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Food systems: facing unprecedented challenges

Updated on 01/23/2017
Published on 12/15/2016
Keywords: Inra2025 - FOCUS

In this new century, food systems face difficulties at all levels, from local to global, that are unpar-alleled in human history in terms of their range, scope and interconnectedness.

Food systems
A food system is defined as the manner in which people organise the acquisition and consumption of food in space and time.  This includes aspects such as agricultural production, inputs and services used in agriculture, the multiple ways in which farming and food interact with the environment and climate; the processing and distribution of agricultural products (food products, or by extension and in a complementary manner, non-food products); consumption and nutrition. In short, from the climate to the intestine and from pitchfork to plate!

A commitment to sustainable development goals
In late 2015, the United Nations adopted a new sustainable development programme based on 17 goals (see Appendix). Not all are related to research, but the production of knowledge and know-how and their conversion into drivers of technological, economic and social innovation naturally figure prominently. It is therefore essential that a national research organisation focused on food systems – a major feature of sustainable development – shape its 10-year strategy in relation to these goals. The icons of these 17 sustainable development goals and 10 national research strategy challenges appear throughout this #INRA2025 document, underlining the contribution of INRA’s orientations to these goals.

The global population is bigger, more urban, and consumes more per capita, to the point that over-eating and related diseases are now on a par with undernutrition, which affects one out of every seven people on the planet. Food consumption is increasing in terms of volume and becoming standardised, although calorie and other deficiencies subsist in certain regions. Demand for energy and materials continues to grow, and the replacement of fossil carbon by renewable carbon has become a global challenge. More than ever, social and economic inequalities cause global conflict and migration. Humanity is the source of uncontrolled climate change, of which it is also the victim, and which it now seeks to bring under control. Together, these problems exert pressure on shared assets like the environment and biodiversity. 

Interdisciplinary by nature, agricultural research must help surmount these unprecedented challenges. In particular, a successive stream of technological progress in biotechnology, nanotechnology, information and communication technology etc., by changing production methods, can be combined with social and organisational innovation to offer up “new solutions”1. The impact of these innovations must be foreseen, assessed, and when they are unfavourable, avoided.
Much is expected of agricultural research and innovation at the national and international level. At the national level, many of the societal challenges defined in the National Research Strategy adopted in 2015 address nutrition, agriculture and the environment. At the international level, challenges related to food and nutritional security, which reappeared on the international agenda in the late 2000s, remain acute, as evidenced by the Milan Expo 2015, the first universal exposition to focus on food issues. In parallel, the challenges of climate change and the degradation of natural resources (water, biodiversity, soil, etc.) have been confirmed with a steadily growing impetus, particularly in Paris in December 2015 at the COP21, which included agricultural and food issues in climate talks. On a broader level, the adoption by the UN in 2015 of sustainable development goals, several of which address nutrition and agriculture, questions the ability of the scientific community to deal with the major challenges facing the world today.

INRA is one of the biggest agricultural research organisations in the world. It is active in a wide variety of fields to address issues related to nutrition, agriculture and the environment, which are now framed in the wider context of the bioeconomy and food systems.

Read the post « Programming and managing research for global challenges »


1. In reference to the Lima-Paris Action Agenda presented at the COP21. See http://www.cop21.gouv.fr/lagenda-des-solutions-ou-lpaa/; See also http://newsroom.unfccc.int/lpaa-fr