4 steps to make the global food system more sustainable
It is clear that we need a revolution of our food systems: the way we grow, harvest, process, transport, sell and consume our foods. A change so dramatic that previous versions of food systems are unrecognizable. In 2020, one in 10 people were hungry in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Almost one in three people did not have access to adequate food. One in eight adults were obese. More than one-third of the food on our tables was produced by small-scale producers. Yet, they got less than 2 percent of any climate financing.
The UN’s International Fund for Agricultural Development released its Rural Development Report Tuesday, which outlines four ways to specifically focus on small-scale producers in developing countries we can transform food systems to meet the combined challenges of poverty, nutrition, dignity and environmental sustainability, while staying within planetary boundaries.
First, agriculture needs to change toward producing more diverse and nutrient-dense foods. So far, a focus on high-calorie grain has meant an increase in production but a consequent reduction in prices of staples and a reduction of income for small farms. Support to small farms that tend to grow a larger number of crops and varieties (compared to larger farms that tend to monocrop) means maintaining a higher level of agrobiodiversity. Smaller farms also are more likely to use nature-based solutions.
Second, we need to shift toward locally tailored agricultural methods and practices that are also environmentally positive. The main reason small farms grow staples is that markets always exist for staple crops, even if they are not profitable.
More market opportunities for nutritious foods and neglected and underutilized species or crops (i.e. teff, quinoa, buckwheat, landrace varieties of many crops) will give farmers an incentive to grow them. At the same time, circular options and investing in facilities to store, maintain or process vegetables, fruits and high value crops leads to producing greater volumes of the same while reducing losses and waste and driving growth in the rural food economy.
We have the ability today to increase food production without expanding agricultural land. This has occurred because of available technologies and processes that are nature- and knowledge-based that allow small-scale producers to farm more efficiently. The best places to improve crop yields may be on underperforming landscapes, where yields are well below their potential. For instance, the returns on investments in irrigation can potentially be high. However, irrigation coverage in sub-Saharan Africa remains low. Therefore, a strong case could be made for the expansion of investment in irrigation to improve agricultural productivity.
Third, shift food systems to circular resource use. Considerable losses and waste throughout food systems can be lessened if material flows can be moved toward reducing, reusing and recycling by transforming linear food systems into more circular ones. There are two broad strategies to circular resource use. One is training and incentivizing farmers, traders and households in better resource management practices. The other is improving resource use technologies. Both strategies aim to gradually decouple growth from the use of finite resources, arriving at a circular economy that is regenerative.
Last but not least, diversifying to include otherwise marginalized communities and groups as important parts of the agricultural ecosystem is a win-win strategy. It increases their incomes through farm and off farm labor which means that the agricultural sector can also benefit, both from increased availability of labor but also increased demand for products. Then, food demand will increase as a consequence of additional income. Additionally, it means that production can cater to a varied set of preferences and traditions of food consumption which in turn means that agricultural production can be diversified more due to a new and more varying demand for food. Special efforts will be needed to ensure that the needs of women, youth and indigenous people are accounted for in government policy and private investments.
Estimates indicate that there are at least 500 million small farms worldwide. Many of these are in low- and middle-income countries, where more than one-third of the global population resides. These farmers produce much of the food consumed in low- and middle-income countries but they also constitute the majority of people who live in poverty and are among the groups most vulnerable to climate change.
We can support the globe, feed ourselves better and support rural people by focusing on more diversified and nutritious foods. This means concentrating on supporting local labor, input and produce markets or enterprises while containing agriculture’s environmental footprint and expanding opportunities for poor and marginalized communities.
The United Nations Food Systems Summit on Sept. 23 is an historic opportunity to come together and transform our food systems in a way that will improve the lives of people today and tomorrow. But we must act now.
Jyotsna Puri, Ph.D., is associate vice president of the Strategy and Knowledge Department at the UN’s International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). In 2019, the Global Landscapes Forum recognized her as one of 16 women global leaders leading the work on restoring the earth.