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Feature - Issue 6

Rebooting Our Food Systems

Climate and food writer Thin Lei Win looks to the UN’s Food Systems Summit in September, and introduces the “action tracks” designed to address issues around the world’s food security.

Photograph courtesy Thin Lei Win.

Over the past year or so, as days and weeks have blurred into each other through an endless loop of strict lockdowns and tentative openings, I turned to cooking to stay sane. Some of the dishes I made were ones I grew up eating at our home in Yangon, Myanmar, where three generations shared a dinner table every night. There were spicy curries, tangy salads, garlicky noodles and lots of rice. Other dishes were foods I tasted after I moved abroad, like Sichuan noodles, Mediterranean stews and bangers and mash. But they all helped me cope with homesickness and anxiety through the pandemic.

That is what food does - it not only keeps us alive but also nourishes our soul. A smell, a taste, even the name of an ingredient can transport us back in time and space. It remains a universal language to demonstrate love.

Unfortunately, the way we are currently producing and consuming food is not sustainable. It is environmentally destructive, inequitable and, frankly, what we eat is killing us. This is not a problem limited to a single country, region or group of people. It is happening in rich and poor countries all over the world.

Globally, around one in 11 people go to bed hungry every night and this number has been rising since 2014, according to the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2020, the UN’s flagship report on hunger. The same report found that more than 3 billion people - about two in five - cannot afford healthy diets. This includes 18 million people across North America and Europe.

A recent study by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington found that bad diet killed more people in 2017 than smoking - 11 million versus 8 million, while The World Bank estimates that the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic could push up to 115 million more people into poverty in 2020.

Covid-19 has also shone a spotlight on the domino effect caused by our destruction of nature to expand farmland and our demand for cheap meat, facilitating the transition of viruses from animals to humans, called zoonotic diseases. Scientists for the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services say that outbreaks of influenza viruses and new pandemic strains have emerged largely because of dense production of poultry and pigs in some parts of the world.

Then there are the emissions. Producing, processing, transporting, distributing and consuming food accounts for 34% of the global greenhouse gas emissions that are warming up the planet, according to a recent study by the European Commission and the UN. A study last year, published in Science Magazine, found that even if fossil fuel emissions were eliminated immediately, food production could still push temperatures to rise beyond 1.5 degrees celsius above pre-industrial times, the lowest goal in the Paris climate pact.

Our food systems are broken and need urgent repair. In a few months’ time, the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres will convene an event that aims to do just that. The Food Systems Summit, slated for September 2021, plans to “launch bold new actions” to transform the world’s food systems and deliver progress on all 17 of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

So what are food systems, a term you’ll be hearing a lot more in the coming years? The Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food’s definition is that a food system “includes not only the basic elements of how we get our food from farm to fork, but also all of the processes and infrastructure involved in feeding a population”. This is a more holistic way of looking at food, but it also brings a much more complex and interconnected web of stakeholders from sectors that previously used to operate in silos, from health and environment to finance and human rights.

And what are the ingredients of sustainable, equitable and healthy food systems? For one, they would ensure everyone has access to safe and nutritious food. It is no longer enough to have food. The food has to be good, available and affordable. It also means food is produced in a way that doesn’t destroy biodiversity, degrade the soil, pollute the waters and air, or churn out more emissions. This would ensure food supplies are resilient to shocks and stress, whether it’s a hurricane, an earthquake or a pandemic.

What else? Well, the actors along the entire food chain, from farmers and factory workers to cooks, servers and the person delivering your dinner on a bicycle, should be paid fairly and adequately, regardless of gender or race. And let’s not forget the importance of discerning consumers who waste as little food as possible and demand foods that require fewer resources to produce and transport.

All of these are being addressed under five cross-cutting “action tracks” that will help prepare solutions and strategies ahead of the summit. 2020 was a terrible year for many of us, but it was also an eye-opener, showing that the old ways of addressing hunger and malnutrition through a narrow focus on crop productivity is no longer sufficient. We saw tremendous community spirit and awe-inspiring resilience too. We just need to bring them all together to remake something that is fundamental to our continued existence - our food systems.

