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World’s Food Systems Need Overhaul, Experts Say

April 28, 2016

By Karen Kemp

The world faces profound problems in supplying nutritious food to its growing population, yet few leaders recognize the urgency of the problems, a panel of food policy experts said Wednesday.

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  • panel of speakers at food event

    Panelists: Public-Private Partnerships Needed

    Shenggen Fan, director general of the International Food Policy Research Institute, makes a point while Juergen Voegele, senior director of the World Bank's Agriculture Global Practice, and Betsy Holden, senior advisor at McKinsey & Co., and former CEO of Kraft Foods listen. Sanford School Dean Kelly Brownell (right) was moderator.

    Credit: Duke University Photography.

The panelists gathered at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy to discuss “The Future of Food Policy.” They outlined a series of troubling major trends, including:

  • A growing middle income group, especially in Asia. This group is estimated to expand from 2 billion today to 4.9 billion by 2030.
  • Growing population, estimated to exceed 9 billion by 2050.
  • Climate change, which is causing a loss of 3 percent to 5 percent of food production capacity every year.
  • Groundwater contamination, occurring worldwide.
  • Food waste, estimated at 30 percent worldwide.

The panel discussion, moderated by Sanford School dean Kelly Brownell, preceded a daylong meeting of more than 35 world food policy leaders. The group gathered to lay the groundwork for a World Food Policy Center at the Sanford School.

Participants included experts from the World Bank, Council on Foreign Relations, Union of Concerned Scientists, U.N. World Food Programme, World Health Organization, PepsiCo, Sustainable Food Systems Funders, Cargill, Codex Alimentarius Commission, CGIAR, and the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations.

Integrated Problem-Solving Needed

“The World Food Policy Center is really exciting,” said panelist Juergen Voegele, senior director of the World Bank's Agriculture Global Practice. “We need to move from individual, compartmentalized thinking to integrated problem solving. The world really needs this.”

Voegele noted that agriculture, which relies on nitrogen-based fertilizers, is the only industry that has changed very little in the last century.

“We are using Stone Age technology to make our food,” he said. “No other industry would get away with” failing to innovate, he said, adding that the way government subsidies are applied is a big part of the problem, he said. “It’s not a sector that doesn’t have money (for research). It’s a sector that doesn’t spend its money wisely.”

As populations shift to cities, food problems are amplifying, he noted. Governments are involved in every other service needed in cities -- transportation, education, health -- but food supply is left solely to private industry.

Food waste is a more serious issue than most leaders realize, Voegele said. “If we don’t solve the food waste problem, we don’t solve the climate problem.”

Despite the complexity and severity of the problems, the panelists were optimistic that solutions can be found through strategic research, public-private partnerships and effective policymaking.  

Betsy Holden, senior advisor at McKinsey & Co., and former CEO of Kraft Foods, pointed to a partnership among multinational food companies and governments that is improving the food supply chain and nutrition in Africa.

Shenggen Fan, director general of the International Food Policy Research Institute, said a “Food System Index” under development could provide a powerful tool for encouraging governments to address shortcomings in their food systems. Similar rankings such as the World Bank’s “Doing Business” rating system, have been effective in getting leaders to pay attention, he said.

“Countries feel bad when they go one level down. We need something similar in food, to show when nations are failing the environment and failing people.”

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