An illustration of an ear of yellow corn with a green X formation in its kernels

Credit: Illustration by Joe Magee

How will we feed the future and save the planet?

The world's food systems are in peril—but there's still time to act

As she scrolled through news reports about the string of storms devastating California in early January, Jessica Fanzo kept returning to one thing: garlic.

She found herself contemplating the plant's fields in Gilroy, aka the Garlic Capital of the World. Would they be flooded beyond repair? Would high water destroy this year's crop? What would that mean for our supply of garlic in the months to come?

For Fanzo, the fate of Gilroy's garlic is a possible glimmer of what's to come. In this small, pungent allium, she envisions a harrowing future, one in which more extreme weather events pummel farmland, rising temperatures make it impossible to raise livestock, and drought dries up the world's fields.

Climate change has the potential to wreck our already vulnerable food systems within the next few decades, an occurrence that could lead to rising food prices and economic disruption, increased malnutrition and diet-related diseases, more nationalism and geopolitical conflict, and a host of other ripple effects.

"It's very doom and gloom, but it's reality—all the data is pointing to it, and we're already seeing it," says Fanzo, a professor of global food policy and ethics at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics and the director of the Global Food Ethics and Policy Program. "We're reaching these tipping points of one crisis building upon another upon another. It's a bit of a perfect storm that's going to have a really big impact on people's food security, their livelihoods, and, of course, the planet."

Improving access to and affordability of nutritious, minimally processed foods can help improve human health.

As the Earth gets warmer and drier, Fanzo and other experts worry that extreme weather events will become even more common and make it increasingly difficult to produce food, a development that means more people will go hungry. Research suggests that every 1 degree Celsius increase in temperature corresponds to a more than 1% increase in the likelihood of severe food insecurity around the world.

Rising temperatures, shifting precipitation patterns, and increasing carbon dioxide (CO2) levels will likely reduce crop yields. Beyond that, climate change may also make food less nutritious: One study found that when soy, rice, wheat, and corn are exposed to the levels of atmospheric CO2 predicted for 2050, they lose valuable zinc, iron, and protein.

Already, as much as 40% of food crops are lost to diseases and pests—and those issues will likely worsen.

At the same time, water availability could become increasingly unpredictable, giving rise to droughts, floods, and wildfires. Heavy rains will increase agricultural runoff into the world's oceans, a change that can contribute to algae blooms and fish die-offs. Sea-level rise will threaten agricultural operations along coastlines.

And climate change isn't the only challenge our global food systems will face. Projected population growth, coupled with rising income levels in some parts of the world, means an increase in the overall demand for food. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations projects the world's population will reach 9.1 billion by 2050—up from 7.88 billion today—and that income levels will be a "multiple" of what they are now. Together, these factors suggest that food production must increase by a whopping 70% in the next few decades.

But producing more food will likely contribute further harm to the planet. Already, food systems are responsible for more than one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the FAO. It uses more than half the planet's habitable land and accounts for 70% of all freshwater consumption. Growing, harvesting, transporting, processing, and packaging food also contribute to soil degradation, biodiversity loss, water scarcity, pollution, deforestation, and more.

Video credit: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

This is not the first time experts have worried about looming food crises, however. In 1798, for example, economist Thomas Robert Malthus famously argued that food production would not be able to keep pace with population growth, a problem that would eventually cause a catastrophic population die-off. But, of course, that never happened. Technology advanced to allow humans to produce more food.

Similarly, today, all hope is not lost. If players at every level take action, from governments and international coalitions all the way down to individual consumers, the world can make its food systems more resilient—and improve the health of humans and the planet at the same time.

"We know what we need to do, now it's just a matter of doing it," says Keeve Nachman, an associate professor at the Bloomberg School of Public Health and director of the Center for a Livable Future's food production and public health program. Johns Hopkins researchers are hard at work leading this charge. Below are a few of the most promising solutions on the horizon.

Reduce Food Waste

While 828 million people around the globe face hunger, roughly one-third of all food produced for human consumption gets lost or wasted—an estimated 1.3 billion tons per year. It spills out of trucks en route to processing facilities, passes its sell-by date in supermarkets, and rots in household refrigerators.

Not only is this mismatch disheartening, but food waste also harms the environment—twice. Growing, processing, and transporting food produces CO2, the most abundant of greenhouse gases resulting from human activities. It also requires the use of water, land, and other finite resources.

