The first and most obvious requirement of food systems is that they should provide food security and nutrition. However, as documented in the OECD report Making Better Policies for Food Systems, the performance of food systems on this dimension is mixed. Between 1960 and today, world population more than doubled, yet global food production tripled, ensuring more food per person at lower prices. But globally an estimated two billion people do not have regular access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food. An even greater number of people suffers from overweight and obesity, and other forms of malnutrition.
Food security is not just a matter of producing food; it also requires that people have access to food and that it leads to good nutritional outcomes. Moreover, food security also requires stability over time. As the OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook shows, over the coming decade food systems are expected to expand production fast enough to meet growing demand. Because strong demand growth is expected in regions which find it harder to expand agricultural production, international trade will be essential to move food from where it is produced to where it is consumed. Globally, availability of food is therefore not the main issue; rather, the main causes of hunger and malnutrition today are poverty and conflict, sometimes exacerbated by natural disasters.
It has been estimated that improved nutrition could prevent one in five deaths globally, and would prevent billions in economic losses. Globally, many people have insufficient food, the wrong balance of nutrients, or are consuming too much food. In developing countries, income growth will be essential to fight hunger and malnutrition, but difficulties to access nutritious diets are exacerbated by poor infrastructure and sanitation (e.g. unsafe drinking water). In developed countries, nearly one in four people are obese, leading to lower life expectancy, higher healthcare costs, and lower productivity. The causes of unhealthy diets are complex, but healthier choices can be promoted through various policies, such as information and education, product reformulation, regulation (e.g. on promotion and advertising), and taxes.
Several actions can improve the resilience of food systems – including the stability of food availability and access. Many actions to improve long-term outcomes would also improve short-term resilience, e.g. investments in infrastructure, training, and R&D, or removing distortionary support policies. Because domestic shocks tend to be more frequent and more severe than international shocks, international trade has an important role to play in reducing volatility of food supplies. Initiatives such as the G20-led Agricultural Market Information System and foresighting exercises such as the OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook can improve transparency regarding supply, demand, stocks, and prices, and hence improve the effectiveness of trade. But in order for international trade to play its buffering role, it is important that policy makers refrain from using policy measures that undermine the functioning of international markets. During the 2007-8 food price spikes, export restrictions or bans in several key exporting countries exacerbated volatility in international markets. By contrast, during the COVID-19 crisis countries have mostly refrained from using such instruments, and global value chains for food and agriculture have withstood the shocks relatively well.