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Hard choices will have to be made soon about the way we eat. Are we ready for the bitter bites?

Our food system is failing us! We see it every day. While almost 1 billion people are still struggling to ensure that they have enough food on their plate all year round, another 2 billions are already feeling the effect of eating too much. Add to this the fact that, although today there is still enough food to feed the world, in the coming years the combined effect of climate change on our crops and the rapidly growing demand of the world population will lead to serious shortage, and you end up looking at a pretty gloomy picture.

Understanding what part of our food system is failing us is therefore critical. Put simply, is that just a question of producing more food? Or is it about producing better food? Or even, is it ‘just’ about distributing it more equally?

The answer is obviously “all of the above”… and more. The current data shows that not only will we have to produce more and better, and to ensure that what is produced is reaching everyone, but we will also have to do it in a more sustainable manner. Why? Because our food system is not just failing us, it is also one of the most important drivers of degradation of the planet’s natural resources – including some severe feedback effect on the climate.

The challenge is therefore tremendous.

In that context, it is important to check that everyone is pushing in the same direction. This is why a team of international researchers from the International Center for Tropical Agriculture and Wageningen University has recently tried to assess the level of knowledge and consensus among the top thinkers and experts who are working on the topic. What the analysis (published this month in the Journal World Development) reveals is that, while experts and top thinkers of food systems all agree that something needs to be done, the next steps (the ‘what’ and the ‘how’) are not so clear. In particular, no strong agreement seems to emerge so far on what needs to be done in priority to fix the problem. While some claim that we still need to focus first and foremost on intensifying agriculture (thus considering that the solution is about ‘more food’), others insist instead that we should move to less intensive and more sustainable ways of producing food (thus suggesting that we need to take care of the planet first). Another group argues that the solution is mainly around reducing food waste. In sum, the analysis indicates that different views and interpretations prevail among experts about the nature of the crisis, and consequently about the investments and priorities needed to fix the problem.

The analysis, conducted by a team of CIAT and Wageningen University, shows that in many cases it will be extremely difficult to feed the world with quality food, and, at the same time, reduce the impact on the environment. Hard choices will have to be made.

Perhaps more importantly, very few of these experts acknowledge that compromises and hard choices will have to be made – or, put in simple words, that we will not be able to have our cake and eat it too. The conclusion of the analysis is clear: “sustainable food system thinking should be cognizant of the presence of trade-offs, and these should be a central element in food system research.” What this means is that there are very few cases where we will be lucky enough to be able to produce more, better, and still do it in a way that reduces the impact on the environment. Not to mention the issue of equity. In the rest of the cases, unfortunately, we will have to make some choices.

In light of this, the study explains, what is urgently needed is to prepare societies and decision-makers to better understand the implications and the consequences of the choices they will have to make and help them ‘navigate’ those trade-offs more efficiently and equitably so that it will not be the poorest who, once again, pay the costs of our constant appetite for more.

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