"When we're throwing out food, we're basically throwing out all those things—all those resources never needed to have been expended in the first place," says Roni Neff, BSPH '06 (PhD), an associate professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Then, when it ends up in the landfill, rotting food produces methane, which is 25 times better at trapping heat than CO2 and is responsible for roughly 30% of global temperature increases. In the U.S., 17% of all methane emissions come from food waste in landfills, behind petroleum production and animal gas and manure, per the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. If food waste were its own country, it would be the third-largest greenhouse gas emitter on the planet, trailing only China and the U.S.

The consequences don't stop there: Wasted food is also wasted money for individual consumers and families, as well as for governments that fund food programs. Losing food also means missing out on its nutritional value, and, in many cases, the foods people throw out are highly nutritious—but perishable—items, like fruits, vegetables, and dairy. A 2017 study led by Johns Hopkins researchers found that wasted food at the consumer and retail levels in the U.S. meant losing 1,217 calories, 33 grams of protein, 5.9 grams of dietary fiber, 1.7 micrograms of vitamin D, 286 milligrams of calcium, and 880 milligrams of potassium per person, per day.

Food waste is a complex problem—and addressing it will require different solutions for the various actors throughout food systems, as well as different approaches for geographic regions.

As co-director of the RECIPES national food waste research network, Neff is leading efforts to help address food waste in the U.S. The National Science Foundation awarded $15 million to Johns Hopkins, American University, and a dozen other institutions in 2021 to form the network, which will further study the root causes of food waste, improve wasted food tracking, model potential solutions, develop new technologies around composting and anaerobic digestion, and implement educational programming. The five-year project aligns with the national goal of cutting food waste in half by 2030.

One of the very first steps? Getting people to acknowledge that food waste is even a problem.

"When we do surveys, we find that 75% of Americans say they waste less food than the average American," Neff says. "If you ask people, very often you get the response, 'I don't waste food, it's those other people who waste food.' We all waste food—I do, too. The fact that we're not tuned into it leads us to waste even more because we don't think it's a problem. You can have all the solutions you want, but if we don't think we need to apply them, we're not going to get anywhere."

Awareness aside, researchers are also studying the effectiveness of policy changes that could help curb food waste. In 2021 alone, lawmakers in 18 states proposed more than 50 bills related to food waste management—and some have even become laws. In Maryland, for instance, many schools, businesses, and organizations can no longer send their food waste to landfills.

Other projects include understanding the quality of "rescued food," or food waste that's still edible and can be repurposed or redistributed, and studying the overproduction and overpurchasing of food that contributes to waste, Neff says.

Improve Food System Resilience

For many people, the COVID-19 pandemic's effect on food systems was an eye-opener. Empty grocery store shelves, long lines at food pantries, shuttered production facilities, rising food prices, school closures, and unemployment all exacerbated food insecurity. Globally, an additional 350 million people became moderately or severely food insecure, according to the United Nations.

But these types of systemwide shocks aren't just limited to pandemics. As the climate continues to shift because of human activities, scientists expect extreme weather events and natural disasters to increase in frequency and severity. These, too, could mean big consequences for food systems.

"The number of crises that challenge our food systems just keeps increasing," Neff says. "They can throw our food systems haywire."

Johns Hopkins researchers are working to help communities make their local food systems more impervious to disruptions—from hurricanes to flooding to heat waves and everything in between. After working closely with city officials in Baltimore, Neff and a team of experts from five U.S. cities developed a robust, hands-on food system resilience planning guide that's now available online.

Though each type of crisis may play out and affect communities differently, they all pose risks to three core tenets of food security: accessibility, availability, and acceptability. But with the right preparation now, community leaders can help mitigate those risks and ensure that when disaster strikes, residents do not go hungry.

"The key is: How are we going to preserve food security in the face of these threats, and how can we make our food system overall stronger?" Neff says. "And if a crisis never happens, we've still strengthened the system."

An illustration of a yellow plate with green farm images

Image credit: Illustration by Joe Magee

Teach People How to Cook

Food insecurity has contributed to roughly 462 million adults around the world being underweight, 149 million children being too short for their age, and 45 million children being too thin for their height, according to the latest statistics from the World Health Organization. Undernutrition also plays a role in roughly 45% of all deaths of children under the age of 5.

But malnutrition takes other forms, too. In many parts of the world, especially high-income countries, it's also linked with obesity and diet-related noncommunicable diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and stroke. Around 1.9 billion adults across the globe are overweight or obese, along with 340 million children and teens, per WHO.

