Building a Food System that Supports the UN Sustainable Development Goals

Today’s global food system is caught in a Catch-22: Current industrial food production drives climate change, animal cruelty, and environmental damage. At the same time, agriculture—and agrarian communities worldwide—will likely suffer the worst from climate change and related environmental damage. Without healthy environments, sustainable development will become harder and harder to achieve.

This status quo is not merely unsustainable; it is a ticking time bomb. Industrial agriculture is threatening its own future, and ours along with it.

But there is hope: the global food system itself could be the key to positive change. Sustainable food production can become a way of healing our earth, our communities, and our health. To achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), our food system must be re-centered on human, animal, and environmental wellbeing, at all stages from production to consumption.

Agriculture Is Ripe for Revolution

Industrial food production directly endangers several of the SDGs, but it doesn’t need to be this way. Industrial agriculture itself has existed for less than a century! But in that short time, industrial agriculture has become dominant across much of the world.

Since the late 1940s, industrial food production has relied on fields planted with single crop varieties—often clones of a single plant—grown from patented seeds, using synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, and fungicides. Caught within this industrial machine, factory-farmed animals have been growing bigger and maturing faster on diets of antibiotic-laced industrial corn and soy, and raised packed tightly together in appallingly cruel conditions.

This is the result of the single-minded extractive food production model of “More = better.”

While this farming method has led to record yields of commodity crops such as corn and unprecedented availability of cheap animal products, it has also had serious consequences for our planet. Industrial agriculture has poisoned our rivers and lakes with fertilizer and manure runoff, polluted our air, driven deforestation, reduced biodiversity, over-exploited our oceans, and contributed as many climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) as transportation. And the side effects do not end there. Industrial production also generates food waste, profits from animal cruelty, and widens social inequality by enriching corporations rather than communities.

Somewhere along the way, industrial agriculture forgot that it is part of a larger human-animal-environment system.

When practiced sustainably within ecological limits, agriculture has the potential to bring us closer to the UN SDGs. Indeed, sustainable agriculture is a necessary foundation for many of the SDGs. This type of agriculture is still practiced in many places in the world, along with a farming ethos that is regenerative and respectful rather than extractive. Farming sustainably used to be the norm. Marketed today as cutting-edge sustainability innovations, many sustainable agriculture models draw heavily on indigenous traditional knowledge—often without attribution. Traditional ecological farming approaches can enhance biodiversity, sequester carbon, and regenerate soils, while producing a diversity of healthy foods without relying on synthetic agrichemicals or toxic poisons.[1]

Yet industrial agriculture continues to dominate, despite directly endangering several of the SDGs. How did this come to be?

For over fifty years, in a search for economic and political dominance, governments and private investors have poured money into research and development to expand industrial agriculture. Worldwide, less than one percent of the $49 billion spent by governments each year on R&D goes to sustainable farming methods.[2] In the US, over ninety-eight percent of public research funding from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is funneled toward dominant industrial agriculture.[3] Of the less than two percent of USDA funding that goes to sustainable alternatives, only a small fraction actually funds transformative change.

Less than two percent of the US government’s agricultural funding goes toward sustainable alternatives to industrial agriculture.

Meanwhile, over seventy-five percent of total US agricultural R&D now comes from private firms. While governments can measure return on investment in various big-picture ways, including economic success for rural communities, improved public health, or clean environments, private funders reap the clearest returns from innovations that can be patented. This strongly supports the continuance of industrial agriculture, as private firms pursue private profits rather than models that are environmentally and socially sustainable.

The Industrial Animal Production Nightmare


In its rise to dominance, industrial agriculture has especially transformed how animals are treated in our food system. Modern livestock rearing has become an ethical nightmare that also massively increases the environmental impact of raising animals.
World meat production has more than quadrupled since the 1960s, and dairy production has doubled. Much of this growth has been from industrial pig and poultry factories. Globally, confined industrial livestock operations now produce as much as seventy-two percent of poultry, fifty-five percent of pork, and forty-three percent of eggs.

Industrial animals do not obtain their nutrition by grazing fields or foraging. Confined from birth to death, these animals are fed manufactured feed, made from industrial corn and soy mixed with antibiotics, hormones, and growth promoters.

While a single cow, a few pigs, or a flock of chickens might live on a few acres of rural land without upsetting the ecological balance, industrial animal rearing looks nothing like this pastoral ideal. In place of small numbers of animals depositing their waste while roaming freely across healthy land, concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) pack thousands of animals tightly together in indoor warehouses where there is nowhere for their waste to go. The result is toxic manure collection pools, or “lagoons.” In the US alone, 1.6 billion farmed animals currently create 885 billion pounds of manure each year.

By body weight, the production of animals raised for food now outnumbers wild animals nearly fifteen to one. This explosion of industrial animal production, along with all its environmental harms, is recognized as a key extinction risk factor for eighty-five percent of the threatened wild species listed by IUCN.

Unfortunately, livestock production continues to rise, fueling climate change and driving environmental degradation with its waste and its feed production. We need a transition to sustainable, plant-driven agriculture that produces food without sacrificing future human and environmental health.

