One out of every nine people goes to sleep hungry. The reason is not insufficient food supplies. It is that our food systems have made basic nutrition unaffordable and inaccessible. Worse, even though an estimated one-third of food is wasted, policymakers remain focused on boosting agricultural production – usually in ways that result in a larger portion of subsidies flowing to a handful of companies, rather than to support farmers.
The single-minded pursuit of agricultural productivity gains and industrial animal production first led to the widespread cultivation of virgin lands, followed by intensification of farming in which water, chemicals, and antibiotics are deployed with abandon. On top of these practices has come the re-engineering of life itself, through genetic modification. Since 1970, these processes have contributed to a reduction in the populations of wild mammals, birds, amphibians, and reptiles by an estimated 68%, on average. With such alarming biodiversity loss, the circle of life is slowly grinding to a halt.
Academics who study these issues have blamed farmers, even though most of us are conscientious stewards of the soil and our shared natural resources. When farmers do engage in unsustainable practices, it is almost always because they are relying on techniques that have been aggressively promoted by an agriculture research system and the private sector. Now, farmers are being told to unlearn everything so that they can embark on an economically painful transition to climate-friendly agriculture. This shift is necessary. But it won’t happen until farming becomes a dignified profession whose practitioners are compensated for the true value for their production.
Agriculture can become part of the climate solution, but governments will need to start paying for farm ecosystem services, taxing unhealthy diets and large carbon footprints, and repurposing subsidies to require compliance with environmental and economic sustainability criteria. In fact, with insights from behavioural science and front-of-pack labelling, policymakers already could be doing much more to help consumers make healthier choices, particularly in developed economies. In low- and medium-income countries, poor governance and weak institutions are the biggest impediments to sustainable development. Overcoming these hurdles does not necessarily require massive investment, but it does demand astute political leadership at the national level, and this is often in short supply.
Unfortunately, since the start of the pandemic, there has been a greater consolidation of power and money in the food, retail, agriculture, and technology (FRAT) sectors. From now on, just a few players in each sector will have tremendous power over the organization of food production, distribution, and consumption. It is the FRAT giants that will decide what we see on the shelf (or online), and these choices will affect what we eat and what farmers produce.
Since corporate volunteerism has never really worked, we need to push for stronger mechanisms to hold the FRAT industry accountable. Most governments’ recent records of antitrust enforcement and industry regulation have been disappointing, to say the least. Small- and medium-size enterprises and producers are increasingly being pushed out.
But there are also longer-term power dynamics behind the vulnerabilities in today’s food systems. Two decades after the ratification of the World Trade Organization’s treaties on food and agricultural trade, rural farm communities still account for 80% of the world’s extreme poor. The people whose job it is to feed the world are themselves among the most chronically hungry people on the planet. And now, rural communities are becoming even more dependent on markets for nutrition, making them vulnerable to supply-side disruptions and price shocks. Adapting food systems for climate change requires making trade treaties more equitable.
In the meantime, there are low-cost ways to address these basic issues. For example, while acknowledging that markets and trade are important, we should recognize that kitchen gardens and backyard poultry are reliable methods of improving nutrition and making rural lives more resilient against market fluctuations. A home garden can supply a substantial portion of non-staple food needs, while also enabling household saving and reducing food wastage. Beyond the obvious benefits, however, the impact of home gardening and production for home consumption is largely unknown, because these practices are so under-researched. Why don’t the institutions working on food issues invest more in low-cost measures that could yield high returns without painful trade-offs?
One reason is that they are too busy supporting capital-intensive interventions. But another is that most academics and policy experts are unfamiliar with the lived experience of smallholder farmers, so they fail to grasp the implications of such proposals. Nobody stops and thinks to consult the intended beneficiaries of the strategy. This lack of representation and equity is a widespread problem. As the economists Arvind Subramanian and Devesh Kapur recently noted, a mere 7% of those authoring papers for the World Bank’s prestigious Annual Bank Conference on Development Economics are from the developing world. Since so much academic research favors the food value chains that are invariably controlled by large conglomerates, it is little wonder that food systems have not become more equitable. Conferences on food and food systems are held every week, but very rarely do the panels or speaker lists include a single practicing farmer.
Similarly, while funding from individual donors and philanthropies pours into the developing world to influence national food policies, hardly anyone ever stops to consider the motives that are driving the donors, and whether they are really aligned with smallholders’ interests.
This autumn’s United Nations Food Systems Summit offers an opportunity to discuss these power structures and other related topics. The summit’s success will be determined not only by what is proposed, but more importantly by what comes after. Our task is to convince the world that it is time for a new narrative. If we want those who produce our food to adopt more sustainable practices, we must first empower them to do so.