A total rethink is required
The current global food system is at a critical juncture as growth rates in agriculture yields lag behind the increase in population. While many people are eating better than ever, over 800 million are under-nourished, 165 million children suffer from stunting and there’s a growing obesity epidemic. Over 1.5 billion smallholder farmers still live at or below the poverty line. And competing demands for land – for food, feed, fuel and forestry product – are exerting immense pressure on forests and other natural habitats. This contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and species extinction.
It is time for a total rethink and transformation of the global food system to tackle world hunger and climate change, and generate business growth.
Seven-fold return on investment
Research compiled by the Business and Sustainable Development Commission – for its Valuing the SDG Prize in Food and Agriculture report – looks at how the food and agriculture industry can drive growth by pursuing sustainable and inclusive business models aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
More specifically, meeting the challenge of food security could unlock 14 major business opportunities worth almost $2.3 trillion annually by 2030. These include reducing food waste in the value chain and at consumer level, and investing in low-income food markets by making products more nutritious and accessible.
These opportunities will have huge societal, environmental and health benefits, all linked to the SDGs. For example: improving technology in smallholder farms and restoring degraded land could double the incomes of the 1.5 billion smallholders who currently have the highest rates of poverty among all sectors of the global economy; and reformulating products to rebalance nutritional content – such as reducing salt and sugar – would lower obesity levels which currently affect 2 billion people.
While an estimated $320 billion a year is needed to realise these opportunities, that represents a seven-fold return on investment.
The business opportunity of a lifetime
Paul Polman, Unilever CEO and a member of the Commission, says: “Unilever’s experience clearly demonstrates that business can create value by putting sustainability at its very heart and adopting inclusive growth models. We have helped hundreds of thousands of smallholder farmers improve agricultural practices, enabling them to double or even triple their yields.
“All stakeholders can share in the benefits: smallholder farmers improve their livelihoods; suppliers gain increased security of supply with improved quality; and we reduce volatility and uncertainty with a more secure and sustainable supply chain. The SDGs present a clear moral case for change, but companies must recognise that they represent the business opportunity of a lifetime too and must adapt to take advantage of it.”
Closer collaboration required
Unlocking social and economic rewards in food and agriculture will require closer collaboration among business, government and society, and new ways of working together to advance common objectives. Companies will need to operationalise sustainability across their supply chains – embracing digitisation, and shifting towards low-impact and biology-based inputs – and internalise social and environmental costs, while transforming consumption. If they can do that, the social benefits – including food security, job creation and health outcomes – could be significant.
Valuing the SDG Prize in Food and Agriculture is part of a larger body of research by the Commission that will be revealed in a flagship report to be launched in January 2017.