No one-size-fits-all solution for food sustainability say researchers behind new map

By Guan Yu Lim

- Last updated on GMT

The findings from the map showed that Northern countries currently have much more sustainable food systems than those in the South ©Getty Images
The findings from the map showed that Northern countries currently have much more sustainable food systems than those in the South ©Getty Images

Related tags Sustainability Food security Greenhouse gas

Researchers have published a first-of-its-kind map to help score the sustainability of food systems in countries around the world.

This map is less about ranking the most sustainable or least sustainable country, and more about understanding what different countries are doing and help identify the most effective policy strategies.

The paper was published by Nature in the journal Scientific Data​.

The researchers said: “Addressing the question of the (un)sustainability of our food systems is critical as the world is bracing for hard-choice challenges and potentially massive trade-offs around issues related to food quality and food security in the coming decades​.”

They added that increasing demand for nutritious food for a growing global population, and the double burden of overweight/obese and malnourishment are pressing challenges for the world.

Variation struggles

Researchers said there was a lack of uniformity in food system research, and the world still struggled with defining and measuring the sustainability of food systems.

They selected 20 indicators that were available to 97 countries from low-, middle- and high-income regions. They were sorted into four dimensions: environment, economic, social, and food and nutrition.

The indicators cover a broad range of factors including greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, size of the female labour force, fair trade, food price volatility, as well as food loss and waste.

The indicators can be used to track changes in sustainability over time and has the potential to guide policies on climate change, growing populations, and increasing demand for food.

Mapping it out

Researchers said this map considered not only the food security and nutrition or environment, but also the economic and social dimensions.

For instance, many reports focus on productivity, but not equally significant issues such as if the foods being produced contribute to obesity.

The findings from the map showed that Northern countries currently have much more sustainable food systems than those in the South.

The map also presented that there will not be a ‘one size fits all’ solution to creating sustainable food systems of the future because of how much variety there is.

Even among similar economies like Brazil, Russia, and India, the levels of sustainability vary widely, but this new data will be able to be tracked over time.

For instance, in Figure 10​, it was able to map the changes observed in four different countries: Algeria, Chile, India and Togo over the period 2000–2016.

This possibility to document changes over time can provide an extremely useful tool for monitoring countries’ progress toward their own objectives of (food systems)’ sustainability or to assess the effect of particular drivers, as well as helping to identify the most effective policy strategies, given specific national contexts​.”

The map can also compare food systems across different countries, which could help countries learn from each other on the different approaches they take to sustainability.

A sustainable future

Researchers wrote in the paper: “Because of the multi-dimensional nature of the sustainability score, there is no ‘natural’ or ‘theoretical’ threshold above which a country can be said to be sustainable​.”

As such, the virtue of this work is not in helping people or experts categorize or label countries as “sustainable” or “unsustainable” in relation to the status of their food systems. Instead the value of the metric and its scores lies in the possibility they offer to compare levels of food systems’ sustainability, not just between countries, but also over time for a given country or a group of countries​.”

Source: Scientific Data


“Global map and indicators of food system sustainability”

Authors: Christophe Béné, et al​.

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