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Protecting the World’s Food From Disease and a Changing Climate

Food travels great distances to arrive safely with the consumer, and at any point along the supply chain, food is at risk of contamination. The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations ensures food safety and security across the globe. “Food safety is really everybody’s business,” says FAO’s senior food safety officer, Markus Lipp. “Only if everybody plays their part — consumers, governments, industry, farmers — is food safe.”

Managing the global food supply is an immense task, given the diversity of food products. “Even within a country, there’s an enormous variety of food products, but from a global perspective it’s absolutely dizzying,” Lipp says.

Developing countries

One of FAO’s primary jobs is strengthening institutions in developing countries where food is at higher risk. “We in the developed or western world can take food safety for granted because our institutions work,” Lipp says. “That is not the case in countries where informal markets dominate, where there is maybe no institutional strength to enforce legislation or to enforce limits.”

FAO also works to prevent or eradicate chemical or microbiological contamination and disease. “African swine fever is one of the current threats,” Lipp says. “It doesn’t affect humans, but pigs will die from it and then are not available for food production anymore.” Another concern for FAO is ending food shortages.

Consequences

Such risks threaten not only the food supply, but also global health — the coronavirus outbreak is a prime example — as well as the economy. “If a country is dependent on the agricultural economy, then it’s a drama for the whole country,” Lipp says. “So that’s a big part of FAO’s work.”

Consumer decisions also negatively affect the food supply chain. “Consumer preference, and particularly fads, can emerge and recede faster than the agriculture can keep up with them,” Lipp says. “To react to those consumer trends gives the farmer a time frame of two years to adapt, which can be a real challenge. Then there’s the question of where to get the seed material from.”

Climate change

But perhaps the greatest threat facing the global food supply is climate change. Rising sea levels will impact agricultural lands, while rising temperatures will affect plant growth. “From a production perspective, the changes in temperature will probably require new plant varieties,” Lipp says. “That is easier said than done, because first of all, one needs to figure out which of the plant varieties can cope with the new circumstances better. Second, someone needs to produce enough seed material for everyone.”

With increasing threats to food safety and security around the world, the work of the FAO is more important than ever. “It’s really important that there’s enough background, education, and attention on every step, every player, and every stakeholder in the food supply chain,” Lipp says.

The views expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of FAO.

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