container ship fully loaded leaving port

Some really scary shit about the food system

I want to alarm you. I know it is not the way to gain likes or shares, but it has to be done, so here it is… One-third of the people on earth today suffer from malnutrition.

What follows is a series of facts, the information we know to be true because there is high-quality evidence to support the assertions.

We know that…

  • Every third person alive suffers from one or other forms of malnutrition. 
  • Not enough food of the right sort results in undernourishment (i.e., the main hunger indicator), stunting (short-for-age), or micronutrient deficiencies. Conversely, too much of the wrong food leads to overweight and obesity with a higher risk of noncommunicable diseases (NCDs), such as diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and cancer. 
  • One-third of malnourished means 2,570,000,000 (2.57 billion) people—the size of the global population in 1951.
  • A food-related disease burden—one in three—exists. A simple combination of a lack of access to food or access to high-energy diets with poor nutritional content.
  • On a global scale, enough food is produced to feed everyone. Meaning it is possible to fix access to food.

We also know where the problem lies… in the food system.

red delicious apples harvested but still at the orchard
Image by Jill Wellington from Pixabay

How food is grown, what food and where. How the food is harvested, stored, transported and processed. What happens to food in getting to the consumer, and what do consumers do to prepare meals for the family?

The food system determines how much food is produced and how much of that food is consumed.

Again we know this. No rocket surgery is required.

We also know what we want.

For example, the UN has described the global ambition to end poverty and hunger by 2030

all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food which meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life

UN Sustainable Development Goals

We also know what ‘sufficient, safe and nutritious’ food means. 

Broadly, dietary needs are met by eating foods rich in fibre, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds and natural fats and with moderate animal protein content (meat, dairy and eggs). 

Processed foods, sugar, grains, and seed oils—think muffin or ice cream or breakfast cereal—are ingredients in the most delicious foods on offer, but they lack nutrition and come with unwelcome effects on individual and public health. But the ingredients for these foods are easy to grow at scale, making them cheap to produce and easy to sell at a profit.

And we have to grow a lot of food, at least 22 trillion kilocalories a day. This is only possible with the intensive production of grains, sugar and seed oils. Especially when nearly half the people alive live in urban areas with limited capacity to grow their food.

We know that the global food system 

  • Wastes a third of total production, four times the amount of food needed to eliminate global hunger, according to the FAO.
  • Has a significant environmental footprint, negatively impacting landscapes, climate stability and biodiversity
  • Relies heavily on energy, nutrient and water subsidies from fossil fuels delivered through machinery and industrial processes
  • Must compete with industrial crops (eg cotton, tobacco, biofuels) for access to land and water 

The food system is extraordinary. It has evolved rapidly since the internal combustion engine arrived and has converted the sun’s energy (current and fossil) into billions of people. Sure, it made a mess along the way, but everyone alive today cannot live without it—even subsistence farmers aspire to a bicycle or a mobile phone made by people fed by the food system.

But this comes at a heavy direct cost to one in three people and an indirect cost to the rest of us through the impacts of the food system on the environment.

flock of sheep in a pasture at dawn
Image by Tom from Pixabay

Here is the terrifying thing… The food system could collapse at any moment.

And even as it risks collapse, it also has to change 

To sustainably feed the world’s growing population, reduce malnutrition and improve public health, major changes in food systems are required

Lindgren, E., Harris, F., Dangour, A. D., Gasparatos, A., Hiramatsu, M., Javadi, F., … & Haines, A. (2018). Sustainable food systems—a health perspective. Sustainability science, 13(6), 1505-1517.plp

What sustainably FED suggests

Thankfully the food system feeds everyone; otherwise, where would everyone come from? 

And if it didn’t feed everyone, then there would be global conflicts that would dwarf the tragedy in Ukraine.

So the food system delivers to most people, most of the time. However, it is wasteful, doesn’t feed everyone well, has a massive impact on the environment and has rusted on inequity. 

Globally, the food system is under pressure, and we know it lacks resilience.

So we need to do three things.

First, to understand the global and local food systems for what they are now, including how they came to be what they are now.

Second, to work through options for making the food supply systems more resilient (less risky), many of which we already know about—think agroecology and regenerative agriculture plus a host of options we talk about on sustainably FED—and many more that we need to figure out. 

Third, understand how to apply the best solutions to a global economic system that is as recalcitrant and pig-headed as a stupid white man, run by a handful of people with a lot to lose.

Science sources

Lindgren, E., Harris, F., Dangour, A. D., Gasparatos, A., Hiramatsu, M., Javadi, F., … & Haines, A. (2018). Sustainable food systems—a health perspective. Sustainability science, 13(6), 1505-1517.plp

Hero image from photo by Thomas G. from Pixabay


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.

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