World Food Day

Our Actions are our Future: Grow, Nourish, Sustain. Together.

Today – Friday 16th October – is World Food Day, the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations with its goal to achieve food security for all and make sure that people have regular access to enough high-quality food to lead active, healthy lives. We congratulate the FAO on reaching this anniversary and all the good work the organisation does.

At the same time, it is a day for all of us to reflect on the challenges facing the global food system. Despite advances in agricultural production methods and yields, we fail to produce and distribute sufficient food to nourish an increasing global population. Many production systems are damaging the natural resources on which they or other food production systems rely, and many food producers receive subsistence income from their products. The 2030 Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) of Zero Hunger looks as far away today as it did when the SDGs were first developed. 

Sobering facts from the FAO’s World Food Day 2020 webpage:

  • Over 2 billion people do not have regular access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food whilst the global population is still growing and expected to reach almost 10 billion by 2050. 
  • Nearly 690 million people are hungry, up 10 million since 2019. The COVID-19 pandemic could add between 83-132 million people to this number. 
  • The impact of malnutrition in all its forms – undernutrition, micronutrient deficiencies, as well as overweight and obesity – on the global economy is estimated at USD 3.5 trillion per year. 
  • Today, only nine plant species account for 66% of total crop production, despite the fact that there are at least 30,000 edible plants. We need to grow a greater variety of foods to better nourish people and sustain the planet. 
  • Approximately 14% of food produced for human consumption is lost each year between the “farm” and the wholesale market. Even more food is wasted at the retail food and consumer stages. 

Our ability to effectively nourish an increasing global population is one of the key challenges facing the human race. The global food system is incredibly complex, the world’s largest economic sector, with multiple inputs and outputs. It is often politicised, is subject to various socio-cultural forces, and touches every human being on the planet. Charting a course for the food system of the future requires quality thinking and discussion built on strong evidence-based foundations.   

The Sustainable Nutrition Initiative was founded to meaningfully contribute to this discussion.  Some key thoughts as we consider the future of food:   

The DELTA Model has been developed to help people explore different futures for the food system for themselves. 

The goal remains to achieve food security for all and make sure that people have regular access to enough high-quality food to lead active, healthy lives. We can all help towards this through understanding the food system in all its complexity, strengths, and weaknesses, leading to better informed discussion on the future of food for all of us. 


Image from FAO World Food Day 2020 website

Higher atmospheric CO2 changes the nutritional quality of vegetables

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Vegetables grown at higher carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations may grow better but may not have the same nutritional benefits. 

Increasing atmospheric CO2 concentrations have prompted research into the effect of this phenomenon on plant growth. In general, elevated COis good for plant growth, increasing yield and environmental stress tolerance. However, a review of the research in this field has found that elevated CO2 also reduces the magnesium, iron and zinc content of vegetables. This reduction was as much as 31% for iron in leafy greens. 

In specific vegetables, the review found that sugar content of lettuce, tomatoes and potatoes increased at higher atmospheric CO2 concentrations, while protein content decreased. Other factors, such as antioxidant content, were strongly affected, but this effect was different between different vegetable cultivars. 

Higher yields with lower protein content have also been found for staple crops and grains grown at elevated CO2 concentrations. These changes occurred alongside reduced iron and zinc content. 

In a future with increased atmospheric CO2 concentrations, our crops and vegetables may grow larger and sweeter, but the amounts of other essential nutrients that we get from them may decrease. This could lead to higher caloric intakes required to obtain the same amount of nutrients from these foods. While the concentrations reviewed in this publication were high compared to those expected in the near future, we should be prepared for some degree of impact on our crops. Targeting crop varieties which make the best of the changing conditions is being explored.

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The role of sugar in a sustainable food system

It is commonly heard that high consumption of sugar is linked to obesity, type 2 diabetes and other life-threatening diseases. However, a less discussed problem comes from the fact that sugar displaces more nutrient-rich foods in the food system and in individual diets.

The DELTA Model shows that based on all food currently produced, there is sufficient energy and macro-nutrients to meet the nutrient requirements of the global population – assuming that all food were distributed evenly. However, shortages lie in key micro-nutrients and trace elements such as iron, calcium and zinc. This creates a challenge to meet nutrient requirements without a problematic excess of calories, and within planetary resource constraints.   

Because sugar supplies us with energy and carbohydrates, but little else, it provides minimal nutritional value. The most important aspect of a sustainable food system is that it must meet the nutrient requirements of the population. It can therefore be claimed that sugar is unsustainable in the fact it does very little to meet this requirement. According to the FAO, approximately 2.4 billion tonnes of raw sugar cane and beet is produced per year. This is nearly a quarter of the total food biomass from the world’s farms and oceans, and utilises 31 million hectares of land. This land could instead be used to produce more nutrient-rich foods like pulses, which are high in vitamins and minerals such as zinc, iron and folate.  

