Analysis: Transforming food system to realize benefits of $ 10 trln, save 174 million lives

Analysis: Transforming food system to realize benefits of $ 10 trln, save 174 million lives
By Marwa Nassar - -

* Global adoption of plant-based diet accounts for around 75% of health, environmental benefits

A new economic analysis conducted by researchers at the University of Oxford and London School of Economics has found that transforming the global food system could realize benefits of up to $10 trillion per year, and that the costs of achieving this would be relatively small in comparison.

An alternative Food System Transformation approach could result in undernutrition being eradicated by 2050, and cumulatively 174 million lives saved from premature death due to diet-related chronic disease.

Under this alternative approach, food systems could become net carbon sinks by 2040, helping to limit global warming to below 1.5 degrees by the end of the century, protecting an additional 1.4 billion hectares of land, almost halving nitrogen surplus from agriculture, and reversing biodiversity loss. In addition, 400 million farm workers across the globe could enjoy a sufficient income.

The researchers developed a unique economic model to quantify the hidden costs of the global food systems – bringing together costs of impacts on climate change, human health, nutrition and natural resources. With the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), they then compared a ‘business as usual’ approach based on current trends with a ‘Food System Transformation’ pathway.

The findings are the result of the most ambitious study of food system economics so far, undertaken by an international group of leading economists and scientists from the Food System Economics Commission (FSEC).

Currently, the food systems destroy more value than they create, borrowing from the future to realize profits today. Research published last year by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) found that the hidden environmental, social and health costs of agrifood systems are well over $10 trillion globally in 2020.

Food systems will continue to drive a third of global greenhouse gas emissions, which will contribute to 2.7 degrees of warming by the end of the century compared to pre-industrial periods. In addition, food production will become increasingly vulnerable to climate change, with the likelihood of extreme events dramatically increasing.

According to the alternative model, these benefits would result in economic gains equivalent to economies being 12% larger on average for 30 years across lower income countries, 3.4% across middle income countries, and 1.7% across high income countries.

Furthermore, the cost of achieving this transformation through better policies and practices was estimated to be equivalent to 0.2-0.4 % of global GDP per year – much less than the potential multi-trillion-dollar benefits that change could bring.

Dr Steven Lord of the Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford – who led the cost analysis of the study – said ‘For perspective, for high-income countries, the total damages avoided through food system transformation would exceed their cumulative losses from the 2007-2008 financial crisis.’

A striking finding from the new study was the economic opportunity from changing diets alone. Global adoption of a predominantly plant-based diet accounted for around 75% of the total health and environmental benefits from food system transformation, and would contribute an additional 2% per year to global GDP on average. Importantly, an economic boost is experienced across all income groups, from low income countries to high income countries.

The new FSEC report urgently calls for countries to develop ambitious national food strategies to achieve food system transformation by 2050. Key areas of action include taxing the most damaging and unsustainable foods; subsidizing farmers to produce healthy foods and use sustainable practices; and investing in new agricultural technologies – such as remote-sensing, in-field sensors and market access apps – that can improve efficiency while reducing emissions.

However, the authors warn that care must be taken to ensure that these strategies do not leave anyone behind, through potential knock-on impacts such as increases in food prices and job losses. Actions to mitigate this could include direct subsidies and support for both farmers and consumers.

Co-author Professor Michael Obersteiner (Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford) said ‘This new analysis highlights the urgent need for global food system transformation, but this will look different for different countries. For instance, in many parts of the world strategies should focus on lowering consumptions of animal products to reduce poor health and environmental impacts, while in other areas, change should focus on increasing access to these to combat undernutrition.’

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