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The Top 5 Problems with the Global Food System

The global food system can be defined as the “production, processing, and distribution of food throughout the world.”[1] Food security for an individual within this global food system is characterized by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) as having the following four dimensions: availability of food, economic and physical access to food, food utilization to reach a state of nutritional well-being, and the stability of the previous three dimensions over time.[2] However, our current food system is rife with inequalities and issues that prevent adequate food security for all, and have consequences for individuals as well as our global environment. Here are the top five problems with the global food system.

1. Increased Biofuel Production

Biofuels are fuels derived from organic matter, such as plant and animal materials, as opposed to fossil fuels. These biofuels can be crop-based, and can be made from corn, palm oil, sugarcane, and soybeans. Thought to be a valuable alternative to fossil fuels, many farm subsidies have been put into place to promote the production of these crops. Yet not only have biofuels proven to be more harmful to the environment than expected, they can also be potentially devastating to the food system. Increased devotion of agricultural land to produce food-based biofuels has resulted in global displacement of people and rise in food prices. Incentives to produce biofuels have raised the global competition for land, and have made it harder for smaller farmers to compete or maintain control of their property. Currently, fewer than five corporations control about 47% of all ethanol production in the U.S.[3] As more land is concentrated on food-based biofuel production, less is devoted to the growing of crops for consumption. The World Resources Institute (WRI) reports that “producing 10% of all transport fuels from biofuels by 2050, as planned by some governments, would require 32% of global crop production but produce only 2% of global energy,” while also increasing the “food gap to roughly 100%.”[4] On the other hand, “eliminating the use of crop-based biofuels for transportation would close the food gap by roughly 14%.”[5] Nationally and globally, we need to address and reform the subsidies and policy incentives that drive biofuel production.


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2. Limited Food Access

The inability to access sufficient amounts of food is an issue that plagues populations globally. Worldwide, about 795 million people suffer from chronic undernourishment, and about 15% of households in the U.S. lack food to some degree.[6] More than 29 million Americans live in “food deserts”, which means that they do not have a supermarket “within a mile of their home if they live in an urban area, or within 10 miles of their home if they live in a rural area.”[7] On top of the absence of these markets, limited mobility, economic barriers, and a lack of fresh food options prevent certain low-income communities from obtaining healthy and affordable food.[8] This problem has only been exacerbated by the farm policy incentives that drive an excess production of sweets, fats, and meats, and producers choosing to cut costs through extensive food processing and use of high fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated soy oil to increase product self-life and convenience.[9],[10]

Globally, consumers and farmers alike are unable to access the market or afford the costs of consumption or production. In developing countries, about 16% of the rural population lacks convenient access to the market, and, at most, only 40% of any crop is marketed with only one-third of farmers selling to the market.[11] International efforts must be made to develop local and regional markets, improve infrastructure to ease transportation, and increase agricultural investment in smallholder farmers.

3. Unsustainable Agricultural Practices

According to the FAO, agricultural production is a huge driver of climate change, producing one-fifth of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.[12] Intensive farming methods use fertilizers and pesticides that contaminate streams and rivers that can create downstream “dead zones,” and deforestation for agricultural use accounts for an estimated 10-11% of global GHG emissions.[13],[14] Big agribusinesses utilize poor agricultural practices to cut production costs, and, due to these practices, 5-10 million hectares of arable farmland become unusable every year, with an additional 0.3-1.5 million becoming unproductive as a result of salinization and water logging.[15] To protect our environment, our health, and our food, we must implement climate-sensitive production methods such as reduced tillage, crop rotations, soil enrichment, the encouragement of natural pest predators, and the incorporation of agroforestry.[16],[17] Agriculture can be shifted to degraded lands, rather than clearing new lands, with a focus on practices that boost productivity and enhance resilience.[18] Furthermore, there is a global need to support more small-scale, less mechanically intensive, and more organic practices in order to preserve our productive agricultural land and prevent climate change.

