Revealed: The Staggering $15 Trillion Global Food System Cost – And How We Can Fix It

It’s no longer a secret that our food system has serious consequences on the environment, health, and economies. According to a groundbreaking report by Food System Economics Commission (FSEC), the hidden costs of the global food system amount to an alarming $15 trillion per year – equivalent to 12% of total GDP in 2020. However, FSEC also presents possible transformation pathways that could lead to healthier people and a more sustainable planet.

The True Costs of Our Food System

While we may believe that the price tag at the grocery store is the true cost of our food, many are not aware of the environmental, health, and social expenses associated with it. FSEC estimates these unaccounted costs at $15 trillion annually. Such costs include detrimental effects on labor productivity due to poor health, the impact of food systems on climate change, and poverty prevalence in the agricultural sector resulting from low incomes.

“Overshoot even of 0.1-0.3 degrees will add massive social costs across the world,” warns Johan Rockström, principal FSEC director PIK, emphasizing the urgent need for action to transform our current food systems.

The Scenarios: Continuing Current Trends vs. Food System Transformation

To better understand the impacts of our current practices versus a transformed food system, FSEC compares two scenarios:

  • Current trends scenario: If the status quo remains unchanged, an estimated 640 million people will be underweight by mid-century, while the adoption of unhealthy diets would lead to a 70% increase in obesity, affecting 1.5 billion (15% of the global population) by 2050.
  • Food system transformation scenario: By changing diets and consumption patterns, reducing food waste by 24%, and implementing better policies and practices, we could potentially reap significant health and environmental benefits. Transforming our food systems would require an investment of between 0.2-0.4% of global GDP per year – a relatively small fraction of the potential economic gains.

A Call to Action: Transforming Our Global Food System

FSEC’s findings echo those of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, which in November reported that hidden costs of agrifood systems amount to $12 trillion annually, with 70% of these expenses related to health and a quarter linked to climate.

To effectively transform our food system, FSEC calls for:

  • Leaders around the world to face the food system challenge head-on and prioritize transformation efforts.
  • A concerted effort to revamp fragmented policies and regulations, harnessing the potential of the food system as a positive force for global change.
  • Promoting sustainable healthy diets globally, thereby benefiting people’s health, reducing inequalities, and enhancing environmental sustainability.

“By encouraging and increasing access to sustainable healthy diets, world leaders have an opportunity to save lives, reduce inequalities, protect the environment, and drive economic growth,” says WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, endorsing FSEC’s recommendations.

The Benefits of Food System Transformation

According to the report, the potential outcome of adopting healthier diets and transforming food systems include:

  • A considerable shift towards fruit, vegetable, nut, and legume consumption in South and Southeast Asia.
  • A drastic decrease in animal-derived foods intake in high- and middle-income regions.
  • Significant improvements in public health outcomes across the globe, contributing to better labor productivity and quality of life.
  • An overall reduced burden on the planet, helping mitigate climate change and preserve ecosystems.

Ultimately, the findings emphasize that transforming our food systems is a critical task that can no longer be ignored. As immense challenges – such as feeding an ever-growing population, preserving scarce natural resources, and tackling climate change – continue to threaten global stability, it will take the combined efforts of governments, businesses, and individuals worldwide to take bold steps toward healthier diets and more sustainable food production methods.

To ensure a brighter future for all, we must come together as a global community to innovate, adapt, and fundamentally transform the way we grow, process, distribute, and consume our food.

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