‘UN Food Systems Summit 2021 - Action Tracks: 1. Ensure access to safe and nutritious food for all / 2. Shift to sustainable consumption patterns / 3. Boost nature-positive production / 4. Advance equitable livelihoods / 5. Build resilience to vulnerabilities, shocks and stress’

Photograph by Annie spratt / unsplash.

Tamisha Lee
Farmer, Jamaica

The president of the Jamaica Network of Rural Women Producers, Tamisha Lee, describes how Jamaican farmers are facing issues as climate breakdown puts stress on the country’s soil and water, and poor policy planning has led to a lack of recognition of the role rural women play as vital contributors to the food system.

Photographs (c) Tamisha Lee / Jamaica Network of Rural Women Producers.

I grew up in a deep rural farming community in Jamaica. I have had a love for nature from a very tender age and a great interest in food and how it is produced. Fast forward to today, I lead an organisation with a membership of over 600 women who participate in all stages of the value chain.

The Jamaica Network of Rural Women Producers was founded in 1999 and aims to empower rural women to become successful entrepreneurs in the agricultural sector. I am also the treasurer of the Caribbean Network Of Rural Women Producers and a member of the women’s committee of the World Farmers Organisation.

Our work is centered around a number of the UN’s sustainable development goals: end poverty in all its forms everywhere; end hunger, achieve food security, improve nutrition, promote sustainable agriculture and gender equality. I am very much aware of the critical role that we, as rural women, must play in ensuring our nation’s food security and nutrition as the world’s population is expected to increase by 2 billion in the next 30 years.

The Jamaica brand is respected and desired globally, and the tropical climate allows fruit and vegetables to be grown and harvested year-round, but we face a number of challenges as farmers: drought-water catchment facilities are not always in the areas where the majority of farmers are located; we lack access to agricultural inputs including fertiliser, seeds and feed; and we suffer from theft of agricultural produce, sometimes on a large scale.

Other issues include insufficient cold storage facilities to store crops; natural resources such as soil and water put under stress due to the impacts and effects of climate breakdown; poor farm roads; a lack of agro-processing facilities; and insufficient knowledge of enhanced farming techniques. There is also a need for increased access to finance and insurance, farming equipment and technology, and new markets.

The sector is not attractive to young adults, and there is a need for education to raise awareness in relation to all areas of the agriculture industry, from harvesting to packaging and processing. I would like to see an incentive programme to attract young people and women in particular to the sector. We need to ensure that our policies support and recognise the role of rural women as vital contributors to our food system.

I believe farmers and academics need to work together to promote climate-smart agriculture and agro-ecology practices and raise awareness about healthy eating. It is important that we follow good agricultural practices and maintain food safety standards. Alongside the right to food, food waste and food loss need to be addressed. Food waste should be a subject of the UN’s Green Climate Fund and other funding schemes.

We need access to proper seeds, proper pest control management, proper use of agricultural chemicals, and investment in education, research and development. We need to address the issue of high storage and production cost, and we need to expose farmers to the best practices and trends in farming around the world.

Our farmers need to be educated on the benefits of having a healthy soil for the growing of crops, and exposed to some of the best practices of ancient farmers, such as mulching, where a protective covering of bark chips, straw, or plastic sheeting is placed on the ground around plants to suppress weed growth, retain soil moisture, and prevent freezing of roots. In essence, farming should be working with nature and not against it.

I would like to see proper policy and planning; effective and efficient monitoring of the sector; sustained collaboration and action; and the funding and development of stimulus packages in order to boost the sector.

Through this we can reduce environmentally damaging inputs and waste, applying a circular economy model to farms, and improve production system resilience through methods such as precision agriculture, integrated pest management and molecular breeding techniques.

The main barrier to achieving these objectives is a lack of political will, which leads to poor planning; an excess of bureaucracy; and a lack of resources, research and development, and support for rural women and young people. All of these hamper our efforts to achieve our sustainable development goals, and this is why we need to promote a bottom-up approach to leadership to build a sustainable agricultural sector that is productive and climate resilient.

