Shifts in the global food system

January 5, 2018

Looking back at 2017, it was a crucial year for our global food system. It became more visible that food security and sustainability are defining for the position of countries. Three developments showed how food is linked with a hegemonic shift: four famines were mainly driven by conflicts, countries intensified the scramble for resources in order to meet their future demand, and big mergers profoundly changed the global food chain.

Our observations

  • In December, the 2017 Food Sustainability Index (FSI) was published, grading 34 countries according to the sustainability of agriculture, nutritional challenges, and food waste. France is ranked as number one and a surprise was Ethiopia, with the twelfth spot. This is remarkable because the FSI found that poorer countries and countries with rapid urbanization – Ethiopia in both cases – tend to be less food secure. An explanation could be improvements on a local level, mostly better farming techniques.
  • The 2017 Global Food Security Index ranked countries according to food affordability, availability, quality, and safety. For the first time, the U.S. has lost the top spot in the index. Ireland is now the global winner. This is outstanding, considering that the U.S is the largest food exporter. Since 2016, food security has declined in over 60% of the countries. The main explanation for the decline is the reduced public expenditure on agricultural R&D.
  • 2017 was marked by four famines: in Nigeria, South Sudan, Yemen, and Somalia. The FAO confirmed that world hunger is on the rise again, reversing years of progress. The primary reasons for the increase of hunger are conflict and climate change.
  • 2017 showed the biggest food mergers of our time, resulting in just three companies controlling about 60% of the world’s seeds, nearly 70% of agricultural chemicals and pesticides, and almost all of its genetically modified seeds. In May, ChemChina took over Syngenta, followed by a merger of Dow Chemical and DuPont. A merger between Bayer and Monsanto is in the works. Meanwhile, German nonprofit Open Source Seeds created an open-source catalog of genetic material and seed licenses designed to be accessible and free for farmers around the world.
  • In 2017, food moved into the realm of the tech companies. Amazon purchased Whole Foods Market, expanding Amazon’s plans to redesign retail at all levels.

Connecting the dots

In 2017, it became more visible that food security and sustainability are defining for the position of countries. Countries try to safeguard their own food autarky in a world where resources are not abundant and where the effects of climate change are global. At the same time, most countries depend heavily on each other. Our food system is a very diverse and global one. Food travels through different countries before reaching dinner tables. Eating breakfast in Amsterdam can mean your breakfast products first had to travel almost 50,000 km. 2017 provided us with three developments showing that food is linked with hegemonic shift.Firstly, the four famines that occurred in the past year in Africa and the Middle East are not merely ‘natural’ disasters. Food Tank cofounder Danielle Nierenberg is convinced that these famines are exacerbated by human conflict and inadequate management of resources: hunger as a political act. She argues that in the U.S., where hunger grew in every county in the past year, government ignores the importance of resilient regenerative food systems. Furthermore, Nierenberg calls Yemen the most appalling example of a famine crime of our generation. Famine crime is a concept introduced by Alex de Waal. In his recently published book Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine, he analyzes famine as a political crime, as an instrument of war and thereby countering the view that famine is caused by overpopulation and natural disaster.Secondly, 2017 shows an intensified scramble for resources. Illustrative for this scramble are China’s efforts to meet its (future) demand. The Chinese government has been actively investing in agricultural land in African countries and increasingly outsourcing its food production. Moreover, as a consequence of its concerns about food autarky, it would like to see its citizens’ meat consumption reduced by 50% – an unlikely thing to happen with the growing middle class and therewith rising demand for meat.Thirdly, as the two last observations show, 2017 showed crucial signs of the digitalization the global food chain. Examplary is the Amazon-Whole Food purchase, in which the building blocks of the supply and demand chain can be more integrated and connected by using intelligence. Bigger players are buying smaller players to enrich their datasets and to integrate the entire supply chain. The merged giants such as Bayer-Monsanto and Syngenta-ChemChina also position themselves well in this regard. Furthermore, companies and countries that want to position themselves well in the global food chain are embracing agricultural technology as a solution to face today’s challenges: climate, population growth, conflict, and scarcity of resources. As such, a shift to new production methods – from crop fields to local smart indoor farms and season-independent food alternatives – could be a blow to countries depending on food exports and make others gain autarky.As the battle over the global food chain intensifies, food becomes a more powerful aspect in the positioning of countries.


  • In 2017, the Netherlands opened a Global Foods Innovation Center, a sign that the small country is further expanding its position as a global leader in food expertise. Innovation is crucial to food security of any country.
  • While 2017 showed a shift in global politics, many natural disasters, and growing malnutrition, there are signs of an emergent movement among countries for food security and sustainability as a crucial part of their strategy, by updating animal welfare policies, calling for tax on meat, and fighting food

About the author(s)

At FreedomLab, Julia Rijssenbeek focuses on our relationship to nature, sustainable and technological transitions in the food system, and the geopolitics of our global food sytems. She is currently working on her PhD in philosophy of technology at Wageningen University, investigating how synthetic biology might alter philosophical ideas about nature and the values we hold, as well as what a bio-based future may bring.

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