Sustainable Food Systems

The world has never produced or consumed so much food. And yet it is one of the most troubling moments in the history of food.

Gains in productivity have come at an enormous environmental cost. Each year, more than 10 million hectares of agricultural land are lost to degradation, much of it due to industrial farming. Agro-chemicals have polluted rivers and aquifers. Agriculture and land-use change account for around one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions. In the last century alone, we’ve lost three-quarters of the world’s agricultural biodiversity. If that wasn’t bad enough, roughly one-third of all food produced goes to waste.

At the same time, food consumption patterns are changing. The rising middle class is demanding more meat and processed foods are becoming more popular. Many parts of the world are experiencing a “triple-burden”: the co-existence of chronic hunger, malnutrition and over-nutrition. In the world’s rapidly growing urban areas, these conditions often exist side by side.


CIAT’s Director General Ruben Echeverría speaks about the importance of agricultural biodiversity at the EAT Forum in Stockholm, June 2017.

Colin Khoury speaks about the increasing homogeneity of diets around the world

At CIAT, we’re convinced that human progress, good diets and environmental integrity depend on each other. That’s why we’re applying a sustainable food systems approach to tackle these and other issues holistically, prioritizing the need for nutritious diets made up of a range of wholesome, accessible and affordable ingredients, produced with a minimal environmental footprint.

CIAT definition of sustainable food systems

Sustainable food systems are those food systems that aim at achieving food and nutrition security and healthy diets while limiting negative environmental impacts and improving socio-economic welfare. Sustainable food systems are therefore protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems, as well as human well-being and social equity. As such they provide culturally acceptable, economically fair, affordable, nutritionally adequate, safe and healthy foods in a way that balances agro-ecosystem integrity and social welfare.

With this definition we recognize that:

  • Delivering affordable, nutritionally adequate, safe and healthy (and even culturally or religiously acceptable) food is a necessary but not sufficient condition for a food system to be sustainable;
  • To be sustainable a food system also needs to aim at reducing food waste and food losses and at minimizing its present and future impacts on the environment and society;
  • In that regard, we see the balance and the trade-offs between agro-ecosystems integrity and social well-being as being at the core of sustainable food systems;
  • By definition the sustainability of a food system is locally (and possibly timely) determined. There is no such thing as a global sustainable food system.

What we do: Sharpening the focus of research on sustainable food systems

The purpose of the Sustainable Food Systems initiative is to help guide food systems toward an equitable and sustainable future, against a background of rapid globalization and urbanization, which have profound impacts on human diets. Through research on shifting and uncertain patterns in food delivery and consumption, we are developing new knowledge and interventions that will better enable developing countries to provide all urban and rural consumers with ready access to healthy food.

How we do it: Cultivating health, biodiversity, resilience, and equity

CIAT has capacity to design and implement multi-disciplinary and holistic applied research in collaboration with local, national, and international partners. Our scientists analyze big multi-source datasets to produce engaging sustainable food systems insights.

Today, CIAT has global presence in more than 53 countries facing differing food systems transitions. However, the Center has been involved for 50 years in food-based approaches to malnutrition.

Our scientists and partners:

  • Test innovations and validate sustainable food system upgrading
  • Develop tools and methods for food systems analyses including spatial decision support tools, ex-ante evaluation/foresight, and modeling of the interdependence between change in food system and impact on consumers or the environment at different scales
  • Produce insights on food systems in key “zoom-in” sites – including Cali, Colombia and Hanoi, Vietnam – for informing improved food system policies


Mark Lundy, Leader for Sustainable Food Systems at CIAT talks about building sustainable food systems for the majority

Research updates

Sustainable Food Futures | CIAT Blog Science to Cultivate Change


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