Our world is host to an enormous disparity and contrast in food and nutrition security: At a global level, production of most food has increased faster than population growth and now exceeds the nutritional caloric average requirements. At the same time, there are devastating food shortage threats at local levels, especially in Africa, where many new food safety problems have emerged in Low-Income (LI) and Lower Middle-Income (LMI) countries. As of last year, more than 820 million people are suffering from hunger and sub-Saharan Africa is the sub-continent with the highest proportion of undernourished people.
How is it that in a globalized, interconnected world, food security is still such a challenging issue?
First, we need to keep in mind that food insecurity is primarily a question of access rather than availability. Many components of the global food market are in fact controlled by a limited number of actors and in many areas, small farmers have little access to institutional, legal or financial support and therefore face big obstacles in entering global markets. Second, in several areas, agriculture is the main source of income for local communities and also one of the most vulnerable sectors to unexpected changes such as armed conflicts and environmental shocks. Furthermore, not only is the current system unequal and unjust to small farmers and producers, but it is also based on damaging agricultural practices (soil degradation, water contamination, atmospheric pollution), extremely wasteful, and responsible for an enormous amount of greenhouse gas emissions. In other words, it is socially, environmentally and globally unsustainable.
In the future, we will be facing an increased population and demand for food. However, in many parts of the world, current agricultural systems will be unable to meet a growing food demand. The challenge of food security is therefore not only to produce enough food but to make it accessible to all, which means combatting poverty and inequality. If things are to change, the world needs to face a complex and intricate dilemma: producing high-quality food in sufficient quantities and at affordable prices, that is equally accessible and has a reduced environmental impact. The solution to this dilemma is a transition to more sustainable food systems.
What is a sustainable food system?
A food system includes the related resources, the inputs, production, transport, processing and manufacturing industries, retailing, and consumption of food as well as its impacts on the environment, health, and society. Food systems are strongly interconnected with human societies and, whilst it may be easy to ignore the consequences of our unsustainable food practices now, eventually, the whole world will be experiencing them one way or another.
The disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic have further exposed the fragility of people’s access to goods and services and highlighted critical inequalities. Lockdowns and restrictions around the world have put enormous strains on local, regional and global supply chains and whilst developed countries struggled to cope with a sudden surge in demand and empty shelves, market closures across Africa, for example, have cut off vital access to provisions for local communities and sales outlets to farmers. Across the world, food system workers who already face insecurity and low wages are now the most at risk from economic disruption. Not to mention the millions of people who are living permanently on the cusp of hunger and extreme poverty, who are the most vulnerable to the effects of a global recession.
A transition towards a more sustainable system would not only mean more equitable access to nutritional foods but it would also reduce food loss and waste, minimize the environmental impacts of production and increase the resilience of many food systems around the world.
Such a transition could make a significant contribution to inclusive development, improve the quality of life of millions of people whilst also creating a viable environment for fighting climate change. In short, it would be a win-win for all.
How can we make this transition?
Food systems are central to the creation of a more sustainable and equitable world. However, each of us has a role to play in this transition. None of these issues is going to be solved merely through a top-down approach. We have a responsibility as a global community to act together across sectors and international borders to ensure a better quality of life worldwide.
On the governance side, concrete policies need to be enacted to ensure the quality of what we eat and the quality of life of all those who are involved in its production. This means allowing land access to new farmers as well as water rights and investing in risk prevention initiatives and social protection floors to safeguard all those involved in the production of food. It also means certifying supply chains and allowing equal access to resources and markets to small farmers to ensure the social and economic inclusion of civil society.
The private sector needs to invest in new knowledge, technologies (such as hydroculture and vertical farming) and infrastructure which can lower environmental impacts and improve nutrition worldwide. It needs to cooperate with local communities to build a more resilient food system and invest in agroecology, a system that reconciles the economic, environmental, and social dimensions of sustainability.
And lastly, we must not forget that there is much that can be done from an individual perspective. As consumers, we have the power to decide what choices we want to make, and we can no longer ignore the impact these choices have. Whether it’s reducing food waste, changing dietary and lifestyle habits or making more conscious decisions in our daily life, it is time for us to act now, to act together and to act differently.