Agriculture & Food

Sustainable Food Systems

The production and consumption of sufficient, affordable and nutritious food, while conserving the natural resources and ecosystems on which food systems depend, is vital. Food systems play a central role in all societies and are fundamental to ensuring sustainable development. Sustainable food systems are critical to resolving issues of food security, poverty alleviation and adequate nutrition, and they play an important role in building resilience in communities responding to a rapidly changing global environment.

However, our food systems are under increasing pressure to respond to numerous and complex challenges. These include:

  • Increasing demands - for greater quantity, quality and diversity of food –the world population is predicted to grow from 7.2 billion in 2010 to over 9 billion in 2050 with corresponding food demand predicted to increase by 60 per cent.
  • Food loss and waste – roughly 30 per cent of the food produced worldwide is lost or wasted every year.
  • Chronic hunger worldwide – 12.9 per cent of the population in developing regions suffer from hunger
  • Obesity related health conditions – globally over 30 per cent of adults are estimated to be overweight or obese.
  • Food price impacts on food security and wellbeing – in poorer areas people spend 50-80 per cent of their income on food and are highly exposed to price volatility.
  • Climate change – food systems rely on natural resources, which are extremely vulnerable to rapidly changing climatic conditions.
  • Wide-scale ecosystem change – food production itself has caused wide-scale changes in ecosystems, being responsible for 70 per cent of water withdrawals and a significant driver of deforestation and loss of biodiversity. It is also heavily dependent on these natural resources.


What is a sustainable food system?

 ‘A sustainable food system (SFS) is a food system that delivers food security and nutrition for all in such a way that the economic, social and environmental bases to generate food security and nutrition for (current and) future generations are not compromised.’

‘A food system gathers all the elements (environment, people, inputs, processes, infrastructures, institutions, etc.) and activities that relate to the production, processing, distribution, preparation and consumption of food, and the outputs of these activities, including socio-economic and environmental outcomes.’


UNEP Sustainable Food Systems Programme

Moving towards more sustainable food systems is critical. Urgent attention is required to address existing challenges, as well as new and evolving demands on our food systems. UNEP is committed to accelerating action through its Sustainable Food Systems programme of activities which aim to raise awareness as well as catalyse action at local, regional and international level.

We are doing this through 4 main focus areas:

  • Sustainable Food System Thinking (interconnected policy making on food and agriculture)
    • National Round-Tables on Sustainable Food Systems
    • Climate Change, Urbanisation and Food Systems

Watch this short and fact-filled movie that explains why action is needed now to ensure urban populations can access sufficient, sustainably produced, affordable, safe and nutritious food in a changing climate. You can also watch it in French here.

Download the Policy Perspectives Paper that presents the challenges associated with feeding cities in a changing climate and how urban areas can take a leadership role in driving more sustainable food systems. You can also download it in French here.

  • Market-based Approaches
  • Smart Consumption
  • Collaboration
  • We are always looking for good opportunities to collaborate and partner with interested stakeholders to help accelerate the shift to more sustainable food systems.

    Our main focus in this area is through the 10YFP Sustainable Food Systems Programme in which UNEP with FAO has played an instrumental role in it is development. UNEP and FAO now serve in the Multi-Stakeholder Advisory Committee (MAC).

    For more information and background go to the website at 10YFP Sustainable Food Systems Programme

James Lomax  
Programme Officer (food systems and agriculture)