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Why the global food system is literally killing us

Molly D. Anderson

Publicly funded research can help point the way toward a sustainable future for all, says Molly D Anderson

Why the global food system is literally killing us


This is an edited extract from Molly D. Anderson's original article in the 'For whom? Questioning the food and farming research agenda'.

At least 815 million people across the world suffer from chronic severe undernutrition1 because they cannot access sufficient food. Approximately one in five deaths globally is due to eating poor diets.2,3

 Agriculture and other food system practices are huge contributors to environmental degradation. Considered as a whole, the food system emits up to 57% of greenhouse gases.4 Agriculture uses about 70% of the global freshwater supply2, and about one third of arable soil has been acutely degraded by agricultural practices. 4,5

To imagine and design a better research system, one must understand how research has contributed to the system we have now. In the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science & Technology for Development (IAASTD), over 400 scientists from 52 countries painstakingly investigated the outcomes of investment in science, knowledge and technology since the middle of the 20th century, to determine where future investments should be directed in order to achieve sustainable development.


“there is little appetite for research that is simply good for people and the planet.”


As we unravelled past investment patterns, we found that ‘business as usual’ (i.e. increasing investment in industrial agriculture in developing and industrialised countries) clearly could not produce healthy food sustainably into the future. The IAASTD documented decades of negative social, environmental and health consequences due to the spread of industrialised food systems. Too much of past investment had focused on single sectors of the food system (e.g. agricultural production) or single goals (e.g. maximising productivity), rather than considering systemic trade-offs and the multifunctionality of food systems.

Private sector funding of agricultural research has grown rapidly, while public sector research has correspondingly become increasingly less prevalent (particularly in the United States, once a leader in agricultural research). Between 2008 and 2013, for example, real (inflation-adjusted) public food and agricultural research and development in the US fell by about 20% while real private research and development increased by 64%.3 The interests of the private sector are quite naturally in goods and services that will return profits to companies, including strong protection of intellectual property rights; there is little appetite for research that is simply good for people and the planet.


"Too much of past investment had focused on single sectors of the food system."


The kind of development the world needs has more recently been articulated in 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and their 169 targets, including SDG 2 which aims to end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture.

Whether the world reaches this goal will be determined by many actors, but whose voices should dominate discourse, and who should set research priorities? The stakes are high: ecological integrity, public health and decent livelihoods for marginalised people on one hand, versus greater profits for and control by the private sector on the other. Research funded through public sources must support the former, and governments must set limits on the ways in which the latter further enhances political power through campaign contributions and lobbying at the national and international scales.

Focusing research on improving the health and well-being of marginalised people, or on producing food while enhancing soil fertility, sequestering carbon and maintaining biodiversity, will benefit all people by helping to create food systems that serve the public good.

Through renewed attention to the social contract between governments and their citizens, a new ‘Social Contract for Science’11 and integration of knowledge from the public into science, publicly funded research can help point the way toward a sustainable future for all.

Molly D. Anderson is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Food Studies at Middlebury College, Middlebury, Vermont, USA. She was a Coordinating Lead Author of the IAASTD and currently is a member of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems.


1 FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization), IFAD, UNICEF, WFP and WHO (2017) The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2017. Building resilience for peace and food security. Rome, FAO.

2 The Lancet (2017) Special Issue on the Global Burden of Disease Study. The Lancet 390 (10100).

3 Boseley, Sarah. 14 September 2017. Poor diet is a factor in one in five deaths, global disease study reveals. The Guardian poor-diet-is-a-factor-in one-in-five-deaths-global disease study-reveals Accessed 27/11/2017

4 GRAIN. 11 September 2011. Food and climate change: The forgotten link. food-and-climate-change-the-forgotten-link Accessed 27/11/2017

5 World Bank (2014) World Development Indicators: Annual freshwater withdrawals, agriculture (% of total freshwater withdrawal) [link]

11 Keeler, Bonnie, Rebecca Chaplin-Kramer, Anne D. Guerry, Prue F.E. Addison, Charles Bettigole, Ingrid G. Burke, Brad Gentry, Lauren Chambliss, Carrie Young, Alexander J. Travis, Chris T. Darimont, Doria R. Gordon, Jessica Hellmann, Peter Kareiva, Steve Monfort, Lydia Olander, Tim Profeta, Hugh P. Possingham, Carissa Slotterback, Eleanor Sterling, Tamara Ticktin and Bhaskar Vira (2017) Society is ready for a new kind of science— Is academia? BioScence 67(7): 5