A map spotlights food systems sustainability

Tuber crops grown in shifting cultivation system of the Konyak tribe of Nagaland. Photo by DK Pandey.

  • Scientists at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) have built a map to score the sustainability of food systems country-wise based on environment, economic, social and food and nutrition dimensions.
  • The food system sustainability indicators and aggregate country scores can be used to track changes in sustainability over time. Between 2000–2016, India’s food system sustainability score has declined.
  • The analysis comes amid a call to transform global food systems, a topic in the limelight at the ongoing United Nations’ Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference (COP25) in Madrid, Spain where leaders have been urged to reduce greenhouse pollution from food and agriculture.

Countries in the Global South, including India, are struggling with multiple challenges related to food system sustainability, according to researchers who have mapped the sustainability of food systems (SFS) country-wise.

The SFS analysis led by scientists at the Colombia-based International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) factors in environmental, economic, social, and food and nutritional dimensions to score the sustainability of food systems.

It comes amid a call to transform global food systems, a topic that is at the centre of talks in the ongoing United Nations’ Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference (COP25) in Madrid, Spain where leaders have been urged to reduce greenhouse pollution from food and agriculture and scientists have warned against the impacts of extreme weather events on food systems.

In the map, one can visualise the divide between the Global South and Global North, by looking at the scale that goes from blue to red (blue indicating a high sustainability score).

“What is generally happening in the Global South is that countries tend to score low across all four dimensions. In the north, countries tend to have higher average scores or tend to have major challenges in only one or occasionally two dimensions,” Steven Prager, a co-author and senior scientist at CIAT who works on integrated modelling, told Mongabay-India.

“In short, many of the countries in the south are struggling with multiple challenges related to food system sustainability,” said Prager.

The map scores the sustainability of food systems country-by-country. The scale goes from blue to red, with blue indicating a high sustainability score. Gray means there is not enough data available to rate the country. Photo by Bene et al/CIAT.

Going beyond ranking food systems, the food system sustainability indicator can be used to track changes in sustainability over time. For example, over the period 2000–2016, Algeria and Chile have shown a substantial improvement in the sustainability of their food systems (SFS) score, while Togo’s score has remained relatively constant and India’s declined.

Pakistan’s SFS value shows an uptick from 0.244 to 0.308 while Nepal’s food system sustainability shows a slight decline from 0.371 to 0.365. For Bangladesh, the SFS value moves up from 0.265 to 0.290, Sri Lanka moves from 0.370 to 0.359 and Myanmar from 0.388 to 0.426. The decline in the aggregate value means several of the indicators that make the aggregate score have themselves declined, over the period 2000-2016.

Suresh Babu, head of capacity strengthening, International Food Policy Research Institute, who was not associated with the study said the metric is useful as it covers specific spheres of influencing indicators that affect food systems.

“This metric is more useful to compare the status of countries in their food systems. In the context of India, one could use this metric to compare states of India, then policymakers will benefit more. One would imagine southern states within India will fare well compared to northern and eastern states,” Babu told Mongabay-India.

Prager stressed the comparability of food system sustainability is relevant because comparing and contrasting what we know about different countries with their SFS indicator values can generate insights that were previously more difficult (if not impossible) to gain.

To compute the aggregate sustainability score for each country, CIAT researchers scoured almost two decades of scientific literature and settled on 20 indicators that are available to 97 countries from low-, middle- and high-income regions. They built a global map to rate the sustainability of food systems across the globe.

The study’s authors sorted the 20 indicators into four dimensions (environment, economic, social, and food and nutrition) covering a broad range of indicators including greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, size of the female labour force, fair trade, food price volatility, and food loss and waste. Under the environmental dimension, the indicators include the quality of air, the quality and use of water, the quality and use of soils and land, the level of wildlife biodiversity and crop diversity, and the use of energy.

According to Babu, India’s low position in the rungs of the food systems sustainability ladder could also be due to the fact that the set of indicators chosen all work against India.

“The production system in India has deteriorated over the years and also hunger and malnutrition remain high. When you combine the sustainability indicators and the outcome indicators the score for India will be low naturally. This is expected. But what is important is to see how the numbers have gone down over the years and why? How can we reverse this trend,” Babu emphasised.

Asked about the inclusion of environmentally-friendly indigenous food systems in India, in the food systems sustainability study, Prager acknowledged the limited capacity to look at indigenous food systems, given they tend to be highly heterogeneous both within a country and between countries.

“A key objective of this analysis is to facilitate cross-country comparisons where that is possible. One aspect we do look at is crop diversity, and India does have what we would characterise as an intermediate value in that regard. That is a key component of sustainable food systems,” clarified Prager.

Tracking food systems sustainability over time

By tracking changes over time, the indicators have the potential to guide policy and action as climate change, rising populations, and increased demand for food place unprecedented pressure on global food systems.

Prager adds: “Policymakers can use the map to quickly recognise the magnitude of the challenge their countries might face when it comes to improving food system sustainability. Likewise, policymakers may find the ability to think in terms of comparator countries to better understand how current policy environments may be supporting or inhibiting food system sustainability.”

More savvy policymakers could ask to look at the specific dimensions of SFS indicator to better understand how they might focus on policy efforts.

“South Asia is generally lower in terms of SFS indicator values. A common issue in South Asia is the low agriculture value-added per worker. This would be one key area to consider in terms of improving food system sustainability,” suggested Prager. Agriculture value added per worker is a measure of agricultural productivity.

“The South Asian countries face a diverse set of challenges, however, and it would be useful to understand where they are similar and different in terms of food system sustainability in order to develop coherent national and regional policy frameworks,” Prager explained.

But it is also crucial to take a local context approach to these challenges and address them at the district level, said Babu.

“Regional solutions are possible but need to be implemented at the district/local levels as the agro-ecologies are different and require different approaches to solving food system problems,” added Babu.

Concern over the possibility of a climatic extreme hitting more than one global breadbasket

The study was released ahead of the start of the ongoing United Nations Climate Change Conference (CoP25) in Madrid, Spain, where key areas of engagement in agriculture and food systems will include the Marrakech Partnership for Global Climate Action and negotiations related to the Koronivia Joint Work on Agriculture (KJWA).

The KJWA, a landmark decision recognising the role of agriculture in tackling climate change, was adopted in the Conference of the Parties at its twenty-third session, held in Bonn in 2017, that drove home the fact that climate action linked to agricultural production and supply systems (including reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture) is essential to achieve the linked goals of the Paris Agreement and the 2030 Agenda. Agriculture and food systems are responsible for up to one-third of the total greenhouse gas emissions, according to a CGIAR report which also states that about a third of food produced is lost in the food supply chain.

As the second week of the climate summit got underway in the Spanish capital, two studies published in the journal Nature Climate Change on December 9, 2019, warned that extreme climatic conditions could lead to an increased risk of unusually low agricultural harvests if more than one crop-growing region is affected by adverse climate conditions at the same time.

“Climatic connections between global phenomena such as the El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and regional climate extremes such as Indian heatwaves, or flood risks around the globe pose a risk to the global food system,” said International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) researcher Franziska Gaupp, the lead author of one of the studies.

In the other study, scientists show how specific wave patterns in the jet stream “strongly increase the chance of co-occurring heatwaves” in major food-producing regions of Northern America, Western Europe and Asia. Their research finds that these simultaneous heatwaves significantly reduce crop production across those regions, creating the risk of multiple harvest failures and other far-reaching societal consequences, including social unrest.

In a study published in November, researchers from IIASA, and several institutions across the United States and India, state that diversifying crop production to include more coarse cereals, such as millets and sorghum, can make food supply more nutritious, reduce resource demand and greenhouse gas emissions, and enhance climate resilience without reducing calorie production or requiring more land. Similar multidimensional approaches to food production challenges in other parts of the world can identify win-win scenarios where food systems meet multiple nutritional, environmental, and climate resilience goals, they said.

Guarding against birds in a sorghum field. Photo by S. Gopikrishna Warrier/Mongabay.

Banner image: Tuber crops are grown in shifting cultivation system of the Konyak tribe of Nagaland. Photo by D.K. Pandey.

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