4. Lack of Farmer and Workers’ Rights

According to the International Food Policy Research Institute’s Global Food Policy Report (GFPR), smallholder farmers that farm less than 2 hectares of land make up the majority of agricultural producers for the world, but also make up half of the world’s poor and hungry population.[19] These smaller farmers are increasingly unable to compete in an agricultural market dominated by big agribusinesses. Smallholders have a lack of access to the proper assets, such as tractors and fertilizers, and small farmers that are able to stay in business earn less due to the immense surpluses produced by industrial agricultural companies or are subject to these companies’ control. For example, being forced to buy Monsanto’s patented “transgenic seeds” in order to stay competitive. Therefore, only about 10-20% of the agricultural product value is returned to the farmer and the farmer’s rural community.[20]

Female and youth farmers face similar constraints in terms of asset and market access. The United Nations estimates that approximately 43% of farmers in developing countries are women, but they do not perform as well due to a lack of the proper inputs, services, and productive resources.[21] However, the GFPR states that closing the agricultural production gender gap could decrease the number of undernourished people by 12-17%.[22]

Additionally, food workers in the U.S. are the lowest paid and least protected workers in the nation, often facing low wages and substandard working conditions.[23] Immigrants especially face routine mistreatment, violations of their compensation claims, and interference with union formation.[24]

Worldwide, policies must be put in place to increase equal access to agricultural inputs and financial services, establish land rights for women, provide a livable wage, institute healthy working conditions, create fair pricing mechanisms, ensure benefits and employment security, and empower immigrant workers.

5. Food Waste

Food waste is an issue at both ends: production and consumption. Over one-third of food produced around the world is lost or wasted, equating to about 1.3 billion tons per year.[25] Halving this rate could close the global food gap by 20% by 2050.[26] Furthermore, food waste is a climate change concern, as methane (a greenhouse gas) emitted by rotting food is 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide.[27] Production food loss in developing countries is often due to harvesting and storage technique issues or destruction by pests, while food waste on the consumer end takes place when food is discarded because of quality or safety concerns.[28] To correct this problem, initiatives will need to be implemented around low-cost storage methods close to farms, improved redistribution and transportation processes, as well as enhancements in the agricultural infrastructure. Moreover, clarification of “sell-by” and “best-before” labels and education on proper storage methods can reduce consumer food waste.[29]

The FAO’s Rome Declaration on World Food Security states that, “Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.”[30] However, 800 million people go hungry every day, with another 2 billion people suffering from micronutrient deficiencies, and still another 2.1 billion people are categorized as overweight.[31] Attempts to increase food output through intensive farming practices have diminished our natural resources, degraded the soil, polluted our water, and driven deforestation.[32] Worldwide, we must end programs and incentives for biofuel use expansion, promote smallholder farming and sustainable agricultural practices, localize the food system, demand full rights for food workers at all points in the food system, and employ techniques to diminish food waste. Ultimately, change can only take place once there is a social pressure to democratize the food system, and return the control to individuals and communities. The first step for you to join the movement is to be educated about the food system globally and recognize the issues in your own community!


[1] “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of the Global Food System,” The Regis, accessed August 5, 2016, http://www.theregis.ca/politics/the-good-the-bad-and-the-ugly-of-the-global-food-system/.

[2] “An Introduction to the Basic Concepts of Food Security,” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, accessed August 5, 2016, http://www.fao.org/docrep/013/al936e/al936e00.pdf.

[3] Eric Holt-Giménez, “The World Food Crisis: What is Behind It and What We Can Do,” World Hunger Education Service, October 23, 2008, accessed August 5, 2016, http://www.worldhunger.org/holt-gimenez/.

[4] Janet Ranganathan, “The Global Food Challenge Explained in 18 Graphics,” World Resources Institute, December 3, 2013, accessed August 5, 2016, http://www.wri.org/blog/2013/12/global-food-challenge-explained-18-graphics.

