It’s easy to take our food supply system for granted, especially for those lucky enough not to have to worry about where their next meal’s coming from.
But how secure are our global food systems? Are we guaranteed a future in which supermarket shelves are always overflowing, dams are always full, and good rains always bring abundant harvests?
The answer, of course, is no. Now, more than ever before, our future food security is at risk. A new paper by de Raymond et. al takes a close look at the concept of ‘systemic risk’ in relation to global food security. ‘Might food systems lastingly fail to supply, trade, and distribute food?’ ask the authors. ‘Might widespread unsustainable agricultural practices irreversibly alter ecosystems? Or might large scale food shortages trigger political unrest?’
What is systemic risk?
Systemic risk, a term usually used in the context of finance, refers to the risk of a breakdown of an entire system rather than simply the failure of individual parts. An unforeseen event, for example, or a series of events, could trigger serious instability in an entire industry, or even trigger its collapse.
‘The idea of systemic risk helps to understand and prevent large-scale crises where all the elements of the system fail simultaneously,’ say the authors of the paper. ‘The notion of systemic risk has become widely used to study issues defined as global, such as climate change, the environment, the economy, or food.’
What’s placing food security at risk?
Climate change and extreme weather events increase systemic risk to food security. In their paper, the authors examine crop failures and yield losses due to ‘environmental variability’ – an umbrella term which includes large-scale climate oscillations (regular cyclical changes, such as El Niño), and climate-change-induced extremes, like drought. These extreme weather events ‘may cause synchronized failure over large distances’, they say.
The paper also discusses the growing complexity of food systems linked to globalisation, which involve new interdependencies, and how the global food trade network ‘may both mitigate and increase systemic risk to food security’.
Another key area covered by the authors is how ‘unsustainable’ strategies intended to stabilise and enhance food security can actually ‘create conditions for systemic instability, and drive irreversible change’ within agroecosystems.
Is diversification the answer?
Food production and food system diversification help reduce systemic risk to food security, say the authors. They point to research which shows that more diversified production systems (for example, agroforestry, intercropping, or rotations) might help mitigate the adverse effects of climate variability. They also highlight the role of technology in increasing the global food system’s resilience to adverse events.
How Unilever’s working towards a brighter food future
In a world where as many as 811 million people worldwide go to bed hungry each night, working towards a stable food future has never been more important. The global food production system causes severe environmental destruction, with agriculture accounting for an estimated 21–37% of annual greenhouse gas emissions. 
Half of the world’s habitable land is used for agriculture, yet 75% of the global food supply comes from only 12 plant and five animal species.,  Relying on such a narrow range of crops has serious negative consequences for our delicate natural ecosystems, and therefore poses a real risk to food security.
As one of the world’s biggest food companies, Unilever has a responsibility to drive changes that will help transform the global food system. Science, technology and innovation are at the core of our commitment to help end world hunger, cut food waste, promote sustainable agriculture, and improve access to affordable nutrition.
One example of this commitment is our mission to empower people to choose more nutritious foods and drinks – we want to make it easier for people to live well by eating delicious, better-for-you food.
Knorr (our biggest food brand) is at the forefront of our efforts with its purpose of ‘reinventing food for humanity’: driving shifts towards more varied and plant-based diets that are better for the health of people and the planet. One of the ways we’re doing this is through Knorr’s Future 50 Foods, which we developed with World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).
By 2025, 25% of Knorr products will contain Future 50 Foods – foods that are good for us and the planet. These ingredients are helping people to discover new flavours and diversify their diets towards more sustainable alternatives.
Click here to download your free copy of the Future 50 Foods Report.
 Systemic risk and food security. Emerging trends and future avenues for research (de Raymond et al., 2021)