Food systems transformation: a massive challenge with massive costs… but inaction will cost far more

Scientists have reiterated the massive costs involved in transforming the global food system to make it more sustainable.

They estimate that around USD$ 1.3 trillion of investment is needed each year from now until 2030 to put the way we produce, distribute, and consume food on a more resilient and equitable footing.

Writing in a “perspective” piece in the scientific journal Global Food Security, the authors’ analysis shows that approximately half of that money should be channeled into halting the conversion of forests and peatland for agriculture. The rest should be directed towards reducing risks faced by food producers, lowering emissions from food production, and supporting innovation.

The perspective follows a 2022 Clim-Eat Discussion Starter on the Cost of Transformation. The analysis draws on a 2020 report from the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), which detailed 11 specific actions needed to reconfigure food systems in the face of climate change. Each of the actions was costed using estimates available in the literature.

Authors of the Global Food Security article – representing Clim-Eat and the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT – argue that even approximate estimates of the cost can help to focus on the urgency of global action. They also highlight that the eyewatering price tag is only a small fraction of the cost associated with the food system’s remaining in its current, unsustainable form.

Clim-Eat’s Research and Innovation Strategist Phil Thornton, co-author of the Global Food Security perspective piece, believes that achieving such a level of investment requires fundamental changes to the way we approach the problem.

“Transforming something as vast and complex as the global food system is going to take decades, and that requires multi-generational thinking. Getting a handle on the likely shorter-term costs involved in starting the transition is a good place to start.”

The article notes that the total Official Development Assistance provided worldwide in 2019 was USD$168 billion. Although this is only a small fraction of what’s needed to transform food systems, filling the gap could be achieved by a mixture of increases in such assistance, more climate finance, well-designed levies and taxes, and redirecting some existing subsidies and funding streams towards achieving more sustainable food systems. But they note that all these options are “politically charged” and what is really lacking is the political will to put incentives in place to bring about change.

You can read the perspective piece in Global Food Security here, and access the Discussion Starter here.

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