Navigating Triple Challenges of Food Systems

Dr. Ranjan Roy

20 February, 2021 12:00 AM printer

Navigating Triple Challenges of Food Systems

Dr. Ranjan Roy

The food systems are understood by knowing activities involving the production, processing, transport, and consumption. The very concept of food systems is inextricably linked with food, nutrition, agriculture and economic development. A sustainable food system lies at the heart of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. Food systems have been encountering three challenges and addressing these challenges will be critical to achieve the SDGs. The triple challenge includes providing food security and nutrition to the burgeoning population; supporting livelihoods for those working along the food supply chain and contributing to environmental sustainability.

Challenge 1: Food Security and Nutrition

Food security and nutrition is one of the biggest problems facing the world today and an essential requirement for sustainable development. Globally about 2 billion people do not have regular access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food, while an even greater number are overweight or obese. These and other forms of malnutrition are associated with a rising public health burden.

Food security is a multi-dimensional concept. FAO reports, food security exists when “all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” This definition indicates four dimensions of food security: food availability, access, use and utilization, and stability.

Food availability currently is not a challenge in Bangladesh due to good production of crops and enough stock. However, this availability has to be pondered through the lens of availability and use of natural, human and economic resources, especially scarcity of natural resources.

Key concerns of food availability include growing scarcities: agricultural land, forests, irrigation water, and other natural resources. Degraded lands are a growing concern due to rising sea level in the coastal zone (that is, 32% areas of this country). Reducing the risk of ruptures in overall food availability requires a transition to more efficient agricultural production systems.

Food access at affordable prices is an increasing concern. The Covid-19 pandemic has devastated the informal sector and the rate of poverty has reached to 40%. The government’s initiatives for increasing people’s buying capacity are critical, since many people have lost their sources of earning and become temporarily jobless. Widening the social safety net programmes would be an optimal solution for access to food.

Improved access is necessary condition for improvements in food security and nutrition but they are not sufficient to guarantee improved nutritional outcomes. Enhancing nutritional security requires proactive policy measures. The OECD suggests a four-track approach that can lead to healthier food choices: tackling unhealthy food choices (provision of public information and counselling), introducing and testing labelling schemes, firmer regulations, and fiscal measures (including, consumption taxes on products).

Food stability hinges on the availability, access and utilisation dimensions. Stability can be enhanced through building resilience into the food and agricultural system. Notable measures of enhancing resilience are improvements in infrastructure (transportation and storage) and transparency regarding supply, demand, stocks and prices.

The utilization dimension refers to “safe and nutritious food which meets their dietary needs”.  Availability and accessibility are not enough for food and nutritional security, food has to be “safe and nutritious.” A number of factors including availability of quality and safe food, selection of food commodities, their conservation and preparation as well as the absorption of nutrients are important for maximising this dimension.

Food safety affects food utilization and can be affected by the preparation, processing, and cooking of food in the community and household. Safe and nutritious foods are not so available and accessible to marginalised people, particularly in urban areas.

Challenge 2: Livelihoods

Agriculture is the main source of food system, which directly and indirectly employs about fifty per cent of the people. Most of the farmers are smallholders who produce an estimated one-third of global food supply. Besides, crop sector, fisheries and livestock play an important role in providing livelihoods for many rural households.

Food systems generate substantial livelihoods to farmers and many others in the economy. Livelihoods include production, processing and distribution, as well as the final stage of supermarkets, canteens, food stalls and restaurants. The food supply chain involves a multitude of service sectors that are also good sources of livelihoods.

Livelihoods related to food systems have been facing many challenges. Smallholders are particularly in peril. They have less access to information, capital and markets. They are highly vulnerable to natural disasters and not getting reasonable commodity prices. Experts raise a question: What is the future of small-scale farming?

Evidence indicates currently conventional agriculture is not so profitable. Growers must move forward to high-value agriculture that has to be efficient in resource management, smart (i.e., producing stress resistant varieties) and profitable. To this end, prudent policies to strengthen livelihoods across food systems are crucial.

A plethora of structural changes are inevitable around increasing productivity and competitiveness within agriculture. Growers diversifying income sources within or outside agriculture are indispensable to cope, adapt and transform in response to adverse situations. Strengthening off-farm employment and social protection are significant areas for increasing livelihoods in food systems.

Challenge 3: Environmental Sustainability

Agriculture and/or food production have led to environmental changes such as deforestation, erosion and resource depletion. Globally, agriculture is a vital source of environmental pressures, not only in local ecosystems but also at a national/global level. Agricultural land use change accounts for 12% of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. Two-thirds of the direct emissions from agricultural production are due to livestock.

IPCC estimates that agricultural production and the associated land use changes account for an estimated 16-27% of total anthropogenic GHG emissions while all other stages of food systems (energy, transport, processing, etc.) contribute an estimated 5%-10%.

Broadly speaking, greater food production can come from three sources, with starkly different environmental implications: greater land use, greater use of other inputs, and greater efficiency in how these inputs are used.

Environmental effects of agricultural land use are unequivocal. Land use changes are a major threat to biodiversity. Studies show around 80% of all threatened terrestrial bird and mammal species are in danger because of agriculture-driven habitat loss.

Alternative approaches to improving the environmental sustainability of the food system are essential. Realising changing climate and climate change impacts on agriculture and food security, climate-smart agriculture can be the best option. Effective measures are needed to promote climate-smart crop production system, climate-smart livestock, and climate-smart fisheries and aquaculture. The role of policies in banning many harmful pesticides, minimising synthetic fertilisers, popularising green manure, disseminating flood/drought tolerant crops varieties, and building climate-resilient agriculture are significant as well.

In sum, adopting a ‘food systems approach’ would be critical to make progress on these three challenges. This approach provides a holistic view in setting objectives and leads to implement policies in a coordinate and coherent manner that places greater emphasis on possible effects of agricultural policies on nutritional and environmental outcomes.


The writer is a Professor at Sher-e-Bangla

Agricultural University, Dhaka