Roadmap Offers Solutions for Future of food systems innovation and sustainability
In order to deflect future global food shortages triggered by climate change and rising market demand, the Cornell University-led multinational team of economists, scientists and industry experts-has built a path map for progress, reform, and growth in global agricultural and food systems.
The task of achieving a healthy food future requires juggling a variety of conflicting needs. By 2050, the world must feed many more people, more nutritiously, and ensuring that agriculture leads to poverty mitigation through inclusive economic and social growth, while at the same time reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, habitat destruction, degradation, and contamination of freshwater and other environmental impacts of agriculture.
Food has important historical, social, cultural, environmental, and economic dimensions. Currently, the EU and global food systems are affected by major challenges such as climate change, migration, a growing world population, urbanization, and resource scarcity, in addition to the “triple burden” of malnutrition, aging, and food poverty.
“By any measure, our global food systems are phenomenally productive, responsive and adaptable, as we can now feed almost $5 billion in a healthy way,” said Chris Barrett, professor of applied economics and management, and international professor of agriculture at Cornell’s Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, who leads the initiative.
“But that means that almost 3 billion people cannot afford a balanced diet. And with the imminent population increase, wage growth, and climate change that have already been introduced into the food system, our present agricultural gains and practices are not viable,” said Barrett, who is also a faculty member of the Department of Global Development and the Department of Economics. “We cannot continue on this path globally without destroying the planet and putting billions of people in jeopardy.”
In December 2019, more than 20 industry, government, non-profit and science experts from around the world convened to launch an expert panel at Cornell Tech in New York City to evaluate research connecting agro-food systems, technical and institutional advances, and the potential needs of society.
The group presented seven key proposals in a 170-page study to make the world’s agri-food systems safe, fair, resilient, and sustainable. Its key suggestion is to combine societal and technical advances.
“There’s really no technology that’s a silver bullet,” said Barrett, a fellow Atkinson at Cornell. “During the Green Revolution, for example, breeders developed seeds, but to scale these changes, governments had to build roads to reach farmers and provide extension programs to teach farmers about how to use new seeds. This is bundling. All these pieces were necessary, complementary components.”
The second big plan calls for a reduction of the land and water footprint for food production. Society cannot successfully solve climate and biodiversity depletion problems – and for example, reduce the likelihood of virus-driven pandemics – without easing agricultural demands on land and oceans.
“We’ve reached this point where we’re starting to see the downside of [boosting fossil fuel food production], particularly climate change, and also the depletion of soil and water resources and other key food production resources,” said co-chair Rebecca Nelson, professor at the School of Integrative Plant Sciences and Global Growth. “We’re all finding that we pollute the atmosphere to a very dangerous amount, and we’re seeing which structures are unequal, and we don’t all feel that the global warming problem is the same.
“Some people are hit much harder than others,” said Nelson, Cornell Atkinson’s fellow, too. In addition, the study recommended the introduction of structural risk management policies; the creation of innovative funding structures to reform agri-food systems; and the reconfiguration of public support for reforms in agri-food systems.
“It’s the worst of times,” Nelson said. “But it’s also the best of times, in the sense that we’ve got powerful tricks up our collective sleeves that we could use to make things better – if we’re willing to implement them.”