global calories from meat by 43%. By 2050, we must aim for a global shift towards the EAT-Lancet diet or that 50% of the global population switch to plant-based diets. We must also seek to implement 18 proven nutrition interventions. Lastly, by 2030, food aid must be reached to address rising food insecurity and scale down the malnourished population to 4.9%.

The GSDR proposes specific interventions that can have a systemic impact on the entry point, sustainable food systems and nutrition patterns. These interventions include improving water-use efficiency in agriculture by means of safe wastewater reuse, as well as reducing food loss and waste by 50%. Additionally, it is suggested scale up agro-ecological practices.

But how can we encourage this shift?

Mainstreaming sustainable food systems and healthy nutrition, diets and consumption

The UN established several levers for interventions namely, governance, business and finance, science and technology, individual and collective action and capacity building.

Governance: Governments have a central role to play in implementing such measures. Addressing the lack of political will be crucial to unlock the political change. In turn, policy reforms and investment in enabling conditions such as water management, gender-responsive policies and agro ecological and landscape approaches, among others, may emanate. Citizen pressure and engagement can play a role in pushing for the transformation. Public health information, educational materials and guided food choices can be relevant through incentives and disincentives to raise awareness and educate.

Business and finance: With sufficient investments in agricultural R&D, there is a potential to nearly eradicate hunger by 2030. Investments in technical climate-smart measures in agriculture can contribute to fight hunger and reduction of Green House Gas emissions.  Trade liberalisation should increase to reduce importing countries’ costs and counteract inflation. Agricultural subsidies and food aid can aid in reducing hunger.

Science and technology: Technologies to augment yields must rapidly be uptake, particularly in Africa, Asia and Latin America. It is also crucial to redesign agricultural practices to further expand models such as agroforestry, intercropping and vertical agriculture. Consumers can also be introduced to plant-based alternatives such as artificial meat.

Individual and collective action: Social norms around healthy diet for the younger population must be changed to encourage a shift towards the planetary health diet.

Capacity Building: Capacities are required to implement the previous levers and curb impediments such as unsustainable diets and consumption practices. Managing trade-offs between food security and environmental goals is also essential.


The nutrition-related SDGs encourage a reduction of ultra-processed foods, sugars, low or no-nutritional value products and meats and a scale-up of plant-based food and whole staple crops. These habits must be adopted early in life at school. To this end, Brazil has implemented a National School Feeding Program through a collaboration of various ministries to contribute to food security, education and rural development objectives.

Estimates project that a dietary tipping point may be reached in Europe by 2030 only if a quarter of the population has adopted the planetary health diet. However, Europe is not making sufficient progress on nutrition or sustainable food supplies.

As a transformation of food systems requires a cross-sector collaboration of multiple stakeholders, France launched a national food programme in 2014 to establish “territorial food projects” to gather producers, processors, distributors, local authorities, civil society actors and consumers to come together.

Finally, the interconnectedness of SDGs strengthens the need to use an interlinked approach to nurture progress in multiple areas while leaving no one behind.


  • The global poly crisis coupled with a lack of actions imperils food systems and the achievement of the 2030 Agenda.
  • Substantial shifts must made in our food systems and consumption patterns.
  • Cross-sector actions of all actors involved are required.
  • Horizontal policy coordination is crucial to ensure systemic approaches.

Written by David Mingasson, SIANI reporter