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Transforming food production and consumption for the 2030 agenda

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The importance of food, agriculture and land use to sustainable development is clearer than ever. Transforming the entire food production system could significantly help to mitigate climate change, improve human health, promote economic development and reduce poverty.
Published in 2019, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on Climate Change and Land Use underscored the urgent need to overhaul the global food system to help control climate-warming emissions, emphasizing that food, agriculture and land use patterns could have the greatest impact in the rapidly closing window of time that remains for preventive action.
The food system faces an unprecedented set of challenges, such as meeting the growing demand for food, avoiding deforestation, reducing rates of diet-related diseases and controlling rising temperatures. Current food production comes with significant social and environmental costs, including water scarcity, soil degradation, ecosystem stress and biodiversity loss. Decades of intensive farming and expansion of agriculture have led to “unprecedented rates of land and freshwater use,” according to the report.
As the population grows, the food gap (the delta between the amount produced and the amount required to meet demand) is expected to more than double the required crop calories in 2050 compared with 2010 levels. According to the World Resources Institute, if today’s production levels were to remain constant through 2050, feeding the planet would entail clearing most of the world’s forests and wiping out thousands of species, and emissions would contribute to global temperatures raising above the 1.5°C warming target, even if emissions from all other human activities were eliminated.
Impacts from the current system will get worse as the global population and middle class continue to grow, and an increase in extreme weather is projected to disproportionately affect the tropical and subtropical parts of the world, where worsening conditions could lead to increased displacement, disrupted food chains and threatened livelihoods.
Transforming the food system also presents tremendous opportunities for gains in health, environmental sustainability, and economic development. A report from the Lancet and EAT estimates that the adoption of a planetary health diet — rich in plant-based foods with fewer animal-sourced foods — would minimize severe environmental degradation and prevent approximately 11 million deaths annually. Furthermore, the World Bank estimated that achieving the targets of undernutrition will only require $70 billion over a ten-year period, while creating $850 billion in economic returns.
The IPCC assessment underscores the urgency for systemic changes to food production as a global priority that engages all actors, and business has an essential role to play. Therefore, in this year’s study, we set out specifically to increase participation in the food sector, both in our survey and in our interviews with CEOs, to better understand the unique perspective of business leaders in a sector that is ripe for transformation and can have meaningful impact on the Global Goals.
The importance of sustainability is rising on the agenda of CEOs in the food industry. The percentage of food industry CEOs citing sustainability as “very important” (72%) is much higher than for other industries (53%) and is also a striking jump from 55% in 2016, says The United Nations Global Compact—Accenture Strategy CEO Study on Sustainability 2019.
One driver may be rising awareness and interest from consumers on food-related sustainability and health issues. Seventy percent of industry CEOs say consumers are the most important stakeholder driving their sustainability efforts, compared with 52% from other industries.
Expectations are translating to purchasing behaviour, and CEOs say market trends — toward plant-based proteins, for example — are shifting to real business opportunities. In the words of Ian Moir, group CEO of Woolworths Holdings Limited, “We have seen the consumer moving into plant-based food, and we are seeing an increase in those categories. We already see this as a real opportunity.”