A sustainable food and land use transition could net $4.5 trillion economic boost

food transition

The benefits of transforming the way that food is produced, processed, distributed, consumed and disposed of in order to deliver a sustainable food system far outweigh the costs, according to a major new report. 

The analysis of global food systems and their potential for change aims to assess the benefits and costs associated with both drastic reforms to the global food system and continued business-as-usual. It concludes the way societies produce and consume food costs $12 trillion a year in damage to the environment, health and development. If no action is taken, the costs are expected to rise to more than $16 trillion each year by 2050, the report states.

In addition, inaction will result in increased rates of malnutrition and more than 10 million will face premature death due to obesity by 2050. As the planet heats up, food production and supply will come under severe threat, it warns.

The report was published by the Food and Land use Coalition (FOLU), established at the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York in 2017. It brings together scientists, policy makers and leaders from civil society and business, including the Business and Sustainable Development Commission, a founding member of FOLU.

The latest report concludes it is possible to tackle climate change, protect nature, make human diets more healthy and improve food security, while also unlocking trillions of dollars in new business opportunities each year by 2030.

The commission recommends that companies in the food sector change their current business models, where products are designed for cost, convenience and shelf life, and traceability between producer and end-consumer is limited or non-existent.

Up to $4.5 trillion a year by 2030 in economic benefits are available for companies that can translate the hidden costs of current systems into new markets and purpose-driven strategies, it said.

However, seizing these opportunities is likely to require new business models that emphasize value over volume-based economics, which in turn might require a generational shift in mindset and leadership, it said.

The coalition also suggests a transition to farming systems that protect and restore land and forests and reduce carbon emissions, while sustaining healthy food production. For example, regenerative agriculture, a system of farming that aims to restore nature while producing food, has the potential to reap benefits worth around $1.2 trillion a year by 2030, it estimated.

As well as protecting habitats, such systems could provide more than a third of the global emission reductions needed, the coalition said.

The report recommends that governments should develop national food and land use policies to forward the transition, backed and accelerated by business leaders worldwide.

Meanwhile, private and public investors must drive $100 billion of investment a year by 2023 into accelerating the transformation of the food system, while the U.N. secretary-general, leaders in U.N. agencies, multilateral development banks and the International Monetary Fund should align and support these agendas, it states.

"This is the closest to a win-win we will get, reaping huge social, economic and environmental benefits," said Jeremy Oppenheim, FOLU principal and global report co-lead author. "This report proves for the first time that it is possible, indeed economically attractive, to feed 9 billion people with nutritious diets within planetary boundaries and to do so in a way that is good for rural communities."

A growing number of leading food companies are already engaging with many warnings and recommendations contained in the report. Last week Nestle, the world's largest food company, announced a sweeping new plan to become a net zero emission business by 2050.

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