3 crucial food system priorities to fix the broken food system

Humanity has a great need for food and we have built a six-continent food supply chain to meet demand. But scientists’ suggestions for the 3 food system priorities might surprise you.

When it comes to food system priorities, we usually default to the human dimension, perhaps through the four elements of food security—availability, access, utilisation and stability. Food is for people, after all.

But check out this opening stanza from a science article in the learned journal Nature, perhaps the most prestigious for serious science about the natural world. 

Land use and food production are not meeting people’s needs. Agriculture destroys forests and biodiversity, squanders water and releases one-quarter of global greenhouse-gas emissions. Yet one-third of food is wasted, 800 million people remain undernourished, 2 billion are deficient in micronutrients, and obesity is on the rise. 

Guido Schmidt-Traub, Michael Obersteiner and Aline Mosnier (2019) Fix the broken food system in three steps Nature 569, 181-183 

We’ll overlook the emotional verbs in the passage (destroys, squanders, wasted) but take the overall message — land use and loss of biodiversity presents a major risk to food production as does the human tendency for profligacy in anything we consume

And there is the inequality statistic. 

If over 10% of the human population lacks food, how can anyone with any humanity condone so much waste? 

Remember that 10% of the global population is over 800 million people.

Most of us in the West are aware of the obesity issue, which is as much about a change in diet to sugar and grains as it is about sedentary lifestyles. Our bodies did not evolve to handle either. 

The micronutrient one is the sleeper. 

Nutrient deficiency could lead to diseases and vulnerabilities for want of the elements that we need only a small amount of but are essential to so much of our bodily functions.

young woman eating a sandwich that came from a six-continent food supply chain

Photo by Gardie Design & Social Media Marketing on Unsplash

Shifting perspective on the food system

The rhetoric is that the six-continent supply chain is an economic powerhouse. It soaks up capital and adds labour from people and fossils to generate returns in dollars and more people. Just ask the South Koreans if they are keen on more people.

Only the profit focus is not sustainable. Through its lauded efficiency, it mines natural resources and exports waste products to the environment. It has worked to get us here, but it has failed to meet our needs. We could add degraded soils, climate change impacts, volatile commodity prices, extended supply chains, etc  

The novel perspective from the scientists is that the environment and especially the soil and agricultural landscapes that produce our food, are what we have to meet human needs. 

Shifting from person to place for food system priorities can help to understand the challenge and offer solutions.

Schmidt-Traub et al. propose three food system priorities as a solution.

  • Efficient and resilient agriculture systems
  • Conservation and restoration of biodiversity
  • Food security and healthy diets

Loosely this is ecosystem services, conservation, and food sense that are linked because they each rely on nature. Schmidt-Traub et al. also propose that these priorities are consistent with sustainable development—a bit of an oxymoron but we will discuss that elsewhere.

The solutions are also about how we use nature, what parts we want to keep and our sense of well-being. This is true even though the issues point to the very base of our hierarchy of needs. 

Here is the graphic of the six-continent food supply chain with integrated land and water planning embedded in it, and within that, their food system priorities as three pillars.

Graphic that combines the 3 food system priorities

What is in the pillars?

Efficient and resilient agriculture systems

The market has made food production efficient. Priorities for efficiency and greater production are good, especially for the businessman or investor—nothing like a profit imperative to minimise costs and maximise returns. 

The real challenge is resilience. And not just because profit imperatives tend to externalise costs onto the environment as pollution and can tolerate food waste through economies of scale and the consequences of competition. The real threat to resilience is intensification, the shift in agriculture from an energy source to an energy sink.

drone picture of a combine harvester

Photo by Scott Goodwill on Unsplash

Conservation and restoration of biodiversity

Almost all food is grown and reared. In other words, applied ecology is the interaction between organisms and their environment. 

Agricultural production systems have simplified the ecology to focus on a handful of plant and animal species that comprise the bulk of human food. But what food ecology tells us is that biologically simpler systems are not only less diverse biologically, but they are also more fragile. There are fewer species to pick up the slack if one or more are lost.

Conservation also makes sense for the collective ecosystem services that biodiverse systems deliver. Holding water in a landscape with plants to cover the soil is easier.

And where the biodiversity matters is in the soil.

Pillar 2 solutions for protecting and preserving nature make sense but are easily at odds with Pillar 1 objectives.

landscape of meadows and woodlands

Photo by Claudio Testa on Unsplash

Food security and healthy diets

Zero hunger, low dietary disease, and reduced food waste are goals borrowed somewhat from the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Exactly how hunger, dietary disease, and food waste are to be reduced is not suggested, but again that is understandable, for not only are these technically challenging they have to deal with human decision-making. 

Bring psychology into anything and not only is it closer to the guts of the issue, it makes it wicked.

At sustainably FED, we focus on sustainable diet that captures the need for food with the need for metabolic health through nutrition and link it to the food system through what a person eats, what she feeds her family and the collective diet of nations and the human species.

