Steve Godfrey, Director of Policy and External Relations at the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), outlines why putting farmers at the centre of rebuilding our food systems is crucial to sustainably feeding a growing global population.
In September, the UN Secretary General will convene a global Food Systems Summit to look into changes needed to make our food economy more sustainable and able to feed a growing population. A grand title, it also adds weight to a growing clamour to change how we grow, market and consume food. It will put farming squarely at the centre of global policy in a way that hasn’t happened since the start of the Green Revolution.
Why this change, and what does it tell us about future directions for farming?
Uneven progress and widespread malnutrition
Despite miraculous strides in productivity that have helped feed a world population which has trebled since 1950, progress has been very uneven. More than 690 million people still suffer chronic hunger, and over three billion cannot afford a healthy diet. These poor diets are the major cause of global ill health. In addition, 1.9 billion adults are overweight and a further 650 million obese. By 2050, agriculture production needs to increase by 56 per cent to feed – and nourish – 9.8 billion people. It’s not just about how much, but what kind of food, we produce.
Agriculture is deeply enmeshed in the climate crisis. Evidence of reduced yields for crops and livestock, for example, in Africa is increasing and changing what grows well where. At the same time, agriculture and food systems from farm to fork are responsible for approximately 25 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, on a par with energy and transport. Reforms to agriculture are central to managing the environment and climate emergency.
But this pressure on the planet goes well beyond CO2 levels and global warming. Agri-food systems drive more than 80 per cent of natural ecosystem conversion and degradation. Biodiversity is sharply under pressure, with species extinction out of control, and narrowing genetic diversity in farming. Over a quarter of livestock breeds are likely to become extinct according the FAO. Today, nine crops – out of 6,000 – account for two thirds of all production.
How we farm is going to need to adapt and manage multiple goals: beyond the drumbeat of more food, and cheaper food at any cost.
Four keys to nourishing future populations
At the core of meeting these challenges is rethinking relationships between farmers and the rest of us in four areas.
First, how we see farming. Many farmers are primarily businesses with a good track record of innovating and being agile in what they produce – when the opportunities are given. But the food system is heavily shaped by big market players, such as supermarkets and food manufacturers, which have historically sought to drive down prices.
As we move towards true cost measurement of production, which looks at costing in environmental protection, all actors in the value chain need to come to the table. The cost of adjustment cannot be borne by farmers.
Second, new leadership from governments is critical, they are the principal architects of change. For decades, governments and the UN system have prioritised research and subsidies for three staple crops – wheat, maize, and rice. Over $500 billion in subsidies are still paid every year for these commodities.
If these subsidies were repurposed to encourage better yields and markets for healthy and nutritious foods, and to support more sustainable practices, the results could be as big as for the Green Revolution. This could also help diversify farm incomes. Farmers can adapt, but they need stable markets and compensation to be custodians of nature while feeding us all.
Third, healthier food is not necessarily more expensive food. Consumers can play a big role in transforming the food system by choosing healthier and more sustainable foods, a factor that is already shifting manufacturers and supermarkets, but just not fast enough.
If food markets become more diverse, opportunities will exist to improve farmer incomes. Two-thirds of poor working adults make a living through agriculture, and rural incomes across the world are already less than 70 per cent of urban incomes, with the gap is growing.
Fourth, technology will make many of these changes faster and cheaper, but we cannot rely on technology alone, change will depend on everyone. We have learned through Covid-19 that the food system is vulnerable, and is as essential as the health system for us all. There is new recognition of the importance of everyone involved from farm to check-out counter.
Farmers are essential producers, and putting them at the centre of rebuilding the global food system is not just a practical requirement, it is also the right thing to do. We need their knowledge, love of the land, and entrepreneurship to make any food system changes work.