Skip to main content
Sustainable Food Systems Programme



  • A sustainable food system (SFS) is one that delivers food security and nutrition for all in such a way that the economic, social and environmental bases to produce food are not compromised for future generations.[1] 
  • A food system gathers all the elements (environment, people, inputs, processes, infrastructures, institutions, etc.) and activities that relate to the production, processing, distribution, preparation and consumption of food and the impacts of these activities, including socio-economic and environmental results. 
  • Sustainable food systems are critical to food security and nutrition. 
  • Sustainable food systems are critical for poverty alleviation. 
  • Sustainable food systems play an important role in increasing resource efficiency, improving the sustainable use of resources, and thus preserving natural ecosystems (natural capital) and biodiversity. 
  • Sustainable food systems are critical to building resilient communities. 
  • Healthy food for a healthy planet: A sustainable food system feeds us healthy food without harming the planet’s ecosystems, which we need to grow our healthy food!

1. Food Security, malnutrition, overweight, health: Current systems are not sustainable because  they are failing to feed everyone now – and will be further challenged by global population growth and urbanization.


Despite the fact that the world is currently producing enough food to feed its entire population, 815 million people in 2016 – representing about 12 percent of the global population– go hungry[2]; 155 million under-five year olds are estimated to be stunted[3]; and about 52 million of children under 5 lack the essential micronutrients they need to lead healthy lives[4].


The number of overweight/obese people has reached more than 1.4 billion adults globally – representing about 30 percent of the total adult population.  Chronic obesity-related health conditions are rising rapidly in both developing and developed countries[5].


88% of countries face a serious burden of either two or three forms of malnutrition and trends predict that the 1 in 3 people currently malnourished will grow to 1 in 2 people soon.


Population and income growth as well as urbanization are driving increased and changing food and feed demand. FAO estimates that in 2050, to satisfy the demand of a growing and richer population, with an increased meat demand, food production will have to increase by at least 60 percent over the next decades.[6]  


Nowadays 75% of the world’s food is generated from only 12 plants and 5 animal species (FAO, 2004), which does not ensure nutritious, diverse, healthy diets[7].


Inequality, environmental disasters, conflicts, wars, environmental degradation, and diets are some of the main drivers of hunger. Food systems and safety nets could be improved to support consistent access, availability and use of food for all.


2. Natural Resources, natural capital, biodiversity: Current systems are not sustainable because they are failing to protect natural resources to ensure that future generations are able to meet their food security and nutrition needs


  • Food production and consumption patterns are one of the main drivers of environmental degradation: 
  • It is estimated that agriculture alone contributes 14% of GHG emissions however if the food system was taken into account (ie from farm to flush, including food losses and waste) the figure would be around 33%.
    • Factoring in transportation  related to food systems, this figure increases, transportation being a leading source of GHG emissions[8].
    • Food production and production are responsible for 60-80% of human-induced biodiversity loss, with livestock - or meat based diets - as the main cause[9],[10],[11].
    • By 2050, under a business as usual scenario of consumption with an increasing and wealthier population, 10 million square kilometers of natural ecosystems, the size of the entire United States of America, will be converted to agriculture[12]      
    • Conversion of agriculture forecasted by 2050 (10 million square kilometers) would be accompanied by a 2.4 to 2.7-fold increase in nitrogen- and phosphorus-driven eutrophication of water ecosystems.[13] 
  • The animal industry, through its reliance on plant-based feed, is the number one consumer of freshwater, and responsible for 18% of the total worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, current diets in the majority of developed countries inclue a high proportion of animal-based proteins. This is why adopting diets low in animal-sourced foods can significantly reduce the food-related per capita GHG emissions and freshwater use of countries[14] 
  • Emerging markets and developing countries are experiencing an upward trend in meat consumption, which will increasingly pose a challenge to the Earth’s planetary boundaries.
  • Around 30 percent of the food produced worldwide – about 1.3 billion tons – is lost or wasted every year[15], leading to the waste of all the resources that were used to produce the wasted food and to the generation of methane from food rotting in landfills.
  • Globally, food that is harvested, but not consumed, accounts for about twenty-five percent[16] of all water used in the agricultural sector each year and requires cropland the size of China[17].
  • Globally, food that’s harvested but not consumed generates about 8 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions annually[18].
  • Rates of consumption of animal based proteins in developed countries, with associated impacts on natural resources such as impacts on soil degradation, biodiversity loss, water and air pollution, makes the transition towards more plant-based and sustainable proteins an important step towards long-term planetary sustainability.
  • In current food systems costs of our production and consumption are passed on to future generations and our planet. We need to move towards a system that integrates costs of food production and consumption.


