Editor's Note [Volume 21 No. 3 (2021)]

Why we need to talk about transforming our food systems

Increases in agricultural productivity have come at alarming environmental, health, and socioeconomic costs. Currently, ungoverned and unaccountable food systems are pushing human and environmental health to their limits, more people into poverty and vulnerability, and contributing to violations of human rights. It is time to fundamentally change the way food is produced, processed, distributed, traded, and consumed, that is, the food system.

Food systems - the various activities that influence how food is brought from farm to fork and beyond - and the outputs of these activities including socioeconomic and environmental outcomes are supposed to be nourishing and regenerative to provide food security and nutrition in a way that does not compromise the economic, social, and environmental bases for future generations. The production process is invisible to many who live in cities where food is individualized and anything is available at any time. But issues like seasonality, weather, land, and inputs are still great constraints for producers and these should be unveiled for all to appreciate - and should be done with speed.

Why is it so urgent to transform our food systems? There are many documented problems with our food systems, and as the world’s population is expected to reach 10 billion in 2050 from the current eight billion, the status quo is unsustainable. For instance, some two billion people are facing hunger, and the number is expected to rise by another 80 to 180 million more because of the Covid-19 pandemic. In 2019, more than one in five children under age 5 worldwide were reported to be stunted, and two billion adults are overweight, according to WHO data. Our food is less diverse with three-quarters of the world’s calories coming from 12 plant species (mostly three staples: maize, rice, and wheat) and five animals - pigs, chicken, sheep, goats, and cow - excluding fish. A third of all food produced is lost between production and consumption amounting to six percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, or the third largest emissions. Natural resources – water, soils, and biodiversity - are drying up, polluted, degraded, endangered, and disappearing. Other issues like climate change, social inequities, war, natural disasters, and pandemics intensify these problems.

In response to these challenges, the UN Secretary-General in 2019 called for a transformation of global food systems, saying that food system transformation is the surest way to achieve the SDGs, 10 years to the target time. The UN Food Systems Summit (UNFSS), dubbed “the People’s Summit” and “the Solutions Summit” aims to build more inclusive, equitable, and healthier food systems, while also safeguarding our planet.

The Covid-19 pandemic has unveiled the structural fragilities and inequalities that exist in current food systems. The most affected are people with insecure livelihoods, lacking social protection, and access to productive assets like land and capital. Women, children, urban poor, smallholders, marginalized people, people living with disabilities, rural and urban working-class have been pushed further into vulnerability. We have witnessed this through loss of jobs and livelihoods, rising costs of food, inadequacies in social protections, insecurity, gender-based violence and violence against children, and numbers of people in need of food aid.

Happening across the world are summit dialogues looking to get all ideas on the table and to ensure action is owned and driven by different actors. The dialogues create opportunities to discuss the problems facing our food systems and work towards joint solutions that will shape local, national, and global food systems. Diverse voices in the food systems space, including farmers, fisher-folk, pastoralists, processors, food distributors, traders, and consumers, women, young and old, all groups. The private sector, governments, political class, NGOs, civil society, science, and beyond are all part of the discussion.

Some of the proposed game-changing solutions indicate that many were thinking about this long before it became a talking point (and there is still time to submit more game-changers): gender equality and social inclusion, research and development for non-staples such as fruits, pulses, vegetables, eggs, dairy, and fish, incentivizing the private sector to deliver healthier diets and sustainably, promoting indigenous food systems and traditional diets and promoting agroecological transformation. A proposed UK law that would fine businesses that use raw materials or products grown on illegally deforested land, a study that calls for consideration of ‘natural capital’ in GDP calculations, and endorsement of agroecology as the measure to transform food systems are actions in the right direction.

In conclusion, African nations stand to benefit a lot by having these conversations to transform their food systems. Currently, sub-Saharan African (SSA) nations are net importers of food but a quarter of the world’s arable land is in SSA, with an estimated 33 million smallholder farmers who produce 70% of the food consumed. With the continent's 1.2 billion population expected to double by 2050, the youth population (15-24 years) growing faster than any other region, transformation is required. With these dialogues, there is a chance to build equitable food systems, adopt nature-positive production through agroecology, reverse the effects of climate change, tap into our indigenous food cultures drawing from nutritious plant and animal sources, advocate for changes in food policies, and strengthen accountability for human rights, (the right to food) for governments and businesses.

Mary Njeri Karanu*
Assistant Editor, AJFAND

*and Program Officer – Rural Outreach Africa. Currently coordinating a Right to Adequate Food project in Kenya.


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