Photograph by ELAINE MACHADO / MST.

Ceres Hadich
Agronomist and activist, Brazil

Eating is not just a part of our lives but a political process, writes Ceres Hadich, a settler and food producer at the Maria Lara Settlement in Centenário do Sul, Northern Paraná, Brazil. We need to realise the intentions behind our choices of certain foods or eating habits, and ask ourselves questions about how our consumption affects the world we live in.

Eating is part of our life, but understanding it as a political act was a process. I got involved with the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra (Landless Workers Movement) when I was at university, attracted by the issue of the struggle for land and agrarian reform. But over time, we in the movement realised that the relationship between food, diet, and access to nutrition as a human right, is central to the struggle for land and agrarian reform: healthy food has become, as part of our political struggle, increasingly part of our reflection and action.

Brazil is extremely ecologically diverse, and this diversity is reflected in our food. Our climate, biodiversity and fertile land, give us access to a range of different food groups throughout the year, reflecting our black, Indigenous and migrant roots. However, we face several problems, of which I would like to highlight two: one issue is the erosion of cultural, nutritional and culinary practices, which causes a dependence on the market for products that are not even produced in our localities. This leads to higher prices and a lack of autonomy over what we produce and eat, often food that is contaminated with pesticide residues. The other issue is sanitary: there is an explosive increase in cases of diseases derived from our way of life and our diet: obesity, weight gain, malnutrition, diabetes, high cholesterol, gluten intolerance, lactose intolerance, and allergies, to name a few. These are all increasingly common among the Brazilian population and are directly related to what we eat.

It is necessary, therefore, to question the current model and, by thinking differently, make the production and consumption of food part of the strategy of building autonomy and sovereignty for our people.

We all need to ask: where does our food come from? Who produces it, who sells it to me, in whose interest is it that I eat this food? What do I eat that impacts my life and the lives of others? How much waste do I generate with my food? Am I nourishing myself or simply consuming products? We need to realise the intentions behind our choice of certain foods or eating habits. We all need to peel more, unwrap less; buy less, harvest more; diversify our dishes; strengthen local and nearby networks and markets; make our food the primary source of our health; and be consistent with what we say and do. We all need to take these steps towards self-knowledge and the individual and collective transformation of consumption patterns.

Agroecology places life and respect for nature’s common assets at the centre of these processes. We understand that it is necessary to go further than maintaining the environment, eschewing the use of poisonous pesticides, or simply reducing the consumption of meat and the emission of gases in the atmosphere. We need to go to the source of the problem: the logic of the agricultural production system in the way that it promotes a pattern of monoculture, food and nutritional erosion, and destruction of nature, as though that were a normal and necessary part of the development of our society.

We need agrarian reform, promoting more democratic access to land, and more people living and working in the countryside. We need to review the agrarian structure that produces and supplies urban centres. And we need to promote and strengthen local markets, based on cooperation between producers and consumers, reducing the distance between the two. We need to produce healthy, diversified foods, based on the principles of agroecology, rescuing our agricultural, cultural and food roots. And we need to rethink our eating habits, focusing on promoting healthy and diversified food.

It is necessary to strengthen an autonomous, authentic and ecologically-centred agri-food system, focused on a local circuit, to make us more resilient, and allow production and supply to be more effective. This must be in combination with public policies to encourage agrarian reform, food production and conscious consumption, to encourage the production and commercialisation of healthy foods.

We are experiencing a clash of antagonistic interests - an expression of the class struggle that is increasingly evident and fierce in our society. The change is not just in the awareness that transforming these relationships is necessary, it is fundamentally determined by the ability that each class has to impose its ideas and its alternatives. We are facing a crossroads: to follow the logic of a self-destructive and perverse world in decline, or to build a new world, for which we will necessarily also need to rebuild ourselves as human beings. The question is whether, more than being willing, we will have the strength to face and triumph in this battle?

Maureen Muketha
Youth activist, Kenya

Diversification of staple foods and an equitable food supply chain will help towards ending food insecurity, writes youth activist Maureen Muketha, but political leadership and governance, coupled with a strong regulatory framework should be the foundation for the future of nature-positive production and ensuring a nutritious diet for everyone.

