In this episode of the International Resource Panel (IRP) Webcast Series: What does the Global Future hold, the IRP invited Guido Schmidt-Traub, Partner at SYSTEMIQ LTD, United Kingdom, to discuss what he sees on the horizon in terms of the future of "Agriculture and Food". He spoke about the key risks and opportunities and how the risks can be managed and opportunities achieved. The webcast included a talk and a Q&A session.

Recording of the webcast

Key points from the webcast 

Given the heavy ecological impacts of agriculture and food on natural resource use, addressing this sector is crucial in the development of the IRP’s next Global Resources Outlook. 

Our current food system is failing to deliver on many counts. Yet, Schmidt-Traub remains optimistic in saying that “the future of the food system is for us to create and shape, there’s nothing preordained”

The need for improved resource efficiency in food systems

The food system has the deepest and most profound environmental impacts of all systems.’ The food system accounts for around one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions and is the biggest driver of biodiversity loss. From food production activities occurring on land (e.g. agricultural production, deforestation, ) to those occurring in the sea (e.g. deep-sea bottom trawling). natural resources are used inefficiently and unsustainably, driving severe environmental crises. We need to focus on promoting the efficient use of natural resources in our food systems, for example by shifting from energy-intensive production patterns (e.g. livestock) to those presented by plant-based diets, while also addressing the societal aspects.

The food system’s socio-economic implications

The food system has been phenomenally effective in reducing undernutrition overall. In fact, there are many countries that now have too much food, which has partially resulted in as much as one-third of global food being wasted. Another important food system challenge addresses the question of balance. For both rich and poor countries, striking the right balance between healthy, plant-based, protein-sufficient, and sustainable meat-intake diets is crucial. 

In the agricultural context, There are concerns about economic prosperity and inclusive development, for instance when it comes to smallholder farmers who must compete with the growing role of large corporations who produce food more efficiently at a lower cost, thereby representing job losses for local people. .

Adopting national food system strategies and integrated landscape planning approaches

Schmidt-Traub highlights the importance of national food system strategies in reconfiguring the state of the production system, nature, and diets along more sustainable practices. Especially critical is investigating land use and land use change implications. According to Schmidt-Traub, “there is a design question of how we manage different competing land uses since they involve trade-offs.” He states that this translates into focusing on integrated landscape planning approaches as suggested by the IRP. “It is crucial to look at the spatial dimensions of natural resource use and support countries in thinking through spatially implicit analytical and policy frameworks,” he added.  

Integrating food system priorities into already existing governance frameworks and agendas

While many argue for the creation of additional international conventions to tackle the food system, Schmidt-Traub points out the importance of strengthening existing multilateral governance frameworks. An example is incorporating food system priorities into already existing agendas --namely that of climate change and biodiversity. Yet, aside from the upcoming UNFCCC COP25 and the CBD COP15, the World Food Summit remains “a great opportunity to galvanise, draw attention to, and mobilise the international community to act on the food system”. 

The role of technology in solving the food system

Schmidt-Traub discusses the question of technology, which is often either welcomed for its environmental solutions or refuted for its trade-offs --for instance in undermining the role of smallholder farmers. Here, Schmidt-Traub suggests taking a pragmatic approach. For instance, while technology can provide  solutions to the need for more drought-resistant crops with the advent of climate change, it should not divert attention from the food system’s underlying problems and necessary shifts, such as the livestock sector’s carbon footprint and finding ways to reduce overall emissions.


Speaker - Guido Schmidt-Traub

Dr. Guido Schmidt-Traub is a Partner at SYSTEMIQ Ltd, an advisory company committed to system change for sustainable development. He is a Trustee of WaterAid UK, Board member of the Friends of The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria Europe, a member of the SDSN Leadership Council, and an Associate Adjunct Professor at Sunway University (Kuala Lumpur).

Guido serves as Chair of the International Advisory Group on Ecological Conservation Redlining to China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment, Chair of the International Advisory Council on Natural Capital, Carbon, and Communities to the Government of Indonesia, member of the World Economic Forum’s Future Council on Nature and the Economy, and Principal of the Food and Land-Use Coalition.

Until 2020, Guido served as founding Executive Director of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, which operates under the auspices of the UN Secretary-General to support the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Agreement. He has advised many governments and corporations, contributed to the design of the SDGs as well as the Paris Agreement, and published numerous reports.

Previously, Guido was CEO of Paris-based CDC Climate Asset Management, Partner at South Pole Carbon Asset Management, and climate change advisor to the Africa Progress Panel. He managed the MDG Support Team at UNDP and served as Associate Director of the UN Millennium Project in New York, which advised countries on achieving the Millennium Development Goals.

Earlier Guido worked in IP Investing as Partner at IndexIT Scandinavia and as a consultant with McKinsey & Co. Guido holds a Ph.D. in Economics from Wageningen University, an M.Phil. in Economics from Oxford (Rhodes Scholar), and a Master’s in physical chemistry from FU Berlin. He resides in Paris.

Learn more about the IRP Webcast Series: What does the Global Future hold?