How will we feed the world?

By: Sjaak Conijn · 20 October 2021
Category: Food systems

This is part 14 of a blog series on food systems. This article was written by Sjaak Conijn. 

The primary objective of food systems is to feed people in a healthy way. Unfortunately, most countries do not fully succeed, because worldwide there are 800 million people who go hungry, and also nearly 800 million people who are obese. Food systems often have negative consequences as well, such as for biodiversity and sustainability. In our research we want to find out how food systems can be made sustainable and future-proof, with enough healthy food for everyone. We focus on bringing quantitative and model-based input in the discussion on transition pathways towards healthy and sustainable food systems and applied this quantitative approach to Ethiopia to assess consequences, benefits and trade-offs of alternatives for the current diet.

How much food is enough?

The first question that we must answer is: How much food in total is required to end hunger according to the Sustainable Development Goals? In order to calculate this, we used the food security indicators from the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), the Prevalence of Undernourishment indicator to be precise. We looked at two different levels in our analysis. First, the individual level: what is the minimum amount of food energy that the average Ethiopian needs for a healthy life? This depends on factors such as age, gender, and degree of physical activity. But we also take the whole group into consideration, because in practice some of the population eats more than the minimum. Zero Hunger for the entire population therefore means that more food energy is required than the amount that all individuals combined would need.

According to our analysis, the required intake of food energy should be 3% (individual level) or 27% (population level) higher than the current level to end hunger in Ethiopia. At the same time, we expect an increase in overweight people at the population level compared to now. If it is not possible to combat over-consumption successfully, then less hunger will be accompanied by more obesity. This situation is also found in FAO’s set of food security indicators at the national level of Ethiopia.

What is a healthy diet?

The EAT-Lancet committee has defined a healthy diet by quantifying the minimum, average, and maximum intake of about 20 food groups (such as cereals, pulses, vegetables, milk and meat). Using this, we created a number of different diets for Ethiopia that meet with the guidelines for energy intake, dietary diversity, vitamins, micronutrients, etc. In our study, we compared the current diet in Ethiopia with these healthy alternative diets, which in principle can be produced in Ethiopia. The current national average values for food supply are taken from the Food Balance Sheet of the FAO.

We conclude that most healthy diet alternatives from our analysis contain less cereals and root crops, and more vegetables, fruit, milk, meat, and fish. This shift from starchy crops to foods like vegetables and fruit is also clear from several other studies. This is mainly because the current diet of Ethiopians does not include all vitamins and micronutrients that the current guidelines deem necessary. Among others, it does not contain enough calcium, riboflavin, and vitamin B12 and only has just enough iron and potassium. There is no lack of these nutrients in the alternatives defined, but there are still a number of vitamins and micronutrients that just above the guidelines in some of these diets. This still poses a risk for health problems if not everyone can consume these amounts.

What does a healthy diet cost?

If alternative diets are expensive, then the availability of sufficient and healthy food for the whole population will be at risk. In our study, we also calculated the cost of food in Ethiopia. In this, we compared the costs of the current diet with the healthy alternatives. We also examined the extent to which the costs can be lowered through different choices within the applied guidelines for healthy diets.

The current diet was determined to be the cheapest. This is to be expected in a country with a relatively low income per capita. Healthy or healthier diets are therefore more expensive, as relatively cheap cereals are replaced by more expensive vegetables, milk, or meat. The average price for the defined alternatives in our analysis were shown to be nearly twice as expensive as the current food package. However, there are major price differences between the alternatives: the most expensive alternative is nearly twice as expensive as the cheapest alternative diet.

How can we achieve sustainable food systems?

We used the above alternative diets to estimate the production of different crops and animals required in 2050. By then, the population of Ethiopia will have nearly doubled compared to now. It is therefore a major challenge to adapt and future-proof the current food system. What sustainable options are available to provide healthy diets in terms of land use, demand for water for humans and agriculture, nutrient management, food imports, income development, food prices, and biodiversity?

Further research is required to find these options. We do this by connecting economic models to bio-physical crop models and combining the different spatial scales, from sub-national to global. In this way, we aim to show what it means to provide adequate food for the population of Ethiopia in 2050. Our objective is to develop a generic model based method that is also applicable to other countries. This helps in quantitively identifying the benefits and trade-offs which is needed to take informed decisions in order to allow everyone to have healthy food in the future, while preserving biodiversity and natural resources. Next step is to find out how this could be used in current and future projects, while the results for Ethiopia will be summarized in a scientific paper.

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Sjaak Conijn

Researcher Sustainable Food Production Systems

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