A food system approach leads to food security

A food system is the combination of all the factors that are important for food security. Taking a food system approach allows for a better alignment to various problems in the organisation, availability and distribution of the current food system along with its effects on people and the environment. For example, malnutrition is inextricably linked to the sufficient production of healthy food, while climate change has an effect on production. Thanks to the Food Systems Summit 2021, food systems have now been included on the agenda of other international conferences, including those focused on climate change.

A food system is the sum of a range of factors related to food security

Ensuring global food security requires an approach that takes into
account all the main influences involved. By focusing on the food system as a
whole, problems can be addressed more efficiently.

An approach based on the food system looks at the effects on people,
planet and economy

Finding the solution to a problem using a food system approach involves considering the entire chain, taking into account the production, processing, distributionand consumption of food as well as sustainability, climate change and the recovery of biodiversity. Moreover, the goal is an equitable distribution of costs and revenues in the food chain and ensuring access to nutritious food.

An integrated approach to food systems results in more sustainable solutions for people, planet and economy. Increasing food production during a food crisis, for example, is pointless if it reduces the nutritional value of a crop or results in farmers receiving less for their crops. In these cases, it may be more useful to have farmers grow different crops that are more nutritious and profitable.

An example of a food system approach: Vietnamese rice

A good example of an integrated approach is rice cultivation in Vietnam. The country faced a famine after the war and responded by focusing on the large-scale cultivation of staple food to combat hunger.

This resulted in a huge increase in rice production. The problem, however, is that rice alone does not constitute a versatile diet. Although there was a reduction in hunger, a new food problem was caused by the lack of micronutrients.

Salt makes rice unsuitable for export

Moreover, the soil on which farmers grew their rice in Vietnam contained too much salt, making the rice unsuitable for export. As a result, farmers had lower incomes from this form of agriculture than was potentially possible.

The solution was for various farmers to also start growing different crops such as fruit. They also began cultivating shrimp, further helping to support a more balanced diet. In addition, some of the products could be sold on the international market to enhance the farmer’s financial position.

WUR opts for the food system approach

There is no single food system approach. Different stakeholders underline different aspects depending on the problem they see as most urgent. By developing solutions that also take into account effects on the other aspects of the food system it is possible to prevent new bottlenecks from arising elsewhere.

WUR focuses on four domains in its food system approach:

  1. Food security: sufficient food for everyone
  2. Ensuring a healthy diet
  3. Equitable distribution of costs and revenues
  4. Sustainability: climate change, sustainable use of soil, water and other resources and biodiversity

1. Food security: sufficient food for everyone

Over 800 million people are currently going hungry and by 2050 the global population will have reached nearly ten billion. How can we ensure all these people are being fed?

New technologies and production methods should increase the availability of food, while food should become less susceptible to disease and the effects of climate change. At the same time, we have to prevent food waste.

2. Ensuring a healthy diet

Sufficient food is just the beginning. Malnutrition and obesity are major problems that affect some three billion people worldwide. This group consumes food that is insufficiently nutritious or does not contain the right proportion of protein, fat, minerals and/or fibres.

A lack of nutritious food results in malnutrition which can cause problems such as stunted growth. Food with the wrong nutrient ratios can lead to obesity or other health issues like diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

It is therefore essential to ensure food is also nutritious and healthy.

3. Equitable distribution of costs and revenues

Can farmers live from their yield? And is healthy food financially available to everyone? Costs and revenue should be evenly distributed in the food chain, although this is often yet to be the case.

4. Sustainability: climate change, sustainable use of soil, water and
other resources and biodiversity

Any increase in food production should not be at the expense of the quality of water or soil, and should take into account the availability of other resources such as nutrients. The system should be sustainable or it will create new problems. Preservation or recovery of biodiversity is important to food production and society as a whole. Diseases can destroy entire harvests and eradicate crops. A more diverse ecosystem helps reduce these challenges and ensure that alternative crops remain available so that a proper response to a food crisis is available.

Climate change is also playing a role and there will eventually be a need to make different choices for vegetable or animal production in various regions. The food system approach can enable a timely response to these types of unavoidable changes.

WUR provides knowledge of and research into food systems

WUR applies the Food Systems Approach to carry out research into healthy and sustainable food systems that are future-proof. This includes projects in Ethiopia, Bangladesh, Vietnam and Egypt with NGOs and industry to develop new solutions which are in line with this holistic and integrated vision.

WUR and other research institutes supply knowledge and carry out research while farmers, businesses, NGOs and government bodies apply these insights. Because, ultimately, it’s by working together that partners can generate genuine change in the system.

Food systems on the agenda: the UN Food Systems Summit 2021

The UN Food Systems Summit took place in September 2021. This special meeting of the United Nations decided that every country will take steps toward healthy, sustainable and fair food systems. An evaluation will take place in 2023.

It was also important that the summit placed the food system approach to food problems firmly on the global agenda. This ensures, among other things, that food systems will also be discussed in the framework of the climate summit in late 2022. The Summit made it clear that climate and food problems cannot be seen as separate issues.

Priority for biodiversity

The preservation of biodiversity is currently high on the agenda as there
is an imminent risk of imbalance. According to the FAO nine crops are
responsible for 66% of our food worldwide (measured by weight):

  1. Sugar cane
  2. Corn
  3. Rice
  4. Wheat
  5. Potato
  6. Soy bean
  7. Oil palm fruit
  8. Sugar beet
  9. Cassava

A global food crisis would be unavoidable if a disease destroyed one of these crops. This is why we should always have alternatives available to quickly enable farmers to switch to new crops. And the rest of the food system (distribution, production) should be sufficiently flexible to quickly adapt to a crisis. While the enormous demand for these popular crops makes it less rewarding to invest in other crops, there is an urgent need for biodiversity.