Skip navigation

The right to food: a global cry for urgent action towards sustainable food systems

An estimated 9.9% of the world’s population faced hunger in 2020, according to an FAO report. The setback to ending world hunger has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, as projections show that we are not on track to achieve Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 2, Zero Hunger, by 2030.

The UN Food Systems Summit taking place on 23 September 2021 aims to address this debate and submit pathways for food systems to attain the SDGs by 2030. The summit draws upon the power and interconnectedness of food systems to address global challenges such as hunger, climate change, poverty and inequality.

The international community has a vital opportunity to help advance the vision of the 2030 Agenda by transforming how we produce, process and consume food. It is our moral imperative to keep our promise to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030," said UN Secretary-General António Guterres ahead of the UN Food Systems Summit.

The question is, as the number of people suffering from hunger keeps rising, is Zero Hunger still achievable by 2030? What actions must we take today to get closer to this goal in less than a decade? Several researchers and communicators working with various aspects of food systems at SEI reflect on how their work is contributing to transforming our food systems; and the practical solutions that could help achieve critical progress on the SDGs by 2030.

What is the solution for achieving sustainable food systems by 2030?

There is no silver-bullet solution to achieving sustainable and inclusive food systems. The solution encompasses a holistic approach accounting for planetary boundaries and the recognition of the right to food. There is no need to reinvent the wheel. The transformation of our food systems should be built on an evidence base that considers the knowledge and experiences of small-holder farmers, Indigenous Peoples, Women and Youth. This will require multisectoral cooperation that emphasizes the need for environmental and social sustainability, endorsing regenerative agroecological and agroforestry practices that support food and nutrition security.

Join the discussion at the Agri4D 2021 conference on 28–30 September 2021 co-organized by SIANI to learn more about food systems with a focus on low-income contexts.

Ebba Engström
Ebba Engström

Research Associate

SEI Headquarters

What lessons can we learn from energy policy about transitioning towards more plant-based diets?

The world’s growing appetite for meat and other animal products has profound implications for our ability to achieve the SDGs: the livestock sector accounts for 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions and is a key driver of biodiversity declines. Overconsumption of red and processed meats in many parts of the world is also associated with a range of adverse public health impacts.

While profound changes are needed in the way we produce and consume food, experiences from energy transitions underscore that these changes must tackle, rather than exacerbate, existing inequalities. Currently, the average European eats about 10 times more meat per year than the average Ethiopian or Rwandan, while around 750 million people worldwide face food insecurity, most of them in Asia and Africa. Animal products represent an essential source of protein, micronutrients and income for these populations. These vast global discrepancies mean that the richest countries and consumers with the highest levels of animal protein consumption should be the primary focus of efforts to transition towards more plant-based diets.

While the need for just transition planning in the energy sector is increasingly recognized, inclusive just transition planning and support for workers, consumers, communities and other stakeholders affected by shifts in food systems is key to minimize disruptions and maximize the opportunities of a protein transition.

Another fertile area for lesson learning is unpacking how government policy currently contributes to high levels of animal protein consumption: for instance, through subsidies. At SEI, we have significant experience in highlighting the role of ideas, interests and institutional dynamics in locking in high-carbon energy systems. We are now applying these lessons in the food sector to identify key policy barriers to transitioning to plant-based diets and opportunities for overcoming them.

Cleo Verkuijl
Cleo Verkuijl



How can consumers’ food choices contribute to sustainable food consumption by 2030?

Currently, about 31% of greenhouse emissions originate from food production and consumption. If consumers change their food purchasing and consumption behaviour, moving for example to a vegan or vegetarian diet or eating products that are in season and locally produced and processed, a substantial reduction in emissions could be achieved. The production of (most) vegetables, for example, emit far fewer greenhouse gasses and locally produced and processed food emit far fewer emissions from less transportation and potentially from less food waste. Purchasing and consuming other types of food could push the food industry to change production methods as well.

With the CANDIES project, we are assessing how sustainability is embedded throughout the whole food supply chain (from farm to fork), with an aim to understand how digitalization can aid in creating more sustainable food systems.

Fedra Vanhuyse
Fedra Vanhuyse

Head of Division: Societies, Climate and Policy Support

SEI Headquarters

How can we manage nitrogen efficiently to feed a growing world population?

Since the 1960s, human use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers has increased ninefold globally. A further substantial increase of around 40 –50% is expected over the next 40 years to feed the growing world population due to current trends in dietary lifestyles, with increasing consumption of animal products. These changes have more than doubled the amount of nitrogen circulating in the environment, causing major environmental, health and economic problems. Urgent action is needed to improve the efficiency of nitrogen use, reduce the waste of valuable nitrogen resources and re-evaluate societal ambitions for future per-capita consumption patterns.

The Integrated Nitrogen Management on Yorkshire Farms – INMY Farm project is compiling and synthesizing examples of good practice to inform more integrated and efficient nitrogen use in mixed arable and livestock farming, with a focus on Yorkshire, UK. Guidance is being developed that shows how farmers can improve the health of their soil and manage artificial fertilizers and manure more efficiently so that losses to the environment are reduced. The guidance is aimed at farmer advisors who can then work with farmers to raise awareness of integrated nitrogen management and advise on potential improvements and cost savings for their business.

Kevin Hicks

Senior Research Fellow

SEI York

How is your work on smallholder farming contributing towards sustainable food systems?

Supporting smallholder farmers is crucial for global food security and for achieving SDG 2. To realize their potential, smallholders need science and knowledge-based support. AgriFoSe2030 supports researchers in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Southeast Asia to develop capacity to catalyse and govern a transition to sustainable agriculture where smallholders are in the centre.

Currently, more than 10 AgriFoSe2030 projects work closely with smallholder organizations, traders, value chain actors and local governments to develop smart pathways towards impact. These include ensuring smallholders are included in local urban food systems governance in Kenya, stepping up smallholder engagement in the e-commerce of fruits in Viet Nam, nurturing local value chains for the edible insect sector in Zimbabwe and creating dialogue forums for the sustainable management of parklands in Burkina Faso to name a few.

Anneli Sundin
Anneli Sundin

Communications and Impact Officer

Project Communications

SEI Headquarters

How do deforestation and modelling of supply chains impact sustainable food systems?

While numerous countries and regions have commitments and pledges to move towards sustainable food systems, making informed decisions and monitoring progress relies on appropriate data and information.

Trase is an initiative focused on bringing transparency to agricultural commodity supply chains, revealing the environmental impacts that these types of activities have in their countries of production. A central impact is the high rates of deforestation resulting from the conversion of natural vegetation into land used for agriculture. These conversions play a fundamental role in the degradation of important ecosystems around the world, such as soy in the Brazilian savannas and palm oil in the Indonesian tropical forests, raising international concern on the negative impacts on ecosystem services like climate regulation.

At Trase, we connect different data sources to show how companies and countries are linked to deforestation in different supply chains, thereby reinforcing their responsibilities in transforming the dynamic of their supply chains into a more sustainable activity.

Understanding what is being consumed, by what pathways and where it comes from – alongside the associated risks and impacts – are all crucial parts of this. Our work on transparent supply chains, transboundary impact pathways and consumption-based accounting is helping to build a more holistic framework of data- and model-driven resources to highlight hotspots, assist decision and policymakers and monitor change by elucidating risks both driven by and to our supply chains.

Vivian Ribeiro
Vivian Ribeiro

Senior Data Scientist

SEI Headquarters

Simon Croft

Research Fellow

SEI York

Design and development by Soapbox.