Young Kenyan girsl in school unforms fetching water

Photo by Tucker Tangeman on Unsplash

How easy is it to focus on these food system priorities?

Do you remember the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change

Probably not. If you are under 25 years old, it was before your time. 

The UNFCCC might be familiar from all the press on climate change but don’t confuse it with the IPCC, which predates UNFCCC by four years. The IPCC is the panel of scientists who tell us what’s happening with the climate, and the UNFCCC is the international agreement they helped create. The COPs, a conference of the parties, including the famous COP 21 in Paris, come around towards the end of each year sit under the convention.

But I digress.

The UN conference that delivered seminal global environmental statements went down at the infamous Rio Convention in 1992. For the first time in history, the environment attracted world leaders, prime ministers and presidents instead of just Environment Ministers who don’t even have a corner office.

These UN proceedings and declarations were supposed to be both a statement of the problem and a call to action for biodiversity and climate. 

We will outline what happened elsewhere, but one word is enough for this discussion: failure. 

A big, fat, undeniable failure. Even after 27 COPs, the climate continues to change with increasingly dire consequences for ecosystem goods and services. 

Biodiversity loss is still on a downward trajectory.  And yes, the UN Convention on Biodiversity has COPs too; COP 15 occurred in Montreal, Canada, in December 2022.

Meanwhile, the drivers of degradation are rising: human land use, energy use, and economic activity. Growth is essential. Again, just ask the South Koreans.

In other words, the solutions to build and maintain food system priorities are difficult to find and deliver

Internationally we can’t agree, and we are beset with detail locally.

We will explore many of the details elsewhere on sustainably FED in our sections on sustainable food and food ecology. Still, the global call to action that happened in 1992 at the Rio Convention is just as important today, more so if anything. 

There are more people and fewer resources than there were 25 years ago. 

2.3 billion more people.

Or, if you prefer, a 42% increase in the global population of 5.5 billion people alive in 1992, the year Madonna released her Erotica album and Whitney Huston was number one in the singles charts with I will always love you.  

There were 2.3 billion people alive at the time of World War 2.

hundreds of men in a crowd

Photo by sasan rashtipour on Unsplash

Environmental matters are connected

We are grateful to Guido Schmidt-Traub, Michael Obersteiner and Aline Mosnier for their framework and have borrowed heavily from it to help us structure sustainably FED.

Their topic areas summarise some of our thinking on environmental issues, population, and resource use. It has helped us bring a disparate set of topics and solutions into one tent, even though we have always known that they are intricately linked. Work on one, affecting several others. 

This is an important concept. 

All environmental matters are connected in numerous ways because they result from human beings using nature as a resource for wealth creation and basic needs, yet wanting the resource to still be present as though it were pristine. 

Solutions to the increasingly acute problems humanity faces are not of the silver bullet kind. They cannot be fired at one target because there is no one target—one challenge affects another that links to another and then a fourth. 

But here is the hope.

Nature has made it work for billions of years, so we know it can be done. 

Before modern humans proliferated, global biodiversity was as diverse as it had been in evolutionary history despite the past mass extinction events. There were more than enough resources to allow a single species to grow in numbers and colonise every continent. 

In a crude sense, we have to figure out how nature did it and do it again.

What sustainably FED suggests…

Thank you to Guido Schmidt-Traub, Michael Obersteiner and Aline Mosnier for their framework of food system priorities and their premise that the food system is broken and needs to be fixed.

We agree.

Profit-based production feeds people but at the cost of disconnecting from nature. The food system priorities are to go back to how food is grown, processed and eaten… and still feed everyone well.

  • Efficient and resilient agriculture systems
  • Conservation and restoration of biodiversity
  • Food security and healthy diets

It is tempting to make this a ‘back to nature’ option that has everyone on a paleo diet and half the planet rewilded. Only there is a snag—8 billion people—7% of all humans that have ever lived are alive today and need food.

And so we come to the critical caveats.

Understand that resources are finite and trade-offs in resource use are inevitable. 

If we want more food there will be a cost to other environmental values. The challenge is understanding the specifics of the trade-off and deciding which resource to use, when and by how much so that different values can be maintained.

It is not possible to retain all values everywhere. We are sorry, but this is the truth.

It is possible to be smart about the choices though. Indeed, being smarter starts with recognising there is a trade going on and that there are linkages between the priorities, they are hard-wired together.

This linking of the pillars is the key—they must be connected through their foundations.


Mark is an ecology nerd who was cursed with an entrepreneurial gene and a big picture view making him a rare beast, uncomfortable in the ivory towers and the disconnected silos of the public service. Despite this he has made it through a 40+ year career as a scientist and for some unknown reason still likes to read scientific papers.

Add comment

Subscribe to our explainer series

* indicates required

Most discussed