Every day, the food we eat connects us to a vast global web of farmers, traders, food manufacturers, retailers and many other people involved in getting food from farm to fork. Most of us probably don’t pause to think about it while biting into a piece of fruit or a slice of bread, but this global food system is central to some of the biggest challenges facing humanity.

Current challenges facing the global food system

Let’s start with the most obvious one. The global food system is expected to provide safe and nutritious food to a population that will likely grow from 7.5 billion people today, to nearly 10 billion by 2050. Not only will there be more mouths to feed, but as incomes grow in emerging and developing economies, so too will the demand for meat, fish, and dairy.

However, food production is only one aspect of the food system. The agro-food sector also provides a livelihood for millions of people. Globally, most of the people living in extreme poverty are in rural areas where food production is often the most important economic activity. There are an estimated 570 million farms worldwide today, and millions of other people work in food-related jobs.

The global food system also has a large environmental footprint. In fact, agriculture occupies nearly 40% of the earth’s surface, far more than any other human activity. In addition, irrigation of agricultural crops comprises 70% of global water use, and agriculture directly contributes to around 11% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (mostly through cattle). Expanding agricultural land can also lead to deforestation, additional GHG emissions, and a loss of biodiversity.

Setting the table to address the triple challenge

These three challenges – feeding a growing population, providing a livelihood for farmers, and protecting the environment – must be tackled together if we are to make sustainable progress in any of them. But making progress on this “triple challenge” is difficult, as initiatives in one domain can have unintended consequences in another.

Sometimes, the consequences are positive. For instance, raising farm productivity can generate income growth in agriculture, make more food available for consumers at lower prices, and – in some cases – reduce pressure on the environment. But sometimes the consequences are negative and require balancing trade-offs. For example, policies to increase the environmental sustainability of agriculture could impose increased costs on farmers and lead to higher prices for consumers.

In other words, policies that address one part of the triple challenge often end up creating synergies (positive effects) or trade-offs (negative effects) with respect to other objectives—and a single-issue perspective on any objective can lead to unintended impacts on other objectives. Competing objectives and complex interactions, along with multiple stakeholders with a range of concerns, should make us cautious when specific ideas are proposed as “silver bullets” to fix the food system.

So what can policy makers do to address these important challenges, taking into account their interconnectedness? How should they find out if and when there is a conflict between two or more objectives? How should they deal with stakeholders who may resist an initiative they fear could harm their interests? And how should they co-ordinate with policy makers in other agencies or ministries, and with counterparts in other countries?

To begin the process of answering these difficult questions, the OECD organised a Global Forum on Agriculture in May 2019 to exchange ideas about the most important challenges facing the global food system today (the triple challenge), and the obstacles that stand in the way of overcoming them. Importantly, the conversation included views from a range of stakeholders affected by agro-food policy decisions – including farmers, traders, food manufacturers, consumer representatives, agricultural input suppliers, researchers, environmental NGOs, and policy makers. The OECD will build on this discussion to assess the main obstacles to achieving better policies for the global food system, and to identify good practices to help overcome them.

Future policies may require new recipes

Just like a good meal is a balanced meal, good policies will need to strike a balance between the different objectives of the triple challenge facing the global food system today. And just like a good meal depends not only on the chef, but also on the quality of the ingredients – so too will good policies depend not only on the policy maker, but also on the input from many stakeholders. Given the scale and complexity of these challenges, policy makers may need to experiment with new recipes to cook up a set of policy solutions that are to everyone’s taste.