The number of hungry people in the world has been rising since 2014, following decades of decline. With 690 million people estimated to be undernourished in 2019, SDG2 was considered off-track for the majority of its targets pre-COVID.
Written by Anne Mullen, Chief Editor (Nature Food) and Monica Contestabile, Chief Editor (Nature Sustainability)
The on-going locust outbreaks in East Africa have placed millions at risk of food insecurity, COVID-19 is wreaking untold damage and the World Bank estimate that it could push up to 100 million people into extreme poverty. COVID-19 and food systems are inextricably linked – the pandemic was zoonotic in origin; it has stressed global food systems profoundly; the impact of the pandemic on food insecurity and hunger is still unfolding; and excess body weight is linked to worse prognosis. Pre-COVID, undernutrition, obesity and climate change were described as three pandemics compounded in as the ‘paramount health challenge for humans, the environment, and our planet in the 21st century’1. It’s certainly been a tough few years, and as the odds against SDG2 appear to stack higher and higher are there causes for optimism?
There is ‘irrefutable urgency’ for food systems transformation2. Achieving the targets of SDG2 by 2030 has become more challenging given the extreme events of 2020, but there is nothing like a crisis to focus the mind – and now, there is palpable momentum gathering in the build-up to the Nutrition 4 Growth (N4G) and Food Systems Summit (FSS) of 2021, and consensus that both summits must have acute focus on human and planetary health.
The N4G in Toyko 2021 has a focus on nutrition supporting human capital for social and economic development. Convened by the Japanese Government, it will seek high-level commitments from a cross-section of stakeholders to tackle malnutrition. And the FSS in 2021 has announced its action tracks on access to safe and nutrition food for all, sustainable consumption patterns, nature-positive production at scale, equitable livelihoods and resilience to vulnerabilities, shocks and stress. These summits are pivotal moments, and to succeed they the support of science, business, decision makers and civil society.
Innovation at each stage of the food supply chain is critical for food systems transformation. We must strengthen and broaden our knowledge of the environmental, economic, social and health impacts of redesigning agri-food systems3. Gene technology, machine learning, big data, the internet of things have all facilitated rapid innovation in the domains of agriculture, food processing, traceability4 and even in the well-established field of food composition5. The scientific communities have a responsibility to filter innovations by sustainability, equity and inclusivity in food value chains6 to support the work of N4G and the FSS.
The business case for human and planetary health is increasingly clear - as diminished human and natural resources serves no business well in the long-term. The redress of power concentrations and business priorities within globalised food systems will need to be priorities for transformation – garnering industry and political will be key ingredients for the N4G and FSS.
World Food Day 2020 has a powerful message: ‘Grow, Nourish, Sustain. Together’. It celebrates food heroes: producers, food workers, consumers – recognising civil society at the core of food systems. The global challenges of COVID-19 have brought the potential for solidarity, advantageous for harnessing civil society towards adopting transformative behaviours. Indeed, the social and behavioural science that informs the COVID-19 pandemic response could afford opportunities for effecting food systems change.
And so, the FAO celebrates World Food Day 2020 in most uncertain and challenging times. This year’s theme – solidarity – is powerful. We face unprecedented challenges in the realm of SDG2, Achieving Zero Hunger, but its ambition is a beacon for the food and sustainability communities as they prepare the scientific and political ground to success at the N4G and FSS in 2021.
1Swinburn, B. A. et al. Lancet 393, 791–846 (2019).
2Webb, P. et al. Nat. Food https://doi.org/10.1038/s43016-020-00161-0 (2020).
3van der Werf, H.M.G., Knudsen, M.T. & Cederberg, C. Towards better representation of organic agriculture in life cycle assessment. Nat Sustain 3, 419–425 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-020-0489-6
4Herrero, M., Thornton, P.K., Mason-D’Croz, D. et al. Innovation can accelerate the transition towards a sustainable food system. Nat Food 1, 266–272 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s43016-020-0074-1
5Barabási, A., Menichetti, G. & Loscalzo, J. The unmapped chemical complexity of our diet. Nat Food 1, 33–37 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s43016-019-0005-1
6Innovating the food value chain. Nat Sustain 3, 1 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-020-0471-3
Anne joined Nature Research in January 2019. She has broad experience in human nutrition and a passion for science communication. As Director of Nutrition at The Dairy Council, she commissioned research and communicated evidence on dairy, human nutrition and health to professional and lay audiences.
She was a lecturer in Nutritional Sciences at King’s College London and led research on nutrient-modifiable inflammation in metabolic syndrome, with a special interest in the management of HIV. She collaborated on an intervention with ready-to-use therapeutic food in malnourished HIV-positive Ugandan adults, and as a research fellow at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine investigated the effects of a micronutrient-fortified porridge on inflammation and nutrition in HIV-exposed Zambian infants. Anne trained as a dietitian and obtained her PhD in molecular nutrition from Trinity College Dublin.
Monica joined the company in 2011 as a Senior Editor at Nature Climate Change. She was the first social science editor at Nature Research. She has handled original research and review articles across the entire breadth of social sciences, and interdisciplinary articles integrating natural and social science disciplines in the context of climate and global environmental change.
In 2015 she moved to Nature, where she served as Senior Strategy Editor developing the company’s editorial and publishing strategy about sustainability, before becoming Chief Editor of Nature Sustainability in 2016. Monica completed her doctoral studies in environmental and development economics at the University of Naples Federico II, Italy; she then held a visiting professor position at University Tecnológico de Monterrey, Mexico, and subsequently joined the sustainable consumption team at WWF-UK where she gained invaluable experience about the challenges of bridging the gap between research and policy domains.