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Environmental Footprint

While the global population increased by 340% between the years 1900 and 2010, global water withdrawal grew by 630% over the same period, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Agriculture and climate change are having severe impacts on water supply and forest cover.

Increased demand for food, due to a rapidly growing global population, will only worsen the negative environmental impact of food systems. Water availability, climate volatility, and deforestation are among the most pressing related issues.


In 2018, the Water Resources Group estimated that, under a business-as-usual scenario, global water requirements would increase by 2030 to a level that is 40% above current accessible, reliable supply. Optimizing the efficiency of water use in production and distribution is critical.


Climate change-related extreme weather events like drought, flooding, and heat waves increase agricultural price volatility, trigger food crises, and disrupt global supply chains. The implications of this are more severe for less-resilient countries; drought in the Horn of Africa in 2011 exposed 13.3 million people in the region to extreme food insecurity, for example, resulting in high levels of malnutrition and a high risk of infectious disease.


Climate change will increasingly affect food systems; rising temperatures and shifting rainfall patterns will put crop production at risk, leading to yield losses and higher food prices.

A 2013 World Bank report, Turn Down the Heat, argued that 2°C of global warming above preindustrial levels could reduce total crop production by 10% (current temperatures are about 1°C above preindustrial levels), though some crops will be more affected than others - just 1.5°C of warming by the 2030s could result in a 40% loss of areas for growing maize in sub-Saharan Africa, for example.


Agriculture can also be a major driver of land degradation, deforestation, and greenhouse gas emissions.


According to a 2016 World Resources Institute working paper, the production of animal-based foods (such as dairy products and meat) was responsible for about two-thirds of production-related greenhouse gas emissions in 2009 (a 2014 study found that halving meat and dairy consumption in Europe could reduce emissions from agriculture by as much as 40%).


Industrial agriculture accounted for 80% of the deforestation in tropical and subtropical countries between 2000 and 2010, according to Yale University’s Global Forest Atlas. Meanwhile an estimated one third of all arable land is degraded, due to the overuse of agrochemicals, soil mismanagement, and poor farming techniques, while deforestation has emerged as an issue of growing importance.

Agricultural Inclusivity

Agriculture plays a key role in poverty reduction, job creation, and food security; there are an estimated 2.5 billion people directly involved in agricultural production, and smallholder farms produce up to 80% of the food consumed in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Food access, however, remains unevenly distributed - as nearly 800 million people still suffer from hunger, according to the Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems. The agriculture sector must create more economic opportunity for smallholder farmers, women and young people.


A study published in 2011 showed that agriculture has a stronger poverty reduction effect than non-agriculture activities - it showed that a 1% increase in agricultural per capita GDP was five times more effective in reducing the poverty gap than the same increase in other sectors.

Agricultural productivity levels vary significantly across regions, with much of the developing world experiencing a so-called yield gap. Limited access to things like fertilizers or improved seeds, information (such as market prices for produce), and poor rural infrastructure have the effect of constraining yields in developing economies. Other hindrances include a lack of knowledge about pesticides, enhanced seeds, machinery, and crop management techniques. Increasing agricultural productivity is crucial for improving the livelihoods of the poor.

 Research has shown that a persistent gender gap in terms of agricultural yields, however, is the result of women’s inadequate access to productive resources and technical knowledge. Women play a crucial role in agriculture.

According to a report published by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the World Bank in 2016, women account for half of the agricultural labour force in sub-Saharan Africa (and more than 60% in countries such as Lesotho and Sierra Leone).


Research has shown that the urban poor spend as much as 80% of their income on food, for example, meaning that there are serious economic and social consequences for price swings. Young people, meanwhile, tend to not see the agriculture as an attractive professional option. They also often lack sufficient access to the knowledge necessary to gain related entrepreneurial skills. This is unfortunate, as the global inter-connectedness and importance of agricultural systems means that related shocks can severely affect the most vulnerable populations.


Efforts to build more stable and equitable markets have included providing farmers with access to index-based insurance structures; implementing multilateral agreements to limit distortionary trade policies; developing adequate emergency food stocks; and using mobile apps to better connect smallholder farmers with market information.

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Rapid population growth, increasing urbanization, and an expanding global middle class will have profound impacts on food and nutrition security, and will place intense additional pressure on the environment. The agriculture industry - as one of the biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions and a sector particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change - is in need of a significant revamp.


Nearly 800 million people go hungry every day around the world, more than 2 billion lack the nutrients required for a healthy life, and one third of the global population is expected to be overweight or obese by 2030, according to the Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition.

In order to cultivate agri-food systems that are resilient, sustainable and equitable in the face of economic, social, and environmental challenges, there are growing efforts underway to transform agri-food systems to ensure that the rising global population has access to food that is nutritious, safe and affordable.


According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations Report, Thinking About The Future Of Food Safety


To make this transformation happen, tools like foresight, which comprises forward-looking approaches, will be needed to identify and navigate the major global drivers, related trends and other issues that may emerge in the future, bringing varying impacts on agri-food systems.

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Value Chain Efficiency

Food pricing and supply are increasingly volatile as a result of more frequent extreme weather events, trade restrictions, and commodity market fluctuation. Optimizing supply chains could help close the global “food gap” between the rich and poor.

Meanwhile rural, smallholder farmers in developing countries often lack timely information on market prices, agricultural techniques, and weather, and have limited access to traditional financial services - making it relatively difficult for them to adjust production, or expand operations by investing in infrastructure.


Smallholder financing opportunities are currently limited; social impact investors have so far met only a small portion of related demand. However, a market estimated to be as large as $450 billion could be tapped if financial services were sufficiently extended to smallholders.


New financing structures, like so-called blended finance (where public and private investors carry a tailored amount of risk) could help create a more abundant supply of credit. Investing greater amounts in smallholder agriculture could not only boost productivity and income, it could also help develop local markets and encourage the sustainable management of resources.


Experts have distinguished between food loss, which results from inadequate technology and poor infrastructure along a value chain, and food waste - which is linked to consumer awareness and behavior.


A Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations report published in 2013 found that roughly one third of food produced for consumption is lost or wasted along the value chain - or 1.3 billion tons of food. The report found significant variations of food loss and waste across regions; more than half in Europe, North America and Oceania occurs at the consumption stage, while in developing countries it takes place during production, handling, and storage (in North America and Oceania, for example, 42% of total food available is lost or wasted, and 61% of this occurs at the consumption stage).


Multinational companies are increasingly relying on smallholder “value chains” (the entire process of adding value to a product) in order to satisfy growing global food demand. Many are supplying technical assistance to support productivity, and creating more awareness of the environmental and social dimensions of food loss and waste. However, capitalizing on these opportunities requires a supportive regulatory environment.


It has been estimated that halving the current rate of food loss and waste could close the global “food gap” separating the dietary access of the rich and poor by about 20%, by the year 2050.

Nutrition and Health

More than 672 million adults in the world, or one in eight, are now obese, according to the 2018 edition of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s report the State of Food Insecurity and Nutrition in the World. While the problem is most significant in North America, according to the report, it is worrying that Africa and Asia are also experiencing an upward trend. As global obesity rates increase, many developing countries are simultaneously dealing with undernutrition.


There has been a growing focus among businesses and governments on quality rather than quantity when it comes to agriculture and food systems. This is at least in part a response to rising rates of obesity (even as hunger persists in many parts of the world).


Meanwhile the number of undernourished people in the world is also increasing, to 821 million by 2017, according the report; undernourishment, coupled with severe food insecurity, appears to be increasing in nearly all subregions of Africa as well as in South America.


Poverty remains the main underlying cause of malnutrition. In many countries, nutrient-rich foods are significantly more expensive than unhealthy foods, and there is a lack of understanding about the components of a healthy diet. In developing countries, this can trigger “nutrition transition,” where populations simultaneously face rising obesity levels and undernutrition.


A broad shift towards western-style diets high in calories, protein, fats, sugars and ultra-processed foods has resulted in unbalanced, unhealthy diets and an increased incidence of micronutrient deficiencies; a report published by the Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition in 2015 noted that this affected more than 2 billion people worldwide. The report warned that if current trends continued, the number of overweight and obese people would reach 3.28 billion by 2030, or about one third of the projected total world population for that year. There is also a financial cost to consider - a 2014 report published by the McKinsey Global Institute estimated the global economic costs of overweight and obesity to be roughly $2 trillion per year, or equivalent to about 2.8% of annual global GDP.