Is Consumption Change The Lowest-Hanging Fruit?

Achieving the UN SDGs will also require us to change what we put on our tables worldwide. That may sound like a tall order, but the good news is, we’ve actually done this before! Our diets changed tremendously from the 1950s–1980s as extractive industrial agriculture took hold. To get it right now, we’d need change on a similar scale, but in the direction of the SDGs.  

The most important part of this shift must happen through structural change within policies and institutions. For most households, food purchasing choices are constrained by a combination of price, availability, convenience, and access. The options that are available to diners and shoppers reflect system dynamics much larger than the individual, and it is both unfair and unreasonable to rely on individual responsibility as a solution. True responsibility for consumption trends lies with the investors who enable continued industrial food production, the architects of policies that promote industrial commodity crops, and the agribusiness corporations that hold power in our food system.

Responsibility for food consumption patterns lies in large part with the investors who enable continued industrial food production, and with the corporations that hold power in our food system.

Nevertheless, individual choice also plays a role in creating change. Steady demand for cheap meat and processed, low-cost, packaged and convenience foods provides much of the market momentum behind modern industrial agriculture, and the cruel factory farming of animals. This model is ultimately lucrative for corporations and investors because we, as consumers, accept it. We can each contribute to supporting animals and lightening our food system’s environmental impact by reducing our meat intake, asking for alternatives, becoming aware of where our food comes from, and—where possible—reducing our reliance on foods produced using industrial methods.

This is especially important in light of trends in global population growth. By 2050, we may have a world of nearly 10 billion people, up from 7.7 billion today.[4] To feed this many, some scientists have called for sustainable intensification—increasing food production within ecological limits, and without using new land.[5],[6] But merely producing more food won’t be enough to fix the access and distribution problems that underlie food scarcity in many contexts. To feed everyone appropriately, we must begin by changing how we eat.[7]

Although this social shift won’t be easy or immediate, it will have the convenient side effect of making us healthier. Many of the animal products and industrial foods that most damage human health are the very same foods that contribute most to environmental harm.[8] Eating less meat will also help us reduce how much industrial corn and soy we produce, fighting the dominance of industrial agriculture and freeing us to produce more food to directly fight hunger.

The benefits of widespread change are undeniable. Eating twenty-five percent more fruits and vegetables, and reducing red-meat consumption by three-fourths, could save over 5 million lives each year by 2050 in the high-income nations where consumption of animal products is highest. Going vegetarian could save over 7 million lives a year. Avoiding all animal products could save as many as 8 million lives annually.[9]

For those who can access alternatives, eating fewer animal products is a powerful tool for fighting climate change. Choosing more plant-based foods when possible is far better for us and for the planet[10] than simply switching to non-industrial sources of meat, dairy, and eggs.[11]

From climate change to hunger, reducing animal products goes hand in hand with achieving the SDGs.

Cultivating the SDGs through a Sustainable Food System

Building a food system that can achieve the UN SDGs will mean transitioning away from business-as-usual industrial agriculture and high-meat diets.

If we are to make serious progress on ending poverty (SDG 1), reducing global hunger (SDG 2), and ensuring healthy lives for all (SDG 3), we will need plant-driven sustainable food production as part of a healthy human-animal-environment system. Current industrial agriculture focuses single-mindedly on maximizing production value, while ignoring harm to the environment, to animals, to public health, and to the wellbeing of farm laborers and food industry workers.

A sustainable food system will also provide decent jobs and robust economies that do not depend on increasing inequality or sacrificing the future. This future food system will be a powerful tool for achieving equality for women (SDG 5), inclusive and sustainable economic growth (SDGs 8 and 9), and reduced inequality within and between nations (SDG 10). Our current industrial food system harms and exploits workers, damages local environments, and prioritizes corporate profit over community wellbeing—promising exactly the opposite of the SDG goals.

Our meat-heavy industrial food system is damaging our land, sea, and air. We need to build a food system that is not fraught with tradeoffs and harm to our planet, if we are to achieve sustainability in global water use (SDG 6), consumption and production (SDG 12), ocean use (SDG 14), and terrestrial ecosystems (SDG 15). Any version of a sustainable future must include equitable and environmentally friendly food production.

Similarly, because the industrial food system generates high GHG emissions, transitioning to ecological food production is our single best tool for confronting climate change (SDG 13).[12] Instead of relying on industrial false promises and wishful thinking, we need a robust plant-driven food system that can cope with a changing climate and continue to provide nourishment, employment, and prosperity for years to come.

Transitioning to ecological food production is our single best tool for confronting climate change.

Lastly, our global food system is interconnected and interdependent with many other social and environmental issues. A sustainable food system will help get us closer to achieving equitable education access (SDG 4), sustainable urban development (SDG 11), sustainable energy (SDG 7), peaceful societies (SDG 16), and global cooperation (SDG 17).

Making the Food System a Vehicle for Transformative Change

How can we transform the food system to help us get closer to the SDGs, not farther away? There are many changes that can help.

Globally, eating fewer animal products and industrial foods is an important step for our health, that of animals, and that of the planet. But we cannot rely on a few wealthy, educated consumers to carry this transition. Nor can we expect everyday people who don’t know about the impact of their choices, don’t have access to alternatives, or have less disposable income to shift their habits simply for the greater good. To catalyze the shift, we need to develop new approaches in food service, and spur large-scale investment in reasonably priced alternatives to industrial food and cheap meat. To ensure access to healthier food, we also need to support these changes with a broad societal commitment to reducing poverty and inequality. 

Globally, reducing animal production, especially in industrial conditions, will help us lessen the environmental impacts of food production and more effectively address global hunger. Meat production has never been so high or so dangerous. Reducing production overall and phasing out industrial methods will also lessen the extreme suffering of animals exploited by factory farming.

Globally, waking up from “Industrial-Is-Better” brainwashing will help us solve many of the problems created by dominant models of agriculture and animal production. We need a post-industrial paradigm shift in agriculture, and we need it now. Rather than viewing traditional farming, non-mechanized production, and diversified farms as remnants of an unproductive past, we must begin to see these as critical parts of an inclusive and sustainable global farming future, especially in an era of climate uncertainty. Technological innovations in food production can improve our farming future without sacrificing the public good by propping up agribusiness and unsustainable consumption patterns.

Re-balancing economic incentives for food production in the US is an essential area of policy change for transforming our food system. Industrial food production is disproportionately propped up by subsidies, tax breaks, crop insurance programs, and promotional programs. Ecological and sustainable production, on the other hand, is often forgotten or underfunded. Directing more of our considerable resources toward non-industrial food production models will help ensure a healthier environment, vibrant communities, and higher animal welfare.

Limiting the consolidation of corporate farming in the US will help keep more money in farming communities, rather than in the pockets of agribusiness. The power held by large-scale agribusiness has made it extremely difficult for small and mid-size farmers to continue to make a stable living.[13] Dismantling the economic and political power held by the largest seed and chemical companies, processed food companies, and meat producers will create a food system that works for people, animals, and the planet—now and into the future.

Read other posts in this series

Introduction: Our Vision for A Sustainable Food System

Part 1: Industrial Agriculture Threatens Sustainable Development

Part 2: The High Cost of Consuming Animals

Part 4: The Food System of Tomorrow: A Call to Action


References

[1] Marcia S. DeLonge, Albie Miles, and Liz Carlisle, “Investing in the Transition to Sustainable Agriculture,” Environmental Science & Policy 55, Part 1 (January 2016): 266–73, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envsci.2015.09.013.

[2] Urs Niggli, Helga Willer, and Brian Baker, “A Global Vision and Strategy for Organic Farming Research” (Frick, Switzerland: TIPI–Technology Innovation Platform of IFOAM, Organics International, c/o Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL), 2016).

[3] Liz Carlisle and Albie Miles, “Closing the Knowledge Gap: How the USDA Could Tap the Potential of Biologically Diversified Farming Systems,” Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development 3, no. 4 (2013): 219–225.

[4] United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, “World Population Prospects 2019, Online Edition,” August 2019, https://population.un.org/wpp/Download/Standard/Population.

[5] J.A. Foley et al., “Solutions for a Cultivated Planet,” Nature 478, no. 7369 (October 20, 2011): 337–42, https://doi.org/10.1038/nature10452.

[6] Johan Rockström et al., “Sustainable Intensification of Agriculture for Human Prosperity and Global Sustainability,” Ambio 46, no. 1 (February 1, 2017): 4–17, https://doi.org/10.1007/s13280-016-0793-6..

[7] Bojana Bajželj et al., “The Importance of Food Demand Management for Climate Mitigation,” Nature Climate Change 4, no. 10 (2014): 924–929.

[8] Michael A. Clark, Marco Springmann, Jason Hill, and David Tilman, “Multiple Health and Environmental Impacts of Foods,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 116, no. 46 (October 2019): 23357–62, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1906908116.

[9] Marco Springmann et al., “Analysis and Valuation of the Health and Climate Change Cobenefits of Dietary Change,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 113, no. 15 (April 12, 2016): 4146–51, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1523119113.

[10] Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser, “Environmental Impacts of Food Production,” Our World in Data (January 15, 2020), https://ourworldindata.org/environmental-impacts-of-food.

[11] Michael Clark and David Tilman, “Comparative Analysis of Environmental Impacts of Agricultural Production Systems, Agricultural Input Efficiency, and Food Choice,” Environmental Research Letters 12, no. 6 (June 1, 2017): 064016, https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aa6cd5.

[12] FAO, The 10 Elements of Agroecology: Guiding the Transition to Sustainable Food and Agricultural Systems (Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2019), www.fao.org/3/i9037en/I9037EN.pdf.

[13] Melanie J. Wender, “Goodbye Family Farms and Hello Agribusiness: The Story of How Agricultural Policy Is Destroying the Family Farm and the Environment,” Villanova Environmental Law Journal 22, no. 1 (2011): 29.

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Laura Driscoll
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