On a more individual level, poor choice or lack of choice can lead to an excess of calorie-dense and nutrient-poor foods, such as those high in sugar. If this displaces nutrient-rich foods, ‘hidden hunger’ or micro-nutrient deficiencies can arise, despite the individual eating sufficient calories. It would be unrealistic to believe you could remove sugar from the food system altogether – some sugar and sugar derived production will be needed. However, sugar and other energy-rich and nutrient-poor foods should be prioritised as a target for reduction.


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Microbiomes and Sustainable Nutrition

Did you know that around 10% of your daily energy intake is supplied by intestinal microbes? Or that many plants and animals that we rely on for food are dependent on microbes for their survival? Although the connections between the microscopic world and the global scale of sustainable nutrition are not obvious, microbes play a significant role in the way our food is produced, processed and digested.

The term microbiome refers to a collection of microbes in a certain location. For example, the human gut microbiome consists of the microbial population living in our intestinal tract, which is receiving increasing attention as we recognise its importance in human health.

Microbiomes exist in diverse locations, many of which form part of the global food system. The role of these microbiomes in delivering sustainable nutrition for the global population is increasingly clear.

Cereal crops are a staple food source for the global population, providing predominantly energy and protein. These crops rely on soil nutrients, such as nitrogen, to grow and produce the protein we then consume. Often these nutrients are applied to cropland as fertiliser, produced either industrially or from animal sources. Management of fertiliser application is essential to avoid environmental damage caused by excess nutrients in soils and waterways.

Nitrogen can also be captured directly from the air by soil and root microbiomes, and microbes associated with roots can increase the availability of micronutrients to the plant. These microbes also increase the resistance of crops to soil pathogens. Moreover, soil microbes play a role in reducing soil erosion by producing products that bind the soil together. Current soil microbiome research is tackling the problem of reduced crop yields due to microbiome depletion and working to understand how the beneficial impacts of soil microbes can be harnessed. Learn more

In addition to plant-sourced food products, microbiomes are essential in the production of animal-sourced foods. An example of this is the rumen microbiome. Much of the forage consumed by ruminants cannot be digested by the animal’s own digestive enzymes; instead, the action of rumen microbes converts resistant plant matter, such as cellulose, to nutrients that can be absorbed by the animal’s digestive tract. These microbial products form the majority of energy intake for many domesticated ruminants. The action of the rumen microbiome is thus an important step in converting inedible plant material into animal-sourced food products in our own diet.

Rumen microbiome research currently has a strong focus on minimising the production of methane, a greenhouse gas and by-product of digesting plant material, by the rumen microbiome. This research is unpacking what causes certain microbiomes to produce less methane than others, and what the impact of different animal feeds is on methane production. Learn more

Continuing along the food supply chain, microbes are responsible for the production of common fermented foods. Fermented foods include cheeses, yoghurts, kimchi, sourdough and fermented meats, and are produced via the introduction of microbial populations to the raw food material. Apart from changing the taste, texture and appearance of these foods, the fermentation process enables perishable foods to be stored for longer periods, which can reduce food waste. The nutritional value of fermented foods is also enhanced in many cases. For example, the fermentation of cabbage to sauerkraut results in vitamin B12 synthesis, a nutrient not available in unfermented cabbage. There is also the probiotic capacity of fermented foods: their consumption can introduce beneficial bacteria to the human gut microbiome. Learn more

Microbiomes continue to play a role in the food system even after food is eaten. Although there are microbiomes in different sections of the human digestive system, the gut microbiome is intensively studied for its impacts on human nutrition and health. The make-up of our microbiome is in part determined by our diet, which forms the major food source for intestinal microbes. Just as our own ten trillion human cells require the nutrients we eat to carry out their function, so too do our equally numerous microbial cells. Current research is demonstrating increasing links between gut microbiome composition and various outcomes for human nutrition and health. This includes links to energy and nutrient yield from the diet, roles in intestinal disease and even impacts on brain function and mood. It is now recognised that we cannot have a full appreciation of human nutritional health without consideration of the gut microbiome. Learn more

A sustainable food system is one that ensures food security and nutrition for all, without compromising the future of the economic, social and environmental bases that the system depends on. Microbiomes are a critical element of a sustainable food system. Soil microbiomes enable and enhance crop growth, while playing a protective role in minimising the environmental damage of farming. Animal microbiomes are essential for the conversion of inedible plant material to animal-sourced foods, essential for food security in many developing parts of the world. Fermented foods are an integral constituent of the diet in many cultures and provide a means of preserving perishable foods, as well as adding nutritional and financial value. Finally, the human microbiome in part determines the nutrition we obtain from the foods we eat.

