UN study calls for sweeping policy changes in global food system

UN study calls for sweeping policy changes in global food system
© istock

The future of the global food system hinges on the willingness of policymakers to invest in small-scale rural farming systems — and prioritize equitable access to agricultural innovation and local entrepreneurship, according to a new study from the United Nations. 

The report, released by the U.N.’s International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) in Rome on Tuesday, emphasizes the importance of focusing investments and policy decisions on rural food value chains to ensure that all individuals have sufficient access to nutritious food and that producers can earn a decent income without harming the environment.

Around the world, most residents of rural communities make a living by working in small-scale agriculture, and farms of up to 5 acres generate about 31 percent of the world’s food on less than 11 percent of global farmland, the study said.

ADVERTISEMENT

The global agriculture, food and beverage sector is worth about $10 trillion — a figure still growing alongside population increase and urbanization, according to the report. Low- and middle-income countries are becoming wealthier and beginning to diversify their economies — making citizens more willing to pay for healthier diets — but the share of farming in these same economies is also falling, the authors observed.

And while many small-scale farmers cannot earn a sufficient living from farming alone, these growers remain responsible for core food supplies in their countries, the report found.

“We are living in a world of huge and unfair contradictions,” Jyotsna Puri, associate vice president of IFAD’s strategy and knowledge department, said in a statement. “There are 800 million hungry people and yet high obesity rates. Nutritious diets are expensive, yet many small-scale farmers are poor. Current food growing practices are not good for our environment. It is clear that we need a revolution.”

Puri, whose department oversees the study, called for “a revolution so dramatic that previous versions of food systems are unrecognizable.”

The report, published in conjunction with this week’s U.N. Food Systems Summit, offers several concrete steps governments can take to help foster a sustainable and equitable transformation of the world’s food system.

ADVERTISEMENT

One of the study’s key recommendations is an investment in rural farms and small and medium-sized enterprises that support activities outside the farm gate — like storage, processing, marketing and distribution. It is particularly important that such support helps drive local ownership and employment, particularly among women and young people, which the authors said could also provide farmers with access to new and diverse markets.

Gender inequalities “remain deeply embedded in rural societies and in how food systems function,” meaning not only do women and girls confront diminished prospects and a substantial wage gap, but there is also “a vast lost opportunity in terms of what women can contribute to economic progress,” the report said.

In a world in which 3 billion people cannot afford healthy diets, the authors also advised officials to prioritize nutrition education — and empower women to make nutrition decisions. Fostering such empowerment will require granting women better access to digital technologies and digital literacy, so that they, too, have the information they need at their fingertips and can engage in economic decisions, according to the report.

Such change can in part be facilitated by offering support for basic infrastructure such as child care, water and health care services, the authors explained.

The authors also emphasized the importance of making such technologies, as well as nature-based innovations and low-carbon techniques, available to small-scale farmers, to support production and ensure that operations are more climate resilient. They suggested developing pricing systems that reflect the true cost of production and rewarding farmers for environmentally beneficial practices, such as soil maintenance and pest regulation.

ADVERTISEMENT

Policymakers should also employ market-based instruments and provide income support to ensure that healthy food becomes more accessible, according to the study.

The report cited a specific project in Bangladesh, which supported micro-entrepreneurs and small-scale farmers with self-employment opportunities. Through private investments and government subsidies, production of new crops, such as mung beans, surged, enabling some 400 farmers to increase their income by 25 percent. And although nutrition was not the focal point from the get-go, these adjustments led to better food safety and nutrition, the authors said.

The final recommendation called for policymakers to “rebalance global trade and governance to correct power imbalances.” This would mean reorienting regulations and trade agreements in ways that could benefit rural people in developing countries, while offering incentives to reward nature-based activities, the authors determined.

Such nature-based techniques are also critical to combating the climate crisis, as food systems today are responsible for 37 percent of greenhouse gas emissions around the globe, the authors added.

“We know what needs to change to make the production, marketing and consumption of food fair and sustainable, which results in nutritious, affordable food for all,” Puri said. “Now we need the investments and political will to take action.”