Can We Feed a Growing Population Without Devouring Our Planet?

Nov 11 , 2023
By Oyinlola Oyebode , Yureshya Perera and Tlaleng Mofokeng

With soaring food prices propelling hunger to the top of the global agenda, the world has a golden opportunity to adopt a human-rights-based approach to food and lay the groundwork for a healthier, more equitable, and more sustainable future, argue Oyinlola Oyebode, professor of Public Health at Queen Mary University of London; Yureshya Perera, a research assistant at the University of Warwick; Tlaleng Mofokeng, a United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health; and, Sharifah Sekalala, professor of Law at the University of Warwick. This commentary is provided by Project Syndicate (PS) and does not represent the views of the United Nations (UN).

With the world’s human population expected to reach a staggering 10 billion in the next century, the question of achieving food security looms large. The current food system is certainly not up to the task: already, it is failing to ensure that the global population is nourished and contributing to environmental degradation. Radical reform is long overdue.

About 735 million people worldwide faced hunger last year. Some 828 million were undernourished, and nearly 148 million children under five were affected by stunting. Lack of access to fresh, nutritious food has also contributed to rising obesity levels in many communities, as people have been forced to turn to unhealthy foods. Obesity raises the risk of chronic illnesses like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, cancer, and hypertension.

Malnutrition in all its forms (underweight, overweight, and micronutrient deficiency) heightens a person’s vulnerability to infections, fueling a harmful cycle of adverse health outcomes. The constant struggle to secure adequate nutrition – even to avoid starvation – takes a toll on one’s mental health, leading to anxiety, stress, and depression. A recent United Nations (UN) report underscored that the right to food and health are inextricably linked.

The food system is also causing severe environmental harm. It accounts for approximately one-quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions, making it a major driver of climate change. Agriculture takes up nearly half of the world’s habitable land. Areas once occupied by lush forests and other wild terrine – including significant swaths of the Amazon rainforest, which is critical to planetary health – have been cleared to make room for farming, with devastating consequences for biodiversity.

The problem is compounded by the widespread use of pesticides, which are linked – even at relatively low exposure – to multiple adverse health and environmental consequences for agricultural workers, local communities, and ecosystems. The contamination of the Paslon River in Guatemala with malathion, a pesticide used on palm oil plantations, led to the death of thousands of fish, depriving nearly 12,000 people of their primary source of food and the basis of their livelihood.

The consequences of the food system’s failings are felt disproportionately by the poor and marginalised, especially in the Global South. Malnutrition is particularly prevalent in low-income settings or among individuals living in poverty. In high-income countries such as Australia, the risk of obesity among indigenous people is as much as 1.5 times higher than it is for non-indigenous people in comparable areas.

It does not help that four agrochemical companies based in high-income countries control 60pc of the global proprietary seed market. The seeds provided by these firms – on which farmers in low-income countries depend – are often for crops that are not nutritionally diverse or do not meet the dietary needs of local communities.

The current system is clearly not fit for purpose.

But, efforts to improve it are fundamentally inadequate, as they do not account for the deep linkages among food, health, and the environment. Rather than tackling each issue separately, a better approach would be grounded in human rights. Recognising that the rights to health, food, and a clean environment are indivisible and interdependent would advance all three in tandem. As the International Covenant on Economic, Social, & Cultural Rights affirms, all people deserve access not only to health facilities, but also to the underlying determinants of health, such as nutritious food and a sustainable environment.

The first step is a comprehensive UN treaty on food systems that accounts for all relevant rights and actors, and mitigates health and environmental harms that arise along the entire food value chain. Such a treaty must reflect the needs and priorities of low-income countries and vulnerable groups, such as people experiencing poverty, displaced people, and women and children. It must incorporate local knowledge about the food system, from production, processing, and packaging to promotion, distribution, sale, and consumption. In engaging local communities, the nourishing policy framework, developed by the World Cancer Research Fund International, could offer valuable lessons.

PUBLISHED ON Nov 11,2023 [ VOL 24 , NO 1228]

By Oyinlola Oyebode ( Oyinlola Oyebode, professor of Public Health at Queen Mary University of London. ) , Yureshya Perera ( Yureshya Perera, a research assistant at the University of Warwick. ) and Tlaleng Mofokeng ( Tlaleng Mofokeng, a United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health. )

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