I come from a poor community where food and water are scarce and malnutrition incidences are very prevalent. It is not uncommon for households to sleep hungry. Across Kenya, it is not uncommon for households to have irregular meals due to high unemployment rates coupled with a high cost of living. This informed my choice of studying human nutrition and dietetics at undergraduate level, in order to address the food insecurity gap in my community and reduce the burden of human suffering. Food is a basic need, and lack of food or inadequate nutrition is a foundation of poverty, untold suffering and moral decadency. I still hope to study nutrition to the highest level so that I can leave a lasting impact, however small, as my contribution to achieving the UN’s sustainable development goal of ending hunger.

The staple food in Kenya is maize. It can be consumed boiled, roasted, or mixed with other cereals such as beans and peas, or made into a type of porridge called ugali. There is a huge problem in maize cultivation as the prices of farm inputs are increasing, while low prices, coupled with bad storage conditions, leave farmers with little choice other than to sell the maize to exploitative middlemen, further lowering the price. This has led many farmers to begin planting profitable crops such as avocado instead of maize, making food for the common citizenry more scarce and consequently more expensive.

A positive thing to have come out of this situation is that it has triggered a lot of innovation - mainly from the youth - that is slowly solving these problems. For example, many mobile apps have been created that link farmers directly to the market, eliminating the middlemen. And there are a lot of small-scale community initiatives, such as posho mills that convert the maize to flour, solving the issue of poor storage conditions that expose the raw maize to pests and disease.

At the same time the Kenyan government has identified food security as part of its policy agenda, so more resources are being allocated to the agricultural and food sector. We are not there yet, but at least we have begun to have this very important conversation around food security.

To ensure access to safe and nutritious food for all, we need to create a conducive environment that will be profitable and fair to all players in the food supply chain: farmers, distributors, middlemen, transporters, storage handlers and, of course, the consumer. This is a very delicate ecosystem, and a slight upset on any player distorts the entire market chain. More often than not producers and consumers are both exploited by distributors and middlemen, leading to impoverished and unmotivated producers and consumers who cannot afford food due to high prices.

We can advance equitable livelihoods in the food system by strengthening all of the players in the food chain. For example, food producers and farmers need to be able to access (and embrace) superior technology that will produce higher yields for less cost, distributors need to have a well-developed infrastructure in order to lower costs, and consumers need to have access to a larger market pool in order to have more choice, variety and competitive prices.

In Africa, if we empower women and the rural community an impact will be felt almost immediately as women do the most work but are often uncompensated, while rural areas are the most productive regions yet the most neglected and under-utilised.

To build resilience in the food system, we need to embrace cultivation and consumption of indigenous foods that are more nutritious and more resilient to harsh climatic changes. And we need above all to have favourable government policies that boost supply. The Kenyan government recently revealed a plan to put 1m acres of land under irrigation and, although it faced some challenges, it was a game-changing idea. Kenyans began a conversation around large-scale farming and commercially-sustainable agriculture.

It shows that political leadership and governance coupled with a regulatory framework can encourage citizens to buy into innovative ideas. The government should come up with policies that punish environmental degradation such as deforestation or soil pollution. It needs to strengthen advocacy programmes on environmentally-friendly agriculture. And it needs to combat air pollution that leads to acidic rains and results into very poor yields in rain-dependent agricultural areas, and address industries that pour effluent into rivers and lakes, affecting fishing communities and the blue economy.

The government should also be looking at taxes for synthetic fertilisers that contribute to global warming, and examining incentives to encourage environmentally-friendly fertilisers, afforestation and reforestation. We should be developing technology and encouraging recycling to reduce food wastage, which the UN approximates to be about a third of the total food quantity in any food chain. And the public needs to be educated on the importance of nature-positive production. We have a responsibility to bequeath the next generation an environmentally-friendly world to live in.

