Why Food Systems matter

Our food systems touch every aspect of human existence. The health of our food systems profoundly affects the health of our bodies, as well as the health of our environment, our economies and our cultures. When they function well, food systems have the power to bring us together as families, communities and nations.

But when our food systems fail, the resulting disorder threatens our education, health and economy, as well as human rights, peace and security. As in so many cases, those who are already poor or marginalized are most likely to suffer the worst effects.

What do we mean by “food systems”? The term encompasses every person and every process involved in growing, raising or making food, right through to consumption and what we do with our waste – from farmers to fruit pickers to supermarket cashiers; from flourmills to refrigerated trucks to neighbourhood composting facilities. Billions of people earn their livings from the world’s food systems. In 2017, farming alone accounted for 68% of rural income in Africa, and about half of rural income in South Asia. Experts at the World Bank have estimated that the global food system is worth roughly $8 trillion – about one tenth of the entire world economy.

Today’s food systems are not functioning well. They are fragile and inequitable, as millions of people around the globe have experienced first-hand during the COVID-19 crisis. For many – especially those who were already struggling before the pandemic – the recent food system disruptions have led to job losses, hunger or malnutrition. But the trouble didn’t start with COVID-19.

Over the last 50 years, global food production has gone up by nearly 300% thanks to our incredible ability to innovate. But the number of people going to bed hungry each night also rose to 690 million in 2019 – an increase of 60 million in just five years. At the same time, the number of people who are obese or who suffer from food-related diseases now stands at more than 2 billion. We also continue to waste over one third of all the food we produce; a loss of more than $900 billion every year. Finally, globally, our agricultural supply chain – from farm to fork – accounts for more than one quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions. These issues are both complex and urgent.

The food systems in many locations are beset by multiple challenges. They are often complex, and the groups of stakeholders within them have differing perspectives on how the challenges are best analysed and tackled as they draw from their different types of experience and sources of evidence to support their positions.


This figure shows how food systems may impact on all 17 of the Sustainable Development Goals: Graphic by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in the 2017 publication “FOOD AND AGRICULTURE Driving action across the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”.


For more information about the Food Systems Summit, visit https://www.un.org/en/food-systems-summit