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Global Food Systems Institute

Global Food Systems Institute

Food Systems and the Environment

This thematic area aims to:

  • Assess environmental impact of existing and alternative food systems and develop mitigation strategies.
  • Develop more biodiverse, nutrient and water efficient food production systems.
  • Explore routes to circularity of food production and systems.

Agriculture is essential to provide the current and growing population with healthy and sufficient food. Yet food production today is credited with some of the more globally damaging environmental problems facing us today: a primary driver of deforestation, land use change and loss of biodiversity; contributing to greenhouse gas emissions and climate forcing,  accounting for the majority of water withdrawals, and eutrophication of waterways and coastal zones, among others.  Actions taken at one scale (the farm) can have regional (water) and global (climate) consequences. Many of these environmental impacts in turn can affect human health. The entire food system from production to consumption, including postharvest storage, processing, packaging, distribution, and waste, all contribute to environmental impacts.

The two-way interactions and feedbacks between food production/food systems with many environmental processes and ecosystem services illustrate both the complex and dynamic nature of the production system. In order to mitigate the environmental problems associated with agriculture and develop more sustainable food systems, it is essential to understand these interactions and how interventions in one component of the system can cascade in negative (tradeoffs) or positive (synergies) ways and either improve or worsen the impacts in other components of the system. This requires a transdisciplinary approach that is grounded in data, indicators, and models to assess and compare current and proposed alternative systems. Locally relevant data are needed to develop and evaluate models for use in estimating indicators and in scaling plausible interventions.  These models can elucidate possible tradeoffs and synergies with the environment and provide guidance for better interventions.

Technologies currently exist that could make food production and food systems more environmentally sustainable, i.e., fewer tradeoffs, more synergies, but they are not widely adopted on farms, landscapes, and in factories. Are they not profitable or too risky for farmers, or companies, affordable for consumers? Are they not accessible or appropriate to broad swaths of populations? Answering these questions requires studies that involve stakeholders throughout the food system. These studies can inform the enabling environment that is required to redress the constraints to widespread adoption.

Key questions to investigate environmental impacts of food systems and identify potential alternatives:  

  • What are key indicators and cost-effective tools and models for assessing the environmental impacts of current/alternative food production/systems?
  • What are the tradeoffs among food production, environmental goals, health, societal, and economic outcomes? Tradeoffs for whom? What can be done to mitigate tradeoffs? What are the costs? Who pays?
  • What are possible routes to circularity for different food systems that reduce wastes including food, water, energy, plastics?

GFSI Lead for the Food Systems and the Environment thematic area is Ziynet Boz and Rafael Muñoz-Carpena