José Luis Vicente Vicente
Academic, Germany

Embracing agroecology is the way to mitigate climate breakdown and ensure food system resilience, writes academic José Luis Vicente Vicente, but it requires a global system change. We should start by fostering the regionalisation of our food systems.

I am working and living in the Berlin-Brandenburg region, which is formed by two federal states, Berlin and Brandenburg, but with a high permanent exchange of commodities and people commuting between the two areas. However, I soon realised that the region is far from having a regional food system, since Brandenburg is mainly formed by monocultures of cereals and maize, where a high proportion is exported or dedicated to animal consumption or bioenergy production, and just a small part is aimed to direct human consumption.

The Berlin diet does not focus on local produce, and tropical and exotic commodities, together with very cheap meat, are highly consumed. The mismatch between the production and the consumption in the area is extreme and completely unsustainable and, therefore, there is still a lot to do to increase the regional self-sufficiency and the sustainability and resilience of the food system.

However, some good things are also happening in the area. Particularly, Berlin is a very dynamic urban area, where many small initiatives looking for increasing regional production and shifting diets take place. You can find many small groups in different neighbourhoods producing food via community supported agriculture (a partnership between farmers and consumers) or similar initiatives, and sharing knowledge, experiences and trying to learn more.

In Germany access to safe and nutritious food is not a problem, but the easy and cheap access to low quality food is an issue. The meat production in mega-farms has kept the prices very low and that meat can be bought almost everywhere, from supermarkets to fast-food restaurants that have colonised the entire city.

Some low-quality food products are very cheap because, first, they are produced at very large scale, for example in mega-farms in the case of meat or in large monocrops in the case of plant-based products, and second, because the negative socio-ecological impacts of their production are not incorporated into the price. However, if the demand for these products was much lower, then these systems would not be profitable: they are only profitable when they are produced at very large scales. If there were education to foster the consumption of regional and environmentally-produced food, the demand for the low-quality products would be much lower and not profitable anymore.

To boost nature-positive production in the food system involves a system change. Conventional agriculture is a highly subsidised sector. Almost 40% of the EU’s total budget goes to the common agricultural policy (CAP), which pays farmers in terms of size, without considering the production system. So, the larger the farm, the higher the CAP payments. I believe that only a green and agroecological CAP would be able to boost environmentally-friendly production systems. Unfortunately I think that this will be highly unlikely. My hope is on the small-scale farming and food sharing initiatives, like community-led food activities, working at local scale. In the case of the food system, thinking locally instead of globally is better for two reasons: one, because international food trading is controlled by just a few companies and it is extremely difficult to shift this trend, and two, because the food system should be based on the local pedoclimatic and socioeconomic conditions, allowing the growth of specific crops and animal products in an environmentally-friendly way and, therefore, the diet can be adapted to these local specificities.

The problem of the large monocrops that have colonised our rural landscapes is that they are extremely simplified agroecosystems. They commonly use the term “cropping system”, since for them the crop is just another market commodity that can be produced in the same way as other industrial commodities. This extreme simplification of the agroecosystems makes them very vulnerable to almost any shock, like droughts, heavy rainfalls or pests.

The supply chains are also vulnerable, since the food products have to travel large distances and through many different intermediaries until they finally arrive at their destination. Any shock in this complex supply chain may affect the whole supply chain and generate food insecurity in some parts of the world, since many countries are highly dependent on food imports.

We urgently need to create local agroecological farms with a high degree of self-regulation and circularity, that are able to resist the impacts from the current and future climate and environmental disruptions, reduce the dependency on agrochemicals and improve soil fertility properties. Agroecology and peasant practices have been proven to be highly beneficial for biodiversity, which is a key component for the regulation of the planetary systems.

We should not forget that agroecology is based on local, peasant and Indigenous knowledge, so fostering a more agroecological food system would prevent us from losing this old and valuable knowledge that is the result of hundreds of years of knowledge evolution and a farmer-to-farmer transfer system.

I think that increasing the resilience of the agroecosystems by applying agroecological practices, and the resilience of the food supply chains by fostering the regionalisation of the food systems, should be our priority now, because being resilient is not an option, but the only way to ensure everyone’s lives.

