Making the global food system sustainable: Time for the G20 to take the bull by the horns?

Leading up to IEEP's Think 2030 conference, experts express their views on Europe's most pressing sustainability issues in the Think 2030 blog series, Pathways to 2030. 

The fifth edition of Pathways to 2030 features  Céline Charveriat, Executive Director for IEEP, who discusses recommendations to the G20 for fostering a more sustainable global food system.

Let’s face it. The world’s current food system, which fails to produce healthy and nutritious food for all, is completely unsustainable:

  • Agriculture accounts for 70 percent of the world’s freshwater withdrawals.
  • Agriculture was responsible for roughly 80 percent of global tropical deforestation between 2000 and 2010.
  • 10 million hectares of agricultural land is abandoned per year due to soil erosion and related loss of productivity.
  • Global GHG emissions from agriculture, forestry and fisheries have nearly doubled over the past fifty years.

But the worst is yet to come.

It is estimated that an increase of production of approximately 25%–70% above current levels may be required to meet 2050 crop demand, in a context when climate induced changes are already causing harvest losses and might lead to a decrease in the yields of major crops. Moreover, the forthcoming IPCC 1.5 Degree Report will probably confirm that agriculture, forest and other land use sectors are major areas which need to reduce emissions and play a major role in removing carbon from the atmosphere.

While there is an emerging consensus on the need for a major transformation of the world food system, there is little agreement on credible pathways towards sustainability, and even less agreement on the role that trade, markets, investment and other drivers can play. Yet, transitioning to a sustainable pathway will take place within an increasingly globalised agriculture and food system. Agriculture represented 10% of total merchandise exports in 2016. By 2016, the value of world exports of agricultural products had increased by 70% compared with 2006 levels.

The G20 has been a useful forum to bolster international cooperation during the 2008 financial crisis. Since then, the G20 has gradually broadened its agenda, which now includes global sustainability issues, such as climate change and marine litter. In this year’s G20, one of the priority areas identified by the Presidency is “A sustainable food future: Improving soils and increasing productivity”.[1]  The G20 should take the opportunity to “take the bull by the horns” and design an action plan to address the sustainability crisis facing the global food system. The plan should look at how best to internalise current environmental externalities, through improved domestic policies but also through trade-related measures including subsidies, carbon pricing mechanisms, rules and regulations as well as finance.

To kick-start such an ambitious (and potentially divisive) agenda, the following “no regrets” measures could be adopted at this year’s G20 meeting:

  1. Closing the knowledge gap between trade, investment and sustainable food consumption and production by tasking the FAO and the OECD to make a report for the G20 on pathways to sustainable food production and consumption;
  2. Building confidence through the G20 agricultural ministers’ process. The G20 agricultural ministers’ track should be tasked to exchange domestic experiences regarding pathways for sustainable production and consumption of food, including trade interdependencies;
  3. Agreeing to mainstream trade within UNFCCC agricultural negotiations by including a workshop on trade and investment issues within the newly agreed work programme for the agricultural track of the UNFCCC negotiations.
  4. Such initial steps could pave the way for harder discussions to come, regarding changes to disciplines on subsidies, carbon pricing mechanisms, rules and standards. These subsequent steps will be necessary to internalise environmental costs and put the world’s food system back on track, so it can deliver healthy and nutritious food for all, in line with the Sustainable Development Goals.

Find all references and more recommendation in my full paper here:

Achieving Sustainable Development Goal 2: Which Policies for Trade and Markets? ICTSD, July 2018

[1] https://g20.argentina.gob.ar/en/overview-argentinas-g20-presidency-2018