Aug 20, 2013

Sustainability Of Our Global Food System

I have recently attended a course about Sustainability of Food Systems coordinated by Dr. Jason Hill from University of Minnesota - USA. Analyzing data from FAOSTAT and evidences describing the global food challenges made everybody realize how much we take food for granted and how fragile our global food system could be.

With the population expected to reach 9 billion by 2050 and the diet habits changing fast in the developing countries, we are at risk of losing forest by the increasing demands of lands for agriculture, exhausting water sources, increasing famines, rising in food prices and lowering the diet quality. I have decided to write this article in order to share with you some of the topics that caught my attention trying to contribute to a more conscientious household, a healthier community and a more sustainable global food system. 

  • Food Waste:

Globally, 1.3 billion tons (or 1/3) of the world's edible food is wasted (Ref). It is also about wasting resources that went into developing and transporting those products; 300 million barrels of oil; 25% of fresh water consumed and 198m hectares of land. Food waste that ends up in landfills produces methane gas, which leads to climate change. Methane gas is 20% more toxic than CO2. Beyond the environmental issue, 1 in 5 children struggle with hunger and every 3.6 seconds a person dies of hunger - 75% of them are children. Are these figures not scary?

From a consumer’s perspective, people should make greater effort to more effectively plan meals; which will minimize overbuying food products. Each restaurant meal creates 1/2lb of waste and 90% of this could be reused or composted. I am always saddened to see what people will throw out at the end of a meal.  This translates to not only waste of food, but waste of money.

Food service organizations should work with food recovery intermediaries to donate leftover edible food. Organizations should also review their operating plans to identify efficiencies and better procurement policies to minimize leftover food.  Governments should review food date labeling policies. Many countries have conflicting policies and multiple dates on food packages. These dates are often not expiration dates, but customers treat them as absolute expiration dates leading to good food thrown away.

  • Organic Farming

Farmers have been accustomed to their current inorganic practices. Changing them cannot be accomplished overnight. Though organic farming is believed to bring no harmful threats to humans or the environment, the farmers assert that the approach is more tedious and laborious. They further claim that their present inorganic practices have not resulted in any observable adverse effects yet. Moreover, they also claim that the prospect of organic farming is uncertain.

The risk aversion of farmers to shift to more sustainable organic farming can be addressed by providing farmers with the right information and knowledge, incentives to tilt their current production, institutional and infrastructural support (physical infrastructure, market facilities) and the enforcement of the agriculture law.  

One might wonder why organic food is so expensive? I consider myself a sensitive consumer, organic and pro-local-fresh-ingredients orientated; it is almost unaffordable to go beyond 40% organic in my food basket. The organic food has not seen a considerable decrease in prices compared to the non-organic food. The reasons are obviously the higher production costs and lack of subsidies.

  • Methane Emissions From Rice Production

The rice plant is very unique in that it can grow in places that no other crop can due to its semi-aquatic nature.  It is no surprise that 140 million hectares of rice are grown worldwide, 90% of which is produced and consumed in Asia.  The warm, waterlogged soil of rice paddies provides ideal conditions for methanogenesis. At between 50 and 100 million tons of methane a year, rice agriculture is a big source of atmospheric methane.

Midseason drainage and intermittent irrigation greatly reduce methane emissions. Organic inputs can be applied to aerobic soil in an effort to reduce methane emission. The major rice growing regions of China and Japan have adopted the midseason drainage practice. Northwest India has adopted the intermittent irrigation method. Research to lower the methane emissions while also producing high yield paddies is continuing on a large scale globally. 

  • Sustainable Palm Oil:

Increased palm oil production and demand is causing deforestation and reduction of biodiversity in Indonesia and Malaysia. Over 85% of palm oil production comes from species of palms introduced from West Africa and South America. These are not native to these areas and as such have a dramatic effect on the native flora and fauna. Unfortunately, in the process of growing palm oil, tropical rainforests are being decimated and wildlife that has lived in these forests is being driven out.

Whilst there is a scheme for Certified Sustainable Palm Oil, it is not well supported by manufacturers and has attracted criticisms from environmental groups. Moreover, many desperate poor workers are taken advantage of and used as slaves.  There are reports of human trafficking, low to no pay, and keeping the workers such that they cannot leave to go home to their families.

Consumers have to use their buying-power to influence the purchasing of palm oil by manufacturers. If demand is placed on the manufacturers then pressure will then trickle down to governments and palm oil producers to strengthen and improve the certification of palm oil.

  • Overfishing:

The world’s oceans are running out of fish; on average people eat four times more fish than they did in 1950. Globally last year each person consumed around 37 pounds. According to FAO around 80% of global fish stocks are over-exploited, depleted, fully exploited or in recovery from exploitation. Currently, less than 1% of the oceans are protected, although the international community has agreed to raise this to 10% by 2020. However, these zones are only effective if governments have the resources to protect them.

I believe that local fishermen should be held responsible over their fishing; they have a vested interest in seeing stocks improve. Governments should set the quota based on stock in their surrounding waters. It has been done successfully in New Zealand, US and my country Tunisia. In severely depleted zones, there should be an introduction of protected reserves where all fishing is banned. Annually adjusted and/or individual transferable quotas could be jointly implemented, perhaps an independent scientific commission could be set up to monitor and ensure all sides are following the rules.


We had approximately more than 50 nationalities involved in the course and each of the attendees shared different local risks affecting the sustainability of their local food system. Investing locally is the key. I believe that how we spend money dictates everything; businesses will not create products for which there are no markets.  For me, this means I spend my food budget where I think they will have the greatest positive impact and contribute to the most sustainable system.  I try to give my money to small farmers in my community. If I cannot do that, then I try to buy from organizations that have integrity and sustainable goals.  Do I always succeed? NO. But I try, and if enough people use their buying power to support sustainable systems we can change the entire food industry

Monaem Ben Lellahom

The article was published by (CSRwire is a digital media platform for the latest news, views and reports in corporate social responsibility (CSR) and sustainability. Founded in 1999 to advance the movement toward a more economically just and environmentally sustainable society and away from single bottom line capitalism, CSRwire has paved the way for new standards of corporate citizenship, earning the international respect of thought leaders, business leaders, academics, researchers, activists and the media.)