Mark Brand
Chef and entrepreneur,
US and Canada

We have to look at our own behaviours and lead by example if we want to influence change, writes Mark Brand. The founder of charity A Better Life Foundation wants to see more localised farming and production, and a resilient food system that is accessible to everyone.

I started cooking at nine, professionally at 14. I’ve been obsessed with food and flavour since I can remember. Its ability to heal, to transport, to convene, to propel, its everything. I’ve been fortunate to have farmers, canners, picklers, true cooks, all women, in my family and around me my whole life. I work globally, but my bricks and mortar are on the unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples and soon to be in Brownsville, New York. The problems that face both regions above all are systemic poverty and oppression. Poverty is an act of violence that we as a society have become complicit in. There are no real issues of resource, only issues of greed. The positive is that there are lots of people aggressively addressing everything from policy reform to decolonising their own businesses. By focusing and raising those voices and actions, we can transform blocks, neighbourhoods, cities and with the right pressure, the whole world, into an equitable and joyful place.

Since the pandemic hit, I’ve been grounded in Vancouver and focused on a handful of new programmes that we will continue to scale through the charity I run, A Better Life Foundation. One is called Waste Not, Want Not, where we’ve partnered with my commissary kitchen, grocery stores, electric tricycle delivery and some tech to recover food and get it to people who desperately need it. We currently have two stores online, with three more to be added soon, and in nine months have recovered and repurposed 12 tonnes of food, simultaneously offsetting 24.4 tonnes of CO2 from entering the environment.

Another programme is called Sharpen Up, and it’s an online class and grocery delivery for BIPOC (black, Indigenous, and other people of color) families living below the poverty line. We meet each family (digitally), centring the children (who are also the centred students), and find out their likes, dislikes, allergies, and so on. We then build grocery deliveries to their doorstep and have a three part class, consisting of two group sessions, and a one-on-one with our chefs. We’ve done 10 cohorts so far, of 30 families, and it’s so incredible to watch seven and eight-year-olds next to their parents preparing whole fish, roasting vegetables, and learning knife skills. It breaks isolation, builds community, provides critical knowledge and food and I’m deeply in love with it.

To achieve safe and nutritious food for all we need to ask the real questions of what is going wrong. Who is benefitting from the global production systems, who is suffering? What impact does it have on our medical systems, our collective mental health? The money is there, the labour is there, the want is there, the need is there.

When you peel back the layers, you can confront how the systems were created and why we don’t all have access. We can ensure it by naming it, by saying instead of building more hospitals, maybe we regulate genetically modified organisms, we regulate sugar, we regulate saturated fats, and the list goes on. We build more localised farming, production, resilient systems that are accessible to everyone, as a basic human right, from birth. If we continue to poison people to death with the food system and say nothing, we can’t truly even get started.

Sustainability looks so different from city to city. When I build systems of food, with our daily meal programme, for example, we create over 1,000 scratch-made meals a day. If I turned around and delivered these beautiful organic meals, made by employees with significant barriers, to a neighbourhood that’s deeply food insecure, in a gas guzzling diesel truck, then what was the point? They go into an electric tricycle and have made their way to the destination this way every day for the last eight years. We have to look at our own behaviours then slowly move the circle out into what and how we can influence the overall systems of change.

Leading by example, we can advance equitable livelihoods in the food system. Learning about decolonisation and implementing your learnings. By insisting that your workplace do the hard work to have a hard look. I’ll share something important with you about people who have barriers to employment, or diverse abilities (I hate the word disability, it’s obscene). In my 10 years of hiring people that fit that description, here is the data. Traditional service industry employees turn over on average at 75% or more per annum. It costs around $7,000-10,000 to train a new employee. My employees turn over at less than 5% per annum. They come from former incarceration, homelessness, abusive situations, developmental delays, and the list goes on. They are my family and their reliability is the only reason we’re still open, period. Employing those that are “different” is a gift, it’s not a burden. If we could change that norm, the world would be a different place. We all have a role, we all have to be in the game, together.

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Feature - Issue #6

Interview - Issue 6