The recently released 2021 Food Sustainability Index (FSI) from Economist Impact finds only 28 of 78 countries prioritize agriculture in their international climate commitments. To achieve sustainable food systems, countries must also address key social and economic indicators from gender equality to gross domestic product (GDP).
The FSI assesses the sustainability of food systems in 78 countries according to three pillars: food loss and waste, sustainable agriculture, and nutritional challenges. Countries are categorized by demonstrating either Very High, High, Medium, or Low performance. Across the three pillars, Sweden, Japan, Canada, Finland, and Austria were consistent top performers.
The FSI is the fourth edition of the Index, first launched in 2016. It focuses on best practices and areas of improvement in top-performing countries, a format that is intended to help policymakers, researchers, and other stakeholders design solutions for more sustainable food systems.
“We hope that this can be a starting point for governments and other decision-makers, as well as those influencing them, to think about the state of their food systems,” Martin Koehring, Senior Manager at Economist Impact, tells Food Tank.
Each pillar of the report highlights key trends and makes recommendations. In the food loss and waste pillar, for example, the report finds that the 20 top-performing countries have set measurable targets. But it also finds there remains room to leverage legislation, market-based instruments, and voluntary agreements into action to further advance their goals.
Many higher income countries in the sustainable agriculture pillar emit the largest total agricultural greenhouse gases and continue use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. These countries could look to low-to-middle-income countries including Nigeria and Zimbabwe for promising strategies to integrate climate action into their agricultural activities.
The nutritional challenges pillar reveals that affordability is a significant obstacle standing between low-to-middle-income countries and healthy and sustainable diets.
According to Koehring, the COVID-19 pandemic “highlighted the need to build food systems that are not just sustainable, but also healthy, inclusive and resilient.” This edition of the FSI reflects current challenges to the food system including the climate crisis, supply chain disruptions and rising inflation, and zoonotic diseases.
The FSI discovers strong correlations between a country’s food system performance and social and economic indicators. According to the report, when indicators such as human development, progress towards meeting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, gender equality, health expenditure, and GDP are met, food sustainability outcomes are easier to achieve.
“Achieving human and economic development or redressing social inequalities can have benefits for food sustainability, and vice versa,” states the report.
These relationships stress the importance of a systems-based approach that shifts away from siloed thinking. “You can’t talk about sustainable agriculture without talking about gender equality,” Koehring tells Food Tank. “You can’t push for nutritional outcomes without taking into account animal health, and you can’t promote healthy and sustainable diets without factoring in income disparities.”
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