3. Livelihoods: Current systems are not sustainable because they are failing to support thriving rural communities and farm households and workers


  • Of the 1.4 billion extremely poor people in the world (living on less than USD1.25/day), 70 percent are estimated to live in rural areas and most of them depend partly (or completely) on agriculture.
  • It is estimated that 500 million smallholder farms in the developing world are supporting almost 2 billion people who depend on them for their livelihoods, and these small farms produce about 80 percent of the food consumed in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Therefore, food systems need to better take into account the needs of smallholders. Increasing farm concentration and the consequent loss of farmer populations erode the economic base of local communities .[19] 
  • Capture fisheries and aquaculture provide 3 billion people with almost 20 percent of their average per capita intake of animal protein, and a further 1.3 billion people with about 15 percent of their per capita intake. It is estimated that more than 120 million people in the world depend directly on fisheries-related activities (fishing, processing, trading), a vast majority of them living in developing and emerging countries. Small-scale fisheries account for 90 percent of fisher folk.[20] 
  • The importance of the global food producer base in feeding the population and in contributing to the livelihoods of millions of people,  highlights the reasons why stakeholders have to find ways of joint action to ensure more sustainable food systems. 
  • The 30 percent of food that is lost and wasted each year, results in the retail equivalent of 1 trillion USD, but up to 2.6 trillion USD when includong indirect costs[21]. The average American family throws out 1.410 USD each year[22].

A programme with a goal:

  • The goal of the SFS Programme is to accelerate the shift to more sustainable food systems. 
  • The SFS Programme is a global multi-stakeholder initiative that contributes to the transition to more sustainable food systems.

A programme with a mandate:

  • The SFS Programme is the mandated vehicle of implementation of sustainable consumption and production (SCP) (SDG 12) in food systems. 

A network of experts for knowledge transfer:

  • The SFS Programme is a learning network that provides access to specialists, experiences and best practices for sustainable food systems using holistic, systems-based approaches.

A network for innovation between unusual allies:

  • It is a platform for experimentation and innovation among parties that never or rarely sit around the same table.
  • The SFS Programme has divided work in four work areas: awareness raising, capacity building, strengthening partnerships, and facilitating access to knowledge, information and tools for SFS.

A Programme built on a global consensus:

  • The was adopted by Heads of State and Government at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20)[23] to help accelerate the shift towards sustainable consumption and production (SCP) patterns.  The is a global framework of action that aims to promote national and regional efforts and enhance international cooperation to accelerate the shift towards SCP, in both developed and developing countries.[24]

The food systems approach consensus:

  • The SFS Programme’s keystone accomplishment is the consensus on the need for solutions that are based on a systems approach. Through a systems approach set to deliver on all SDGs, the SFS Programme considers all the elements (environment, people, inputs, processes, infrastructures, institutions, etc.) and all the activities that relate to the production, processing, distribution, preparation and consumption of food and the outputs of these activities, including socio-economic and environmental outcomes (HLPE, 2014) in order to develop sensible solutions. Intervening on one single issue of the food system as currently takes place with the predominance of silo-thinking will not be enough to solve the system’s issues. 

Portfolio of linked solutions:

  • The SFS Programme has put together 8 “core initiatives” addressing specific issues in the food system.
  • The SFS Programme has attracted 22 “affiliated projects” led by member organizations.

First global conference:

  • The SFS Programme successfully held its 1st global conference with over 150 participants, hosted by the Department of Trade and Industry of South Africa. Its key outcome, besides interesting exchanges of perspectives and approaches from across the world regarding the shift of food systems, was to issue the “Pretoria” resolution, which contained a series of calls to actions and policy recommendations for global leaders.
  • Core initiatives are the principal projects of the SFS Programme. They contribute to the SFS Programme objectives, are in line with its work areas and priority activities and are developed and implemented jointly by a group of two or more Programme members.
  • Core initiatives are diverse in nature and typically span across different levels and scales. They address core problems related to sustainable food systems and link several elements of food systems from production to consumption, with strategies in line with the SFS Programme’s work areas. They build on existing projects and  resources and the expertise of organizations that have decided to open up to each other to foster new synergies and develop and/or disseminate innovative solutions. In this sense, core initiatives are projects that have become wider coalitions of partners, enabling a widening of their lens and of participants’ accountability.
  • So what are the core initiatives? The eight core initiatives are:

1. Sustainable diets in the context of sustainable food systems

Promoting effective and reliable scientific communication in order to advance the existing knowledge-sharing tools and mechanisms for improving the sustainability of current diets while improving sustainable food systems.