Cardiovascular diseases kill an estimated 17.9 million people each year, a figure that represents 32% of all deaths worldwide—they're the leading cause of death around the world. Diabetes, meanwhile, causes another 2 million deaths. These diseases are also expensive to treat and lead to lower levels of economic productivity—obesity alone costs $2 trillion globally each year, according to one estimate.

"When you have a population that is dealing with high rates of chronic disease, there are all these little extra ripple effects that go throughout society and the economy," says Julia Wolfson, BSPH '16 (PhD), an associate professor in the Bloomberg School of Public Health.

One of the big culprits responsible for these conditions is ultra-processed foods, such as those found at fast food chains, convenience stores, restaurants, and grocery stores.

The good news? These diseases are preventable. Improving access to and affordability of nutritious, minimally processed foods can also help improve human health. And though more work needs to be done at the big-picture, systemic level to change the policies and environments that shape people's food choices, changes at the individual or family level can also help.

One such change is encouraging people to cook more at home—rather than relying as much on fast food and other convenient, ultra-processed foods—and giving them the skills and training they need to be successful.

"On the whole, cooking more at home is associated with better diet quality," Wolfson says. "There's also some research that finds that better cooking skills can be protective for food security as well—these are skills that allow people to have what we call food agency, in terms of having more control and ability to shape their food choices and make the most out of the food resources they have available to them."

Wolfson and collaborators have developed a cooking skills intervention that can help people build their skills and confidence in the kitchen. They're testing the six-session cooking class series among people with prediabetes as part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Diabetes Prevention Program, as well as among women with high-risk pregnancies related to diabetes in Baltimore.

"Food agency is so central to building confidence and self-efficacy around making healthy food choices and being able to cook one's own food," she says. "As a broader research group, we are thinking about how to develop effective and scalable food agency–based interventions to build those skills."

Change Food Environments

Changing individual behavior alone won't be enough to solve the many food-related issues at hand. People don't make decisions about what and how they eat in a vacuum—they're influenced by their culture and heritage, their socioeconomic status, marketing and advertising, and even store-level layouts and offerings. To that end, researchers are also studying broader environmental and contextual changes that have the potential to affect how consumers, retailers, and suppliers make food decisions, a phenomenon referred to as choice architecture.

"We have an incredibly perverse food environment that we interact with every day that doesn't promote a healthy or sustainable diet—it's expensive, it's time-consuming, it's confusing," Fanzo says. "It's not an easy place to navigate. We need to make it easier for people to make the choices that fit with their aspirations and their lifestyle."

Wolfson and colleagues, for instance, recently studied whether adding climate impact labels—such as "low climate impact" or "high climate impact"—to fast food menus would affect which foods people ordered. They were especially interested in whether the climate labels would affect purchases of meals that contained red meat, which is not only linked with various health problems but also produces large amounts of greenhouse gases.

In the experiment, this one small menu design change indeed made a difference: Participants ordered fewer burgers and more salads and chicken sandwiches when they looked at menus with climate impact labels.

Choice architecture also plays a big role in food retail settings. In many low-income urban areas, for example, residents have limited options when it comes to buying food. Their neighborhood may not have any grocery stores, and they may lack transportation to shop at one elsewhere; some residents simply cannot afford conventional grocery stores. Often, they must shop at small convenience or corner stores, which are typically stocked with processed foods that are high in sugar, salt, and fat. This, in turn, can contribute to diet-related chronic diseases like obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.

Governments at every level implement rules, programs, subsidies, and initiatives that ultimately affect what ends up on the dinner plate.

For their part, corner store owners are simply doing what's easiest and best for business. Stocking their shelves with processed packaged goods is easy, thanks to deliveries, discounts, free display racks and refrigerators, and other incentives from large food distributors.

"The small stores in these low-income neighborhoods are at the mercy of their wholesalers and their suppliers," says Joel Gittelsohn, a professor in the Bloomberg School of Public Health. "The system is set up now such that if you are junk food—if you are a bag of potato chips, a candy bar, a can of soda, an ice cream sandwich—you have smooth sailing to make it into a corner store. The corner store owner doesn't have to lift a finger if he or she wants to stock unhealthy foods."

To offer more nutritious foods—like vegetables, dairy, and bread—corner store owners would have to work a lot harder, adding, for example, such activities as visiting a wholesaler to pick up their orders themselves. Farmers, meanwhile, often have surplus foods but no way to easily get them to low-income neighborhoods.