Microbiomes are present throughout the food system, and touch on all aspects of sustainability. As such, designing sustainable food systems for the future must involve consideration of the microbial element.


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Emissions on farm vs off farm

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The Environmental Working Group breaks down the life cycle analysis of total greenhouse gas emissions for common protein foods and vegetables.

As expected, animal foods have significantly higher greenhouse gas emissions. Lamb, for example, has the highest because it generates methane through enteric fermentation and produces less edible meat relative to the sheep’s live weight. Most emissions from meat, dairy and fish occur during production. However, most emissions from plants are generated after crops leave the farm. This is primarily because of the energy needed to cook plant-based foods. For example, post-farmgate emissions account for 65% of dry beans’ total emissions and 59% of lentils’ total emissions.

This does not mean plant-based foods have greater net post-farmgate emissions. For example, 65% of dry bean’s emissions is post-farmgate, which equates to 1.3kgCO2e. On the other hand, while only 10% of beef’s emissions is post-farmgate, this is a larger total of 2.7kgCO2e. The key message is that the main sources of emissions vary among different foods, depending on production and food preparation methodology. This means it is inappropriate to only compare footprints at the production stage. A more holistic view of environmental impact is required for a fair comparison.

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Australia’s changing landscape of protein production

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A study by the Australian Farm Institute tells us that despite the trend towards alternative proteins, large opportunities exist for animal proteins in the future.

The Australian population is growing, forecast to be nearly 29 million by 2030. This will inevitably result in an increased demand for protein. While alternative protein substitution has increased and will continue to do so in the next 10 years, this will not diminish the demand on animal agriculture. Rising demand for protein driven by that population growth will outweigh any additional market share that alternative proteins may gain. However, the current production systems have finite resources. Therefore, both animal and plant production will need to become more efficient and productive if Australia wants to avoid relying solely on food imports to sustain their future population

It is worth noting that the current global food system is plant-based and animal-optimised. Approximately 85% of all biomass leaving the world’s farms is plantsourced. For any sustainable food system to nourish the global population, both animal and plantsourced foods will continue to be required. Animal-sourced foods are particularly important to meet global requirements for micro-nutrients such as iron, zinc and vitamin B12. In fact, scenario testing of possible global food systems with the DELTA model repeatedly demonstrates that animal-sourced food production will not only continue to be needed to provide adequate nutrition to a global population, but that production will also need to be sustainably increased.

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Reducing agriculture emissions through improved farming practices

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McKinsey’s latest report, Agriculture and climate change offers a perspective on how 25 proven GHG-efficient farming technologies and practices could reduce emissions by about 20% by 2050.

This is equivalent to a combined 4.6 GtCO2eq by 2050 compared with business-as-usual emissions. The top 15 measures cover four key areas; energy, animal protein, crops, and rice cultivation. For example; adopting zero-emissions on-farm machinery and equipment, improving animal health monitoring and illness prevention, employing greenhouse gas-focused genetic selection and breeding, and improving rice paddy water management. The top 15 practices would contribute 85% of the emission reduction potential.

The report addresses the issues with greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, forestry, and land-use change, and recognises that major changes are needed to reduce emissions. These changes may be more challenging for agriculture than for other sectors. In addition to this, the agriculture sector has a complicated set of objectives to consider including global nutrition need, food security, biodiversity and the livelihood of farming communities. This cannot be ignored in efforts to reduce emissions. It is therefore essential to take these suggested efficient farming actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, while still considering the importance of still being able to produce sufficient food to nourish the world with the nutrients they require.

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Animal-source foods for human and planetary health

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The Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) has published their position on the role of animal-sourced foods (ASF) in sustainably improving nutrition globally.

GAIN illustrates the importance of ASF in a nutritious diet. This is particularly important in reducing risk of undernutrition among vulnerable groups, especially children. It highlights the superior nature of ASF in terms of nutrient content and bioavailability, as well as the important contribution animal agriculture makes on livelihoods and ecosystems globally. The paper does acknowledge the environmental impact of animal sourced foods and the need for the livestock industry to do better.

It is possible for individuals on a vegan or vegetarian diet, if they have the resources and means, to meet their nutrition requirements through a combination of plant-based foods and relatively expensive supplements. However, this is not affordable and accessible for everyone. The GAIN paper highlights that people in low and middle income countries tend to especially be low in iron, vitamin A, zinc, calcium, and high-quality protein. Most low-income consumers in these nations would benefit from sustainably increasing consumption of animal-sourced foods to provide the nutrients needed for better health and development.

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