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Global Forum on Food Security and Nutrition • FSN Forum

Re: Towards a common understanding of Sustainable Food Systems

George Kent
George KentDepartment of Political Science, University of Hawai'iUnited States of America

In November 2018 the One Planet organization released a draft on the sustainability of food systems. It says, “A sustainable food system (SFS) is a food system that ensures food security and nutrition for all in such a way that the economic, social and environmental bases to generate food security and nutrition of future generations are not compromised (One Planet 2018).”

That sounds good, but some might read this as suggesting we already know how to ensure food security and nutrition for all, and the major challenge is find ways to find ways to keep it going over time. The reality is that we are far from solving the global hunger problem.

Every September a group of United Nations agencies release their annual report on food security in the world. According to the 2018 report:

For the third year in a row, there has been a rise in world hunger. The absolute number of undernourished people, i.e. those facing chronic food deprivation, has increased to nearly 821 million in 2017, from around 804 million in 2016. These are levels from almost a decade ago. (FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, WFP and WHO 1018)

The document acknowledged that, “Without increased efforts, there is a risk of falling far short of achieving the SDG target of hunger eradication by 2030 (FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, WFP and WHO 1018, iii). Sustainable Development Goal 2 is to achieve zero hunger in the world by 2030 (SDG 2 2018).

A risk? I am certain that the goal will not be achieved. There is no plan of action that would be likely to result in achievement of the goal, a pattern that has been repeated many times in the past (Kent 2011, 154-169). Why is there so much concern about sustainability? That preoccupation draws attention away from the more urgent issue of persistent and widespread hunger (Kent 2010). Why worry about the sustainability of food systems that don’t work very well?

Why discuss sustainability as if it was the primary goal, the apex, the goal to which other objectives should be subordinated? And why focus on “key approaches, concepts and terms?” when the real underlying question is, how should food systems be designed and improved? The core objective should be the improvement of people’s lives, especially poor people. Concerns about sustainability can be set aside while more serious work is done on designing the food system that is required to address the global hunger problem with serious diagnoses, commitments, and plans of action.

Surely much of the explanation for hunger’s breadth and persistence is related to the dominant economic system. By its nature, it produces inequality. Much of the apparent production of wealth is really about the steady transmission of the fruits of people's labor upwards through the socio-economic hierarchy. As we can see from the United Nations system’s annual reports on food security in the world and the flow of documents from the UN’s Committee on World Food Security, the system turns a blind eye to the political economy of hunger. That is not likely to be fixed if we are not willing to look at it.


FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, WFP and WHO. 2018. The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2018: Building Climate Resilience for Food Security and Nutrition. Rome:  FAO.

Kent, George. 2010. “Achieve Sustainability or End Hunger?” Huffington Post. August 3, 2010.

---. 2011. Ending Hunger Worldwide: Boulder, Colorado: Paradigm Publishers.

One Planet. 2018. Towards a Common Understanding of Sustainable Food Systems: Key Approaches, Concepts and Terms. One Planet. November 22.

SDG 2. 2018. Sustainable Development Goals. Goal 2: Zero Hunger.