Changing this entire food ecosystem requires outside-the-box thinking that targets multiple levels of the local food system—from suppliers to retailers to individual consumers. To that end, Johns Hopkins researchers have developed a new mobile app to help connect food suppliers with corner stores in East Baltimore. Known as the Baltimore Urban Food Distribution, or BUD, project, the app allows suppliers to list the products they have available for purchase. It also integrates discounts to help keep costs down and encourage corner store owners to participate.

It's still early days for BUD, but Gittelsohn and his collaborators hope it will eventually lead to Baltimore's corner stores stocking and selling more healthy foods, a change that will, in turn, help improve the health of residents.

"The problem of why we see unhealthy foods in low-income neighborhoods of Baltimore and many other cities is not just choosing to give junk food to low-income communities—it's also that the supply system is set up in a way that dramatically favors the provision of unhealthy food over healthier options, and that's what BUD is intended to address," Gittelsohn says.

Improve Food Policies

Zooming out even further, people's food choices are also heavily shaped by policy, whether they realize it or not. Governments at every level implement rules, programs, subsidies, and initiatives that ultimately affect what ends up on the dinner plate.

Untangling the messy web of interconnected policies that affect the food system will be a colossal task. But with enough data in front of them, decision-makers can begin to make meaningful changes. That's the philosophy behind the Food Systems Dashboard, a collaborative project from Johns Hopkins University, the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, plus several other partners.

The dashboard brings together troves of global data touching nearly every aspect of food systems—from the average price of sugar to fertilizer consumption in various countries.

"Food systems are complex and it's really hard for policymakers to navigate not only how their food systems are performing but also what actions to take," Fanzo says. "The dashboard allows decision-makers to review data in a very visually appealing, easy-to-understand way, and that allows them to identify and prioritize ways to improve nutrition and environmental sustainability in their food systems."

Researchers at Johns Hopkins are also studying the effects of other policies, from agriculture subsidies to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to sugar-sweetened beverage taxes, with an overarching goal of influencing local, state, regional, and tribal groups that can ultimately take action to improve food systems.

"Food policies should help ensure that all people have access to safe, healthy, affordable food; that farmers and workers are supported; that animals are treated humanely; and that air, water, and land are protected for future generations," Fanzo writes in her 2021 book Can Fixing Dinner Fix the Planet? "Current food policies in the United States—or anywhere else—don't achieve all of these goals. On the contrary, not a single nation has a holistic food system policy designed to improve human nutrition and well-being while protecting the environment."

Looking Ahead

Though the world's food systems will undoubtedly endure challenges in the years to come, Fanzo and others remain optimistic. That's because many scientists, innovators, and policymakers around the world are actively working to slow the progression of climate change and make food systems more sustainable, healthy, and equitable.

"When you look back in history, we have overcome some very, very dark days and significant challenges," Fanzo says. "We have so much ample evidence around how to make food systems more resilient and how to mitigate and adapt to climate change. We have a lot of technology, we have a lot of local solutions—we have a whole range of different adaptation and mitigation policies that could be put into place. Now we just need to act."

Sarah Kuta is a Colorado-based writer and editor.

What You Can Do to Help

Eat fewer animal-source foods. Unfortunately, there's no one-size-fits-all diet that can help improve the health of humans and the planet in one fell swoop—a lot of it depends on where you live, what you can afford, your culture, and other factors.

But generally speaking, people who live in high-income countries, like the United States, should shift away from animal-source foods—including meat, eggs, milk, and other dairy products—and move toward more plant-centric diets to help counter climate impacts and stave off diet-related diseases, according to research by Keeve Nachman, a Bloomberg School associate professor.

"There are many countries around the world, especially in the Western world, where we are eating a diet that is not aligned with our climate goals," he says.

Consider your food's source. The same type of food produced in different locales can have vastly different consequences for the climate. Here's an example: Because of deforestation for grazing land, a pound of beef produced in Paraguay contributes almost 17 times more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere than a pound produced in Denmark, Nachman and his colleagues found.

Get involved with local food initiatives. As food prices continue to rise, many families will not be able to afford safe, nutritious foods. As your budget and schedule allow, get involved with local food initiatives—from food banks and pantries to food justice organizations advocating for more equitable food systems. "As much as people can get involved in local food programs that are supporting some of these populations, that's really important," says Jess Fanzo, a professor of global food policy and ethics.

Reduce your food waste. Make a meal plan, then buy only what you need, Fanzo recommends. Eat small portion sizes and get creative in the kitchen—turn bones from a roasted chicken into flavorful stock or make muffins from brown bananas. Compost eggshells and coffee grounds, and share any surplus food with neighbors and friends.