OECD encourages governments to opt for a "food systems" approach to address mounting challenges

Instead of viewing challenges like environmental sustainability, food security and economic livelihoods in isolation, leaders should adopt a "food systems" model and take a more holistic approach when crafting solutions.
calendar icon 31 January 2021
clock icon 3 minute read

Food systems face the triple challenge of providing food security and nutrition for a growing global population and livelihoods to farmers and others working in food supply chains around the world, all while improving environmental sustainability.

Given the deep connections between these objectives, governments can do much more to take into account the synergies and trade-offs that exist between the different areas, as well as the challenges for developing more coherent policy, according to a new OECD report.

Making Better Policies for Food Systems brings together decades of OECD research and policy recommendations on food systems. The report underlines the long track record providing data, evidence and policy recommendations on topics ranging from agricultural productivity and trade to obesity, water use, rural development and global value chains. It notes that these and other topics were usually considered in isolation, rather than as components of wider food systems policies.

The centrality of food systems for the Sustainable Development Goals has led the UN to convene a Food Systems Summit in September 2021. Development of a new “food systems approach,” capable of simultaneously making progress on the three dimensions of food security/nutrition, livelihoods and environmental sustainability, will require better coordination between policy makers in a range of sectors, including agriculture, fisheries, environment and public health, according to the OECD report.

This new approach will require policymakers to take a holistic view on food system objectives, as well as new efforts to avoid incoherent policies. In practice, this would mean that agricultural policymakers – who have traditionally focussed on agricultural production – would place a greater emphasis on the possible effects of farm policies on nutritional and environmental outcomes. Similarly, where environmental problems related to agriculture have in the past been addressed through agri-environmental policies, a food systems approach opens the possibility to use other instruments, such as those that promote changes in consumer or enterprise behaviour.

A food systems-based approach recognises the complexity of potential synergies and trade-offs between food security and nutrition, livelihoods and environmental sustainability. Rising demand for some food products may benefit producers in poor countries while simultaneously bringing negative environmental consequences. Changes in food prices may benefit producers while harming poorer consumers. Conditions vary enormously between smallholder farmers in developing countries, those doing extensive grazing-based farming and high-tech farmers in advanced economies.

This complexity will require tailored and multi-dimensional policies, based on robust, evidence-based and inclusive policy processes. The OECD highlights the clear need to reform agricultural and fisheries support policies that are the most distorting and which create negative environmental effects. Beyond that, making better policies for food systems will require overcoming disagreements on facts, but also diverging interests and differing values among stakeholders, according to the report.

Case studies on the seed sector, the ruminant livestock sector and the processed food sector provide in-depth discussion of how each can help address the triple challenge, the synergies and trade-offs that exist, as well as the differing policy processes that have been used in various countries.

The report focuses on three linked areas

  • the actual performance of food systems, and the role of policy;
  • how policymakers can design food systems policies taking into account the three dimensions of food security/nutrition, livelihoods and environmental sustainability; and
  • the common factors complicating efforts to design better food system policies, and potential solutions.

Click here for further information on OECD work on food systems.

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