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A new tome offers a road map for sustainable food production policies

The Economics of Sustainable Food: Smart Policies for Health and the Planet

Nicoletta Batini, ed.
Island Press
2021
320 pp.
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In The Economics of Sustainable Food, editor Nicoletta Batini, a leading expert in designing macroeconomic strategies to deal with issues at the nexus of climate change and public health, argues that macroeconomic policy has largely overlooked food systems—a perplexing oversight, given that the agriculture-food system is the largest industry in the world and considering the substantial threats that unsustainable food systems pose to economies and people. Batini argues that we need a “Great Food Transformation” to support healthy and sustainable food systems that meet targets outlined in both the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement.

The book brings together a collection of essays on how to make food production sustainable, highlighting important differences between proposed implementation in advanced economies and in less advanced economies. Examples of the “sustainable farming trends” discussed include small and polyfunctional farming (in contrast to monocultural models promoted by agribusiness); urban, vertical, and controlled-environment farming; regenerative ocean farming; and alternative protein cultivation (e.g., plant-based “meat” and cultured animal tissues). The essays emphasize the benefits of these trends, with minimal discussion of the complex politics underlying their implementation. Nevertheless, they succeed in highlighting important alternatives to our current production practices.

The volume also proposes ways of “greening” food demand through a diverse range of economic policies. These include rethinking taxes, subsidies, standards and quality metrics, labeling and marketing regulations, and broader structural reforms.

The authors are sensitive to contexts. Multiple essays explicitly argue that those currently following meat-centered Western diets must move toward plant-based nutrition for the benefit of their health, to reduce global emissions, to increase land use efficiency, and to help make healthy food more affordable globally. In less-advanced economies, food systems will need to meet nutritional needs, address existing issues of access, and improve sustainability while ensuring socioeconomic development. In an essay titled “Greening food demand in less-advanced economies,” Divya Mehra and colleagues go so far as to argue that low- and middle-income countries will require a substantial increase in greenhouse gas emissions and water use to achieve healthy diets, which will necessitate a faster shift to plant-forward diets in more-advanced economies to ensure equity.

In 2015, 1.6 billion tons of food were lost or wasted, about a third of all the food that was produced. Despite growing calls to address food waste, the factors that contribute to it are highly complex and context dependent. In their essay “Eliminating food waste,” Geeta Sethi and colleagues argue that “FLW [food loss and waste] realities vary so significantly across regions that they might be thought of as completely separate phenomena, affecting different types of food for different reasons—and even with different consequences.” Although greater attention is being paid to addressing FLW, more investment in empirical research is needed to identify the most appropriate strategies for reducing waste according to context, commodity, and stage in the supply chain.

The volume’s final essays focus on conserving land, sea, mammals, and insects to ensure food security. The contributions in this section examine the big-picture links between biodiversity, climate, and food systems, drawing on fascinating case studies from a range of geographical contexts. By highlighting global environmental issues, policy frameworks, and economic measures, the authors illuminate how policy-makers and stakeholders who focus on the food sector can play a meaningful role in supporting broader biodiversity initiatives.

A particular strength of this volume is the numerous case studies cited by the authors that demonstrate the feasibility of alternatives to unsustainable food system models, countering mainstream political economic narratives, which often bemoan the lack of a better system. This is a timely and important book that makes bold statements to which macroeconomists and development practitioners should pay attention.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of Geography, Birkbeck, University of London, London WC1E 7HX, UK.