We Need a Roadmap for 21st Century Food Systems: Will the UN Deliver?

This week’s headlines are a stark reminder of how precarious global food systems are. The United Nations released sobering statistics that 122 million more people are facing hunger since 2019, with the global total now topping 753 million. Meanwhile, the food industry has recorded billions in profits. Soaring heat, blazing wildfires, and devastating floods jeopardise harvests around the world. This is all compounded by the collapse of the Black Sea Grain Initiative—the deal that allowed Ukraine, a major grain producer, to keep exporting during the invasion.  

A bold vision for food system transformation couldn’t come at a more critical time. This autumn the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization plans to release a roadmap for the global food system to align with achieving the Sustainable Development Goal on zero hunger and limit global warming to 1.5°C. The UN Food Systems Stocktaking Moment happening this month is a critical opportunity for governments to push for an ambitious roadmap that translates into improved food security, health, and sustainability in their countries by 2030.  

The food system has become one of the biggest drivers of biodiversity collapse, air and water pollution and the climate crisis, contributing to one third of all emissions. As a significant consumer of energy-intensive synthetic fertilizers and petrochemicals, the industrial food system contributes to cancers, fertility decline, antimicrobial resistance, and neurological disorders. As medical journal The Lancet recently noted, the unhealthy food industry, alongside the fossil fuel industry, alcohol, and Big Tobacco, is responsible for one third of all global deaths. 

In other words, the stakes are high, and the UN must get this roadmap right. 

First and foremost, a useful roadmap is one that aligns with planetary boundaries—the limits science tells us we can safely operate within. That means a roadmap that meets the need for emissions cuts to limit global warming to 1.5C—and to preserve our water, air, biodiversity, human rights, and public health. A holistic and systemic approach is essential.

It needs to make clear that the disastrous consequences of our food system aren’t accidental—they stem from its very design. Much of it is ruled by a pirate code: quantity beats quality, bigger is better, profit is everything—no matter the consequences. Last year’s food price crisis, while food industry profits soared, was just the latest reminder that ensuring food access isn’t solely about productivity. 

We need a roadmap that addresses the economic and political systems that allow prices to skyrocket while people go hungry and farmers suffer. It needs to set out how to incentivize food producers to reduce dependency on fossil fuels and transform environmentally destructive production systems. 

There’s huge potential here: As the UN Environment Program noted in 2021, 87 percent of the $540 billion spent every year by governments on support for agricultural producers is “either price distorting or harmful to nature and health.” Imagine a roadmap that shows a way to channel those public resources toward the public good. 

 The roadmap can’t afford to assume business-as-usual. Here, its collaborators could benefit from lessons from the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) roadmap to a net-zero energy sector by 2050. By failing to model for the explosive growth of renewables, the IEA’s roadmap was used by laggards to justify stalling progress and ignored by those working for a more ambitious path. 

Instead, it needs to be forward-looking. Like the energy sector, the food system is positioned for significant transformation. The next few years could see widespread change: right-sizing meat consumption in high-consuming countries, diversifying protein sources, scaling up agroecological farming, and more. The roadmap needs to both chart—and inspire—such change. 

The roadmap should be clear about underlying assumptions, risks, and trade offs, including about diets, disease, climate, and population growth. How does the roadmap account for appropriate technology innovation? Or calls for tapping into Indigenous farmer expertise, shifting diets, and more? Transparent assumptions help build a clear, credible vision.

 Finally, the roadmap must be informed by, and responsive to, the small-scale food producers and fisherfolk who ensure a well-fed world. Through our work, we see their on-the-ground innovations every day. As previous work out of the FAO has shown, research that responds to these communities and reflects their lessons has powerful impact. The UN needs to make extra effort to ensure that small-scale producers have a real voice in shaping the roadmap now. 

 A roadmap grounded in business-as-usual assumptions and lacking ambition and broad support would be a lost opportunity. Members of our alliance working around the world have seen for themselves: a food system transformation is underway, one that supports thriving agricultural communities, provides access to nutritious, culturally appropriate food, and promotes biodiversity. 

A roadmap done well could showcase this transformation and create the conditions to build a global food system that serves people and the planet for the 21st century and beyond.