Food transformation is stuck: UNDP plots a way forward

"The world faces a choice in its food systems future"

June 4, 2024
© UNDP India

The realisation that "food systems are broken"[1] and must transform if we are to have any prospect of achieving the SDGs by 2030 is now widely understood but change seems stalled by strong, embedded barriers in the current system. How can we accelerate the transformation past the obstacles that caused Indian President Drupadi Murmu to describe the food system as “stuck”? What is causing resistance to overcoming the barriers, and who are the key players? UNDP has brought together a Task Team of experts from across the organisation (governance, gender, climate, biodiversity, inclusive growth, crisis & recovery, energy, finance) to prepare a White Paper on Resilient Food Systems, to be released later this year. Here, in the first of a series of introductory blogs, we set out some of the factors influencing the global food landscape from an integrated and systemic perspective.

Food systems place massive costs on the planet and society. These externalities add up to $13 trillion[2] - $9.3 trillion in poor health, $2.5 trillion in environmental damage, and the remainder in social costs. At 12% of global GDP, these costs are too much to bear. These underlying costs are made worse in conflict and fragile contexts where conflict has a direct impact on food systems and resulting levels of food security and resilience. In 2023 alone, 280 million people faced high levels of acute food insecurity. This heightened food insecurity can fuel grievances, potentially escalating into instability and violence.

On the positive side of the ledger, interventions related to food and agriculture account for half of the IPCC’s top ten climate change mitigation options. In the twin Climate and Nature crises, food and agriculture are centre stage. So, what can be done to accelerate the transition we need for food systems?

"As UNDP prepared the White Paper, we considered diverse structural challenges that need to be addressed to promote really resilient food systems, from the overall governance of the system to drivers like poverty, and the way finance and the food value chain works. It’s a wide variety of factors, so our solutions must be systemic and cover a broad canvas," said UNDP Senior Advisor Jose Luis Chicoma.


What is slowing food systems change?

The White Paper Task Team is looking at the food system in all its layers and complexity. Based on decades of UNDP experience and billions of dollars of investment, they approach it from four dimensions:


This provides the context for the whole system and is often missed as people rush to make a specific intervention without considering all the surrounding factors. UNDP’s whole-of-government approach is key to dealing with this dimension.

Structural Drivers

We present six structural drivers at the root of unsustainable food systems. Poverty and Inequality; Health; Gender; Environment; Climate Change; and Energy must all be addressed if the system is to transform. The Task Team is working on specific interventions in each of these areas. 

The Food Value Chain

Unsustainable food value chains see the most profit going to those with the most power: a fair, equitable and resilient food value chain would see the most benefit going to those (typically farmers) taking the most risk.

Sustainable Finance 

Change will not happen if finance does not support it. The Task Team is investigating how to reshape global financial architecture to enhance food system resilience.

All four dimensions must transform for the overall system to become fit for the future. 

"We have known what we need to do in food systems for many years – so why do we not do it?  Progress is stalled by the power dynamics influencing behind the scenes decision making in public and private sectors which too often go unspoken and unchallenged," said Andrew Bovarnick, UNDP Global Head of Food & Agricultural Commodity Systems (FACS). "UNDP’s approach is to start unpacking and making more transparent aspects of working as a collective, building trust amongst stakeholders in the food system to lay the foundations for overcoming the barriers."

In Thailand, the overarching Governance dimension is the focus. The Thai National Action Plan on Food Management Phase 1 (2023 - 2027) identified governance of Food Management Systems as a priority. UNDP’s assistance will include whole-of-government collaboration through inter-ministerial joint programming and investment, alongside SDG aligned budgeting using food systems to tie everything together.  

Similarly in Jordan, a recent food systems review process recommended that UNDP should build on its long history of working across government institutions and building capacity at subnational and municipal levels on governance, inclusion and environment, to support the design and delivery of the new National Food Security strategy.


In Peru the Switzerland State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) supports UNDP in a multi-stakeholder platform process which developed Peru’s first National Action Plan for the coffee sector, and later supported a similar process in cocoa. Working in the four dimensions above, the aim is to transform the sectors and enable them to satisfy the needs of future generations of farmers while protecting vulnerable ecosystems in the Peruvian Andes and Amazon regions. This Effective Collaborative Action also equips countries to react to new challenges, such as the EU Deforestation Regulation.

"An emphasis on multi-stakeholder collaboration, landscape and community-based interventions, working together to co-construct solutions with farmers’ associations and evidence-based approaches are key," says UNDP Peru Resident Representative Bettina Woll.

"The world faces a choice in its food systems future," said Jose Luis Chicoma. "Business as usual – free trade in global markets, control by large corporations and the financialization of agricultural commodities as goods to be traded – only risks adding to the external costs of the food system that damages nature, health and the environment.”

“The better choice”, he continued, “is a real Food Systems Transformation. This means shorter supply chains, agroecological farming systems with better resilience to climate shocks, and improved access to affordable and diverse healthy diets. A sustainable, healthy and fair food system characterized by high levels of inclusion and diversity is the vision of the future I want to see, and we’re working hard in the White Paper team to define what’s needed to make it happen.” 

[1] UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, July 2023

[2] Research for the 2023 State of Food and Agriculture Report