Research Article: Food systems for sustainable development: proposals for a profound four-part transformation

Date Published: August 9, 2018

Publisher: Springer Paris

Author(s): Patrick Caron, Gabriel Ferrero y de Loma-Osorio, David Nabarro, Etienne Hainzelin, Marion Guillou, Inger Andersen, Tom Arnold, Margarita Astralaga, Marcel Beukeboom, Sam Bickersteth, Martin Bwalya, Paula Caballero, Bruce M. Campbell, Ntiokam Divine, Shenggen Fan, Martin Frick, Anette Friis, Martin Gallagher, Jean-Pierre Halkin, Craig Hanson, Florence Lasbennes, Teresa Ribera, Johan Rockstrom, Marlen Schuepbach, Andrew Steer, Ann Tutwiler, Gerda Verburg.


Evidence shows the importance of food systems for sustainable development: they are at the nexus that links food security, nutrition, and human health, the viability of ecosystems, climate change, and social justice. However, agricultural policies tend to focus on food supply, and sometimes, on mechanisms to address negative externalities. We propose an alternative. Our starting point is that agriculture and food systems’ policies should be aligned to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. This calls for deep changes in comparison with the paradigms that prevailed when steering the agricultural change in the XXth century. We identify the comprehensive food systems transformation that is needed. It has four parts: first, food systems should enable all people to benefit from nutritious and healthy food. Second, they should reflect sustainable agricultural production and food value chains. Third, they should mitigate climate change and build resilience. Fourth, they should encourage a renaissance of rural territories. The implementation of the transformation relies on (i) suitable metrics to aid decision-making, (ii) synergy of policies through convergence of local and global priorities, and (iii) enhancement of development approaches that focus on territories. We build on the work of the “Milano Group,” an informal group of experts convened by the UN Secretary General in Milan in 2015. Backed by a literature review, what emerges is a strategic narrative linking climate, agriculture and food, and calling for a deep transformation of food systems at scale. This is critical for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement. The narrative highlights the needed consistency between global actions for sustainable development and numerous local-level innovations. It emphasizes the challenge of designing differentiated paths for food systems transformation responding to local and national expectations. Scientific and operational challenges are associated with the alignment and arbitration of local action within the context of global priorities.

Partial Text

An exceptional process reached its conclusion in 2015. For the first time in history, world leaders have unanimously agreed on a vision for the future of humanity: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Through a set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 targets (UN 2015), the agenda articulates a universal and integrated plan of action of application in all countries, developed and developing alike. The 2030 Agenda integrates the three dimensions of sustainable development across the 17 SDGs, and within each of the goals, together with human rights, peace, security, and governance. In the words of the then United Nations Secretary General, it represents a paradigm shift and a plan of action for dignity, people, planet, prosperity, justice, and partnerships (UN Secretary General, 2014. paragraph 64). In this framework, SDG 2 aims to “End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture,” while SDG 13 urges to “Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.” The impact of climate change undermines human rights and reinforces inequalities and injustice. In this way, climate action is also a moral imperative that brings justice to the center of the climate-poverty-development discussion, a message that is at the core of Pope Francis’ Encyclical “Laudato Si” and the Climate Justice perspective (Robinson 2015). Through the Paris Agreement on climate, 195 countries have established a universal action framework in line with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (Nature Climate Change 2016). The SDGs set concrete targets for multiple issues and sectors that are critical to climate action.

The sustainable development of the world’s people and of their planet is only possible if all people are food secure and well-nourished, if all ecosystems are healthy and balanced, if societies are resilient in the face of threats posed by climate change, and if governance of development benefits is fair and just. Food systems “consist of all the elements (environment, people, inputs, processes, infrastructures, institutions, etc.) and activities that relate to the production, processing, distribution, preparation and consumption of food, and the outcomes of these activities” (HLPE 2014).

Food systems provide a powerful lever for economic and social development. Agriculture, food processing, and distribution have evolved substantively in the last century because of urbanization, mechanization, and modernization. Their performance has deeply transformed most economies.

These four parts together make up the food systems transformation that is required if the SDGs are to be achieved. The use of the term “transformation” is deliberate as incremental change will not be enough. The breadth and depth of the transformation required suggest that it must be supported by people who are committed to radical, collective and long-term change. We do not refer to it as a revolution, since it must happen as a well-conceived and carefully planned process that engages all stakeholders. Considerable intellectual and material investment is required to make it happen. The investment should result in exploration of a broad range of options and should be explored as a basis for developing novel strategies and practices (Godfray et al. 2010, op. cit.). Barriers and obstacles that impede action must be identified and overcome. This includes power imbalances and conflicts of interest across food systems (HLPE 2017b), as well as the trade-offs needed to align local systems with global priorities for sustainability. Managing the trade-offs calls for enlightened governance and political arbitration. The investment includes an exceptional national and inter-national mobilization of people with the capability to do this work and to establish means to build inclusive, sustainable, and safe agriculture, food, and rural systems. The people who lead it must be able to embrace the four components of food systems transformation and to create optimal conditions for their implementation. The transformation will not occur spontaneously: it must be planned, designed, implemented, and monitored by those who will be locally involved in implementation working within agreed parameters for sustainable development at national and global levels.

Inclusive and sustainable food systems are necessary not only for achieving SDG 2 but also as a contribution to the whole of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Sustainable food systems may contribute to four outcomes: (i) enabling all people to eat nutritious and healthy diets, (ii) regenerating ecosystems, (iii) mitigating climate change, and (iv) encouraging social justice through focusing on the resilience and well-being of poorer rural communities. There are economic and political interests which will influence the realization of these outcomes: transformation efforts will be contested and need strong political support, including from within urban areas, if they are to succeed.




0 0 vote
Article Rating
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments