World Wildlife Fund Sustainability Works

Aerial view of deliberate forest fire for planting soybeans

Transforming the Food System by Moving the Bottom

  • Date: 06 December 2023
  • Author: Jason Clay, WWF Senior Vice President and Executive Director, Markets Institute

Transforming any food system will require new policies and difficult choices. This is particularly true if we acknowledge from the outset that by simply improving the way we produce food, we can achieve 80% absolute reductions of food-related GHG emissions and 50% for the rest of food’s footprint. Current improvement rates will not cut it. We need nothing short of transformation.

The first questions are where the biggest impacts that need to be addressed exist, who is producing them, why, and what incentives could induce them to change. These are the targets. We need to move the bottom, the poorest performers. And since our goals are metrics, our assessments should be as well. The biggest impacts and the most wasteful production come from the least efficient producers.

The bottom 10-20% of producers of any commodity produce 60-80% of the impacts but only 5-10% of the product. By improving their efficiencies, we can achieve absolute reductions of environmental impact at a scale that is both significant and sufficient. More importantly, a focus on these producers is the only way to reduce impacts by 50% absolutely. Working with the better producers will not fix the problem.

Agreement on key global impacts, ways to measure them, and most importantly, where to draw the line will be essential if we are to move the bottom. Countries should welcome these efforts. Improving or removing the least efficient producers, which is the role of governments, will make countries and the global food system more resilient.

We need to acknowledge at the outset that impacts that might have been acceptable in the past are not acceptable today. Going forward, we need to produce more food with absolute reductions of land, inputs, and environmental impacts. Continuous improvement will be necessary but insufficient to achieve the required results. In the future, we need step changes and transformation. Incremental change will not be fast enough.

This will be hard. It challenges the assumption of farmers the world over that if they own land, they have the right to farm it. Increasingly as we go forward, farmers will only have the right to farm (e.g., the license to operate) if they work within the limits of their farm’s resource base and either maintain or improve those resources. Otherwise, their impacts will simply not be acceptable, as society will not pay to clean up the impacts of farmers.

Change will require that we identify and adapt lessons learned and measurable results from what other producers have already achieved. In addition, we need to know what impediments were encountered, how they were addressed, what worked and what didn’t, what it cost and what sequences in strategies were most cost effective. This enables everyone to learn not only more quickly, but also continuously. The changes needed can be driven by both carrots and sticks.

One question is whether the more responsible producers in a sector — one that is generally under attack for the actions of those who are the least efficient and most impactful — would be willing to help lift the bottom? This could be done through technology and technical assistance, shared information systems, or even finance and access to markets, in exchange for improved performance. I was approached by a Dutch producer who posed this precise question. His affirmative answer was surprising, and, probably not surprisingly, ahead of the curve.

We are at a point in human history when we need everyone to act and to do so more quickly. Producers don’t need perfect information, and they shouldn’t worry about making mistakes or missteps. The point is to act, learn, and pivot. Then repeat it year after year.

Science seems to be telling us over and over that we are worse off than we thought. And the longer we take to make needed changes, the worse it will get, the longer it will take, and the more it will cost to address issues that could have been avoided by acting sooner. This is true not just for producers and global food systems, but also for nature, biodiversity and ecosystem services.

Governments need to force the issue. Without that push, particularly of the poorest performers, the last to act will most likely be the ones with the most direct and indirect GHG emissions in the products they produce. These same performers will also be the ones responsible for the most habitat conversion and the biggest impacts on biodiversity and soil health, etc. And without moving them, we will not be reducing either GHG emissions or food production’s other footprints. These reductions are necessary to maintain all life on Earth.