Extensive research on the potential health effects associated with being overweight or obese point to higher risks of cancer, cardiovascular disease, osteoarthritis, and diabetes. A related study published in Diabetes Research and Clinical Practice in 2011 found that the number of adults with diabetes in Nigeria would likely double between the years 2011 and 2030, to 6.1 million.

Food Technology and Innovation


Until recently, the food and agriculture sectors were slow to adopt technologies driving the Fourth Industrial Revolution like the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, and blockchain; there have been low levels of related investment, inspiring relatively few related startups.

Billions of people around the world are poorly nourished, millions of farmers must live at a subsistence level, enormous amounts of food go to waste, and poor farming practices are taking a toll on the environment. Technology innovation can help transform global food systems.


Achieving United Nations Sustainable Development Goals will require the transformation of food systems, so that they become more inclusive, sustainable, efficient, and nourishing. This calls for improved policy, increased investment, and expanded infrastructure, in addition to building more capacity for farmers, changing consumer behaviour, and improving resource management.


A total of just $14 billion was invested in about 1,000 food systems-focused startups between 2010 and 2018, according to the World Economic Forum report Innovation With a Purpose: the Role of Technology Innovation in Accelerating Food System Transformation. By way of comparison, $145 billion was invested in approximately 18,000 healthcare-related startups over the same period.


The WEF, in collaboration with McKinsey & Company, has highlighted technology applications that present emerging opportunities to improve consumer nutrition, increase supply-chain efficiency and transparency, and boost farmer productivity and profitability. While many are in early stages, they could deliver significant positive impacts for food systems by 2030.


Fragmented rural markets, poor infrastructure, and heavy regulatory burdens raise costs for food systems firms, while revenue is often constrained by customers’ limited ability or willingness to pay. In addition, much of the food systems startup activity to date has been concentrated on improving production in developed countries - which can result in less access to new solutions in developing countries.


For example, if consumers were able to replace between 10% and 15% of the meat they consume with alternative proteins by 2030, total greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture could drop by between 5% and 8%, freshwater withdrawals for agriculture could be reduced by between 7% and 12%, and between 5% and 10% of the total land used for agriculture could be freed up for other uses.

Demographic and Demand Shifts

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Demographic shifts are having a dramatic impact on global demand for food. The global population is expected to grow from 7.6 billion as of 2017 to 8.6 billion by 2030, and then to 9.8 billion by 2050, according to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. Population growth, an expanding global middle class and urbanization are presenting challenges for food systems.


Most of this growth will occur in developing countries. In Africa, for example, the populations of 26 countries are projected to at least double in size between 2017 and 2050, according to the UN. Global food systems will need to be prepared to meet a significant increase in global food demand, while also providing for high-quality diets. Global urbanization is also affecting food demand.


According to the UN’s World Urbanization Prospects report, the percentage of people living in urban areas will increase from 55% in 2018 to 68% by 2050 (in 1950, just 30% of the world’s population was urban). Of the 2.5 billion people projected to enter the urban population by 2050, nearly 90% of them will be in Asia and Africa.


As societies become more urbanized, fewer people pursue farming, and lifestyles change; the share of resource-intensive food, which has a stronger environmental impact as it is produced, becomes more prevalent in people’s diets, and their calorie intake increases significantly.

The rapidly-growing middle class in developing markets is now ignoring previous staples as it consumes more processed foods, meat, fish, poultry, and dairy. Growing more food exclusively for direct human consumption could increase available food calories by as much as 70%, and feed an additional 4 billion people, according to the study.


In the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations’ 2012 working paper World Agriculture Towards 2030/2050, the authors argued that the combined impacts of a growing population and an exploding middle class could increase world food demand by 60% by 2050, compared with 2005/2007 levels. Some potential ways of addressing growing demand have been identified. Research published by the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment in 2013 found that only 55% of global crop calories were being consumed by humans, as 36% were being used for animal feed and 9% were being committed to biofuels and industrial uses.

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