2. Sustainable and healthy gastronomy as a key driver for sustainable food systems

Much of the agri-food diversity in the global tropics has disappeared from production systems due to consumption patterns changing. This project aims to stimulate a sustainable gastronomy sector as a way to promotes sustainable diets, including the high variety of native products in local cuisine, enhance sustainable consumption and production, and revitalize the high variety of food.

3. Sustainability along all value chains: identifying and promoting local initiatives linking small-scale producers and consumers.

Sustainable Food Systems hold the possibility of reorganizing relationships between producers. The purpose of this Core Initiative is to map, through multi-actor participatory approaches, the markets that contribute to creating sustainable food systems and to develop nutrition sensitive value chain approaches at the country level.

4. Complementing existing value chain sustainability assessments: Measuring, communicating-, and valuing biodiversity in food systems

Food systems, and in particular agricultural production and fishing, are key drivers for terrestrial and aquatic biodiversity loss. Addressing this challenge requires sound metric systems to monitor ongoing loss of biodiversity and success of conservation measures. Yet there is currently no consensus on generally accepted, reliable, and actionable biodiversity assessment methods. This core initiative aims to improve measures, standards, and valuation methods for agricultural, fishery and wild biodiversity as well as identify how these can be adapted to measure impacts at the landscape level.

5. Delivering SDG Target 12.3 on Food Loss and Waste Reduction

This project proposal seeks to take stock of the current state of knowledge and on-going methodological activities, share approaches and promote harmonization of Food Loss and Waste measurement around SDG 12.3. UN Environment and FAO, together with collaborating and facilitating organizations, will strengthen tools developed, address knowledge gaps, develop capacities and promote awareness and advocacy to stem the problem.

6. Setting the Table for our Children – exploring the path to more sustainable food systems through multi-stakeholder action

‘Setting the Table for our Children’ brings together different actors from civil society, private and public sector through practice in multistakeholder platforms. They will commit towards sustainable food charters and strategies at local and national level, while developing and implementing transformative policies and practices towards sustainable food systems.

7. Sustainable Food Systems – what’s in it for farmers?

Farmers face barriers towards adopting SFS or sustainable agricultural practices. Without incentives, farmers are often limited in their ability to overcome these short- and long-term adoption barriers. This core initiative aims to gain a better understanding of these barriers faced by farmers to adopt sustainable farming practices.

8. The Organic Food System Program (OFSP): Organic food systems as models and living laboratories for transformation processes towards sustainable food systems

The Organic Food System Program (OFSP) is conceived as a holistic global food system approach to production and consumption patterns. The scope is to identify, understand and describe transformation processes towards sustainable food systems and make lessons learned available in a globally systematized and contextually-applicable way.

  • To join the global network of networks on sustainable food systems.
  • To have access to a vast network of specialists, knowledge and resources for the transition to SFS.
  • To become a quicker learner to accelerate the food systems shift. Stay connected to the cutting edge on SFS!
  • Because action in the food system realm is a powerful approach for achieving SDG12 on sustainable consumption and production.
  • Because SDG12 on sustainable consumption and production is a highly interconnected SDG.  Implementation of  more SCP patterns, particularly in the food realm, helps support achievement of other thematic SDGs like Health, Life on Land, Climate Change and Economic Development.
  • To join a network of people and organizations creating instruments to incentivize governments and corporations to adopt policies to shift to SFS.
  • To contribute to reducing repetition and redundancy and to foster the consolidation of activities that aim to shift food systems.
  • To find partner organisations, create synergy through collaborations, co-create and deliver joined-up solutions.
  • To join with others to promote activities in the areas of awareness raising, capacity building, strengthening partnerships, and facilitating access to knowledge, information and tools for SFS.