Africa: How Transforming Food Systems Could Unlock a $12 Trillion Global Windfall

23 September 2021

New York — With the world still counting the social and economic costs of the Covid-19 pandemic, amid a fresh "code red" on the climate crisis, food may not seem like the most pressing threat to humanity.

Yet transforming entire food systems around the world offers the solution to the $12 trillion challenge many have not yet realised we are facing.

The existential threats that appear to be looming on the horizon are in fact already silently costing the world in poor health, environmental losses and stifled economic growth, a toll that could reach $16 trillion by 2050.

Rethinking the whole food systems value chain from the way food is produced to how it is marketed and sold, and how waste is processed, has the potential not only to save these hidden costs but to safeguard the very sustainability of people and planet.

The caveat is that this transformation at every point in the process, from sowing and harvesting to cooking and composting, will not be easy or straightforward. Choices made at the farm and business level to the technologies we advance in science and policies we make in governance come with trade-offs and risks.

But the rewards on offer - on every front and for every country worldwide - go beyond dollar figures to tangible improvements for lives, livelihoods and the natural world.

To start with, improving the productivity and efficiency of food systems can support a strong and equitable economic recovery from the pandemic, and lay the foundations for a more prosperous future.

In low-income countries, for example, the biggest losses currently come just after harvest, when farmers struggle to extend the shelf life of their crops and produce long enough to reach market for a lack refrigeration or appropriate storage.

Meanwhile, in high-income countries, food is more often wasted by consumers who buy more than they need.

Reducing these losses would cost an estimated $30 billion, according to the Food and Land Use Coalition, but the potential return could be as much as $455 billion in savings and new opportunities. It could also reduce eight per cent from current global emission levels.

Investments into stronger local value chains, allowing farmers to get more food to market and consumers to buy only what they need, can help improve livelihoods for those in agricultural sectors while also improving access to nutritious food, reducing the hidden cost of diet-related illnesses and educating consumers on the environmental cost of their choices.

Such efforts were among the outcomes of the UN Food Systems Pre-Summit at the end of July, when Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda, announced a common position for Africa ahead of the Summit. At the heart of this shared agenda was a commitment to bolster local markets and supply chains and increase agricultural financing to 10 per cent of public expenditure.

Transforming food systems from production to consumption and disposal can also support the "Net-Zero" goals adopted by a growing number of countries.

With food systems collectively contributing around a third of emissions, wholesale nature-positive changes can help countries meet their Paris Agreement targets and reduce biodiversity loss.

And there are opportunities to invest in more sustainable food systems across the board, from innovations that reduce emissions associated with livestock through better health and nutrition, to using clean energy in food processing, transporting and packaging, which accounts for more than 20 per cent of food system emissions.

These solutions will be promoted by countries and partners leading global initiatives and coalitions that cut across the interconnected challenges of climate change and hunger to increase both resilience and sustainability.

Finally, investing in healthier and functional food systems would also unlock better public health, saving the global cost and burden of hunger, malnutrition and illnesses linked to poor diets, such as diabetes.

This starts with developing food systems that prioritise food safety and hygiene, including reducing the spread of foodborne illness, which alone costs low and middle-income countries an estimated $110 billion a year in lost productivity and medical expenses.

Such a shift would require investments on the supply side, to scale-up and incentivise production of adequate, accessible and healthy food, and investments into educating consumers to make better informed dietary choices.

The prize of successfully transforming global food systems is not just the $12 trillion saving in hidden costs, but the very survival of the world as we know it.

To date, the UN Food Systems Summit has generated dozens of game-changing initiatives to help countries realise the full potential of functional and sustainable food systems, and we have already seen almost 70 countries incorporate them into national pathways that address their unique circumstances and challenges with many more to come at the Summit.

We are fast approaching the crucial moment for more governments and their publics to throw their weight behind these solutions and commit to flagship initiatives that will bring to bear the promise of a healthier, inclusive and resilient future. We cannot afford to get this wrong.

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