This week the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the Global Alliance for Nutrition (GAIN) signed up to a new joint partnership. One of us aims to stop the degradation of the earth’s natural environment and to build a future in which humans live in harmony, the other to deliver more nutritious food for all people. At face value fundamentally different jobs. Why, it might be asked, would we be joining forces?
The answer is that both of our missions touch on one of the most important challenges of our era: that food systems are failing nature and are leaving billions of people without safe and nutritious food. As UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres puts it, making peace with nature is the defining task of the coming decades. And he adds it has to be done while pursuing better livelihoods and advancing the needs of the most vulnerable.
So where do we stand on food?
Current food systems are not working well for people.
We have seen massive improvements in productivity that have helped feed a world population which has trebled since 1950, and created jobs for over one billion people. But for many, food systems are misfiring every day: three billion people cannot afford a healthy diet, and 690m are chronically hungry. Poor diets are the major cause of global ill health, 1.9 billion adults are overweight and a further 650 million obese. Yet in less than three decades, if we don’t change what we eat and how we produce it, production will need to increase by 56 per cent to feed – and nourish – up to 9.8 billion people.
Current food systems are not good for the planet.
Increased productivity has already come at a cost for the planet. Food production has driven 70% of biodiversity loss on land and 50% in freshwater. It has caused 80% of global deforestation. Food systems produce 29% of all global greenhouse gas emissions. The degradation of nature destabilizes our planet and studies show our ability to produce food could be reduced in the future, with climate change potentially reducing some crop yields by as much as a third.
But we cannot do without food. It can’t be phased out like fossil fuels. In short, reforms to agriculture and food systems are central to managing the environment and climate emergency, as well as tackling malnutrition and poverty.
The past eighteen months have been dominated by COVID-19, which has shone a light on many fragilities in food systems. A new, more coherent approach is being sought. We are each leading workstreams in the preparations of the United Nations Food Systems Summit (FSS) which is one of five major events in 2021, including the Climate Change, Biodiversity, Desertification and Nutrition for Growth (N4G) Summits. These offer hope for new thinking and action.
The FSS will be used to launch bold new actions to transform the way the world produces and consumes food. GAIN is leading efforts to ensure access to safe and nutritious foods for all. WWF is leading efforts to boost nature-positive production, to meet the fundamental human right to healthy and nutritious food within planetary boundaries, by protecting, sustainably managing and restoring our productive lands and waters.
The only way to deliver on these goals is to combine our efforts. While there are many synergies between our work – for instance, we know that balanced and diverse diets help deliver nutrition and that agrobiodiverse food production is good for nature – there are also many trade-offs. For example, we know the impact of overconsumption of some foods on land, water and biodiversity; at the same time, some of these foods are the shortest in supply and least available to meet the basic nutritional needs of many hundreds of millions of the poorest people. Unless we work together, we run the risk of serious unintended consequences in one area through well-intentioned actions in another.
Many already want this joined-up thinking – not least young people. A solution to plastic pollution alone, or climate change, or wildlife loss, or feeding everyone healthily is not enough. They want solutions for all of these together. It no longer makes sense to seek solutions in isolation. The current way of planning independently for improvements in areas such as nutrition, hunger, biodiversity, climate, and livelihoods is being shown to lead to failures in each. This recognition is going to change how everything is done, and requires organisations such as ours to think hard about how we work. By working in partnership and combining our knowledge, evidence and skills we can help lead the transitions into nature-positive food systems which provide healthy and nutritious food for all. This has to be the ambition for a sustainable planet and a healthy people.
Our agreement has specifics goals but our starting point is a very simple idea – the need for food systems to benefit people and nature. To get effective answers to the challenges Antonio Guterres sets needs radical changes to how everyone works.