How can the agri-food sector cope with the challenges posed by a growing global population, while aiming for social, environmental and economic sustainability?


This was the question discussed at this year’s Forum for the Future of Agriculture in Brussels, a gathering of Europe’s top industry leaders to share ideas on how to transform the agriculture sector to keep pace with the 21st Century, and contribute to the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Agreement for Climate Change. Read here our main takeaways from the event:

Not a simple challenge

Global population is expected to exceed 9 billion in 2050, according to the UN. This means that in the near future we will need to feed at least 1.5 billion more people, creating enormous challenges for our global food system, which is already under great stress. At present, it is estimated that over 795 million people are undernourished, many of them farmers in the developing world. This happens at a time when one third of the food produced for human consumption gets lost or wasted. Furthermore, over 640 million people are overweight or obese, which reflects the importance to also focus on quality and produce more nutritious food. To make it more complex, farming currently accounts for 70% of global water usage, while livestock produces 15% of greenhouse gas emissions. Therefore, the world will need to produce more food, but reduce its environmental footprint.

It’s time we talk about food systems

Food production and consumption are two sides of the same coin, and therefore we can no longer talk about agriculture without considering its health, environmental, and social dimensions. Speakers including Kofi Annan and Olivier de Schutter called for a comprehensive ‘food policy’, which considers all processes involved in feeding the population: growing, harvesting, processing, packaging, transporting, marketing, consumption, and disposal of food and food-related items. Only through a ‘food systems’ perspective we can make sure that agriculture is nutrition-smart and contributes to broader global goals. In practice, this approach requires cooperation and coordination between sectors such as environment, health, education, social affairs, trade, and agriculture.

Increase efficiency, use less resources

Keeping up with increasing demand while using less natural resources is not an easy task for any country. Representatives from Brazil and New Zealand were invited to the Forum to share their countries’ best practices. Both of them agreed that innovation and regulation are key, and that farmers must receive support to thrive in the era of sustainable agriculture. Ellen MacArthur called for the adoption of agriculture at the heart of the circular economy, saying that “current food systems are inherently wasteful. Moving towards regenerative practices, underpinned by circular economy principles, would help create more value and rebuild natural capital.” Her voice was echoed by European Commission Vice-President Jyrki Katainen, who explained how the transition towards a circular economy needs to involve all stages of the food value chain, from primary production to final consumption.

Towards a Common Sustainable Agriculture Policy?

Regarding the EU, Agriculture and Rural Development Commissioner Phil Hogan said that the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) “clearly needs to adapt and modernise for the 21st century. Food has to be put at the centre of the debate and farmers’ actions have to be directed accordingly.” He therefore called for the simplification and modernisation of the policy, adding that it should ask farmers to contribute more to the priorities and international obligations of the EU, and that they should be rewarded for doing so. Michael Prinz zu Salm-Salm of the European Landowners’ Organisation floated the idea of rebranding the CAP and adding ‘sustainable agriculture’ to the name.

Free and fair trade

According to the UN, achieving the SDGs requires “correcting and preventing trade restrictions and distortions in world agricultural markets, including through the parallel elimination of all forms of agricultural export subsidies and all export measures with equivalent effect, in accordance with the mandate of the Doha Development Round”. This was the main message delivered by Mari Kiviniemi, Deputy Secretary-General at the OECD, who spoke against protectionism, affirming that free and fair trade is crucial for food security.

Mobilising all sectors of society

European agri-food industry leaders might not be the usual crowd discussing how to achieve the SDGs. This is, however, an absolutely necessary conversation. If by 2030 the world wants to end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture across the world, we will need the participation of all sectors of society. With this in mind, Kofi Annan called for increased leadership in the sector, as well as more cooperation between large food companies and small-scale farmers.