[5] Ranganathan, “The Global Food Challenge Explained in 18 Graphics”

[6] Michael R. Taylor and Howard R. Sklamberg, “Internationalizing Food Safety: FDA’s Role in the Global Food System,” Harvard International Review, July 11, 2016, accessed August 5, 2016, http://hir.harvard.edu/internationalizing-food-safety-fdas-role-global-food-system/.

[7] “Food Insecurity, Food Deserts and Healthy Weight,” The State of Obesity, accessed August 5, 2016, http://stateofobesity.org/food-insecurity/.

[8] “Toward a Healthy Sustainable Food System,” American Public Health Association, accessed August 5, 2016, https://www.apha.org/policies-and-advocacy/public-health-policy-statements/policy-database/2014/07/29/12/34/toward-a-healthy-sustainable-food-system.

[9] “Toward a Healthy Sustainable Food System,” APHA.

[10] “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of the Global Food System,” The Regis.

[11] “Inadequate Food Distribution Systems,” Mission 2014: Feeding the World, accessed August 5, 2016, http://12.000.scripts.mit.edu/mission2014/problems/inadequate-food-distribution-systems.

[12] Sara Gustafson, “Global Food Policy Report calls for improved global food system,” International Food Policy Research Institute, April 12, 2016, accessed August 5, 2016, http://www.ifpri.org/blog/global-food-policy-report-calls-improved-global-food-system.

[13] “Toward a Healthy Sustainable Food System,” APHA.

[14] “Climate is changing. Food and agriculture must too.” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, accessed August 5, 2016, http://www.fao.org/world-food-day/2016/theme/en/.

[15] “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of the Global Food System,” The Regis.

[16] Gustafson, “Global Food Policy Report calls for improved global food system.”

[17] “Sustainable Agriculture Techniques,” Union of Concerned Scientists, accessed August 5, 2016, http://www.ucsusa.org/food_and_agriculture/solutions/advance-sustainable-agriculture/sustainable-agriculture.html#.V6UXNZMrL6Y.

[18] Ranganathan, “The Global Food Challenge Explained in 18 Graphics.”

[19] Gustafson, “Global Food Policy Report calls for improved global food system.”

[20] “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of the Global Food System,” The Regis.

[21] “Water and food security,” United Nations, accessed August 5, 2016, http://www.un.org/waterforlifedecade/food_security.shtml.

[22] Gustafson, “Global Food Policy Report calls for improved global food system.”

[23] Annie Shattuck, Eric Holt-Giménez, and Zoe Brent, “Food Workers Food Justice: Linking Food, Labor and Immigrant Rights,” Food First, July 1, 2010, accessed August 5, 2016, https://foodfirst.org/publication/food-workers-food-justice-linking-food-labor-and-immigrant-rights/.

[24] “Toward a Healthy Sustainable Food System,” APHA.

[25] “Climate is changing. Food and agriculture must too.” FAO.

[26] Ranganathan, “The Global Food Challenge Explained in 18 Graphics.”

[27] “Climate is changing. Food and agriculture must too.” FAO.

[28] Gustafson, “Global Food Policy Report calls for improved global food system.”

[29] Brian Lipinski, “10 Ways to Cut Global Food Loss and Waste,” World Resources Institute, June 6, 2013, accessed August 5, 2016, http://www.wri.org/blog/2013/06/10-ways-cut-global-food-loss-and-waste.

[30] “Rome Declaration on World Food Security and World Food Summit Plan of Action,” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, accessed August 5, 2016, http://www.fao.org/docrep/003/w3613e/w3613e00.HTM.

[31] Jomo Kwame Sundaram, “Build Healthy, Sustainable Food System to Fight Malnutrition,” Global Issues, March 22, 2016, accessed August 5, 2016, http://www.globalissues.org/news/2016/03/22/21944.

[32] Sundaram, “Build Healthy, Sustainable Food System to Fight Malnutrition.”

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