Global food systems: we have reached another turning point, requiring a new level of political commitment and policy direction

Population growth and global warming compound difficulties in finding a global solution

Sixty years ago a number of countries in Asia faced the threat of mass starvation. Famine in India was averted through large-scale imports of food aid from the United States. But from the mid-60s to the mid-70s, scientific breakthroughs and policy initiatives transformed the situation.

The Green Revolution was key to this. New varieties of wheat, maize and rice were developed and the widespread adoption of husbandry practices involving intensive use of fertiliser and pesticides produced high yields previously unattainable.

Investment in international agricultural research was expanded and the International Fund for Agriculture Development (IFAD) established to assist smallholder farmers. The 1974 World Food Summit built an international political consensus on the need for countries to invest more in their agriculture.

This combination of factors led to a decisive change that lasted over three decades. Global food supply outstripped demand from the 1970s until the “food price crisis” of 2007/8 when prices for the major staple commodities rocketed, leading to food riots in more than 30 countries. Falling food prices were a key factor, particularly in Asia, in stimulating economic growth and in improving nutrition for hundreds of millions of people.


Now in the early 2020s, we have reached another turning point, which requires a new level of political commitment and policy direction for the next 30 years.

The 1970s challenge was to produce enough food to stop people from starving. The 2020 challenge is more complex: how can the political will and a policy framework be developed to produce enough food to feed a world population estimated at 9.5 billion in 2050, compared to the current 7.8 billion, while contributing to the target of restricting the increase in global warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels.

If a 2020s turning point has been reached which will set a new policy framework for the coming decades, there are key implications internationally, for Africa and for Ireland

This requires – what Sir Gordon Conway proposed in his 1999 book The Doubly Green Revolution: food for all in the 21st century – setting out new environmentally friendly technologies aimed at increasing productivity necessary to meet growing food demand. The Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition concluded: “There is no viable future for food systems without delivering on the 1.5 degree agenda and it cannot be delivered without addressing the shortfall in food systems.”

Food and nutrition security has been pushed up the international political agenda in recent years by the Covid pandemic; the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and increasingly frequent extreme weather events with their impact on food production. The UAE presidency of the UN process has prioritised the link between climate and food policies for the Cop28 meeting in December in Dubai. This is the first time since the Cop process started in 1995 that a presidency has prioritised the climate/food link.

If a 2020s turning point has been reached which will set a new policy framework for the coming decades, there are key implications internationally, for Africa and for Ireland.

Internationally, there needs to be a long-term commitment to the development of sustainable food production methods, with a lower environmental footprint, producing food of higher nutritional quality, which is affordable to all. 3.1 billion of the current 7.8 billion world population cannot afford a nutritionally adequate diet.

Lessons should be learned from the sharp increase in food, energy and fertiliser prices arising from the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This exposed the vulnerability of many African and Middle East countries to their import dependence on Russia and Ukraine. The political and economic logic for Africa and the Middle East region is to reduce their import dependence and to increase the capacity to produce more of their own needs over the next two decades.

At Cop28 the US Government will launch its “Vision for Adapted Crops and Soils (VACS)” initiative. It aims to boost agricultural productivity and better nutrition by developing diverse climate-resilient crops and building healthy soils, with a particular focus on Africa. This is the type of long-term and strategic approach for the next 30 years which is reminiscent of the main policy initiatives taken in the early 1970s which transformed the then-critical food situation.

Africa was bypassed by the 1960s Green Revolution. The continent was emerging from its colonial period and did not have the governance systems, scientific capacity, or human resources to have its own Green Revolution. As a result, the performance of Africa’s agri-food has been below par over most of the intervening decades. This has resulted in Africa importing growing amounts of food to meet its needs, amounting to some $70 billion annually, fuelled by demand from a rapidly increasing middle-class.

But the situation is changing. Africa’s political leadership has signalled its intention to improve its agri-food performance and to meet a greater share of its food needs. Major conferences this year reflect this: the Dakar 2 Summit on ‘Feeding Africa: Food Sovereignty and Resilience’ in January; the African Food Systems Forum and the inaugural Africa Climate Summit in September. The African position from these meetings will be articulated by Ibrahim Mayaki, the African Union’s Special Envoy for Food Systems and a former prime minister of Niger.

Ireland is in a good position to advocate for increased priority for climate/food policy and for sustainable food systems at Cop28 and other international forums. It has a credible record of contributing to and advocating for enhanced global food and nutrition security. Mary Robinson’s relentless campaigning for climate justice, supported by the Irish Government over the past decade, adds other levels of credibility.

Ireland has two key government policies – the Climate Action Plan 2023 (CAP 2023) with its ambitious emissions targets and other measures and Food Vision 2030 (FV 2030) with its commitment that Ireland should be an international leader in sustainable food systems by 2030, which – if delivered upon – will position Ireland as a leader within the climate/food policy space.

FV 2030 is backed by a set of complementary policies, including the NESC report on Just Transition and Land Use; the updated Teagasc Marginal Abatement Cost Curve (MACC) programme with its 100 Signpost Farms developing farm-based technologies to reduce emissions and increase carbon sequestration; and the Government’s forthcoming National Bioeconomy strategy.

These policies are being implemented with strong stakeholder involvement. They need to amount to an urgent change management programme, involving government, major food companies and co-operatives and farmers, to deliver the earliest possible results in improving water quality, reducing emissions and restoring biodiversity. This should go hand-in-hand with a more diversified and resilient rural economy offering increased income and employment opportunities.

In 2015, the international community reached agreement on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Climate Agreement. The then Irish UN ambassador David Donoghue was co-chair of the process that agreed the SDGs and Ireland deservedly gained much political capital from this.

The forthcoming Cop meeting may be the most important international meeting since 2015 with the potential for Ireland to play a leading role. Progress on the climate/food issue may be the biggest story to emerge from Cop28. The UAE presidency has been working on an “Emirates Declaration on Resilient Food Systems, Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Action”. This would involve country signatories to the Declaration committing to expedite the integration of food systems and agriculture into their climate action programmes and to mainstream climate action across policy agendas related to food systems and agriculture.

Ireland has historic credibility in terms of food and nutrition security and climate justice as well as current credible policies – CAP 2023 and FV 2030 – to play a leading role at Cop28. This will require political imagination and a willingness across key government departments to work effectively together. It would also help if the agri-food sector would embrace, rather than fight against, the recent European Commission decision to reduce nitrogen use to 220 kilograms of nitrogen per hectare, both as a milestone to leadership in sustainable food systems and as an insurance policy against even more restrictive policies from the Commission.

Tom Arnold was chair of the 2030 Food Vision agri-food strategy stakeholder committee. He served as Ireland’s Special Envoy for Food Systems in 2021-2022