Our current food system is responsible for more than a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions, cautions Dr Shenggen Fan, Director General of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). So when it comes to food production, we need to create more with less: less water, less energy, less land and fewer carbon emissions.

Yet focussing on food quantity is not enough, he argues. It's imperative to focus on quality too; which is why the world needs a sustainable system that protects the environment and produces enough healthy, nutritious food for everyone. “It's not acceptable that we continue to have so many hungry and undernourished people in today's world,” says Fan. “While we have to produce and consume food in a more sustainable way, nutrition and health must be part of the equation.”


Innovation in food production


For this to happen, we need to embrace technological innovation. For example, some biotechnology breakthroughs in food production — such as genetic engineering — may sound promising but face hurdles in the form of regulations, restrictions and, perhaps most important of all, consumer acceptance. “Which is why need to empower citizens to understand the potential of innovative technologies,” says Fan. “If we do, it may help us produce more food — and more nutritious food — while reducing our environmental footprint.”

Take 'cultured' meat, which is grown in a laboratory from animal cells. “Obviously this presents lots of challenges, but could have a positive impact on the environment, nutrition, health and employment,” says Fan. “I'm not promoting this method. I'm just suggesting we should look at the opportunity it represents — and its potential drawbacks. It's one to watch.”


Factors that increase hunger levels


It's incumbent upon every citizen of the world — not just political leaders — to help eliminate malnutrition and hunger, insists Fan. “We can all push the political system to effect change. But in order to do so we need knowledge and data so that we can track and monitor our progress and hold our politicians to account. That's vital.”

For example, this month, the IFPRI published its annual Global Hunger Index which highlights successes and failures in world hunger reduction. Unfortunately, notes Fan, the Index shows that hunger levels are rising for the first time in several years; so despite the enormous progress that has been made in the last few decades, momentum can be lost without food systems that are both resilient and sustainable. Some countries in conflict zones are of particular concern to him, such as South Sudan, Somalia, northern Nigeria and Yemen. “There is an increased correlation between conflict and hunger,” says Fan. “Political turmoil, the refugee crisis, climate change — all these factors can come together to create the perfect storm that increases hunger levels.”


Knowledge is a vital resource


Yet he is cautiously optimistic, too, because many countries on the Index are making good progress, including Vietnam, Senegal, Ethiopia and Bangladesh. “Bangladesh in particular has done a wonderful job in improving its food system resilience by, for example, building irrigation and drainage systems and establishment of social safety net, so that there is a way to deal with weather shocks when they occur.”

The message about the benefits of a sustainable food system is slowly getting through. Yet more needs to be done. “In some countries, there's a trade-off between sustainability and hunger reduction,” says Fan. “Of course we have to recognise that smallholders in developing countries need to produce food to feed their families; but if they aren't equipped with the right knowledge and innovations and if policies are not right, they will continue to degrade the soil with inorganic material and use more water than necessary, and they could become part of the problem.”


Learn more: www.globalhungerindex.org