Food systems at the limit


The Covid-19 pandemic has ruthlessly exposed the deficiencies of the global food system, and a massive and growing food crisis is now looming. A quarter of humanity does not have secure access to food, with one in ten severely food insecure and up to 811 million hungry. Another quarter of the world’s population suffers from various forms of malnutrition, including obesity, with enormous negative effects on health.

Both trends are on the rise and both are directly linked to injustice and poverty. No matter how much food is produced in the world, failure to address power imbalances in the global food system will mean that hunger will persist and foodborne illnesses will explode.

Many hope that the United Nations Food Systems Summit in September will be the catalyst for real change. But the rally is more likely to legitimize and cement the current inequitable model of industrialized food production.

That would be bad news for the world’s hungry people, the majority of whom – 418 million – live in Asia. Over 282 million people live in Africa, where chronic hunger affects one in five people and is increasing faster than in any other region.

Hunger is above all a problem of accessibility. People go hungry not because there is not enough food in the world, but because they are poor. Without injustice and inequality, the record world wheat production in 2020-2021 could in theory feed up to 14 billion people. But agricultural products go to those with the greatest ability to pay, including the feed industry and the renewable energy sector, not the most vulnerable. Market power trumps food sovereignty.

Violent conflicts, extreme weather conditions due to climate change, loss of biodiversity and economic turmoil caused by Covid-19 lockdowns have worsened the situation for vulnerable people. And water is becoming increasingly scarce for small farmers when larger investors use it in intensive irrigation projects.

All of these crises limit the ability of the poorest to buy food or produce enough to be self-sufficient. As a result, 155 million people in 55 countries suffered from severe hunger in 2020, an increase of 20 million from 2019.

Since the Green Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s, we’ve heard over and over again that increasing agricultural productivity is the key to fighting hunger and feeding the world’s people. Today, global companies like Corteva (formerly the farming unit of DowDuPont), Bayer / Monsanto and ChemChina / Syngenta are promoting productivity through the use of chemical pesticides, artificial fertilizers and genetically modified or cultivated hybrid seeds. commercially that cannot be reproduced. But such capital-intensive agriculture cannot serve those who lack the basics of secure food production: land, water and regionally rooted knowledge systems.

Meanwhile, nearly two billion people around the world are now overweight or obese. Of particular concern is Mexico, where about 73 percent of the population is overweight. If current dietary habits persist, 45 percent of the world’s population could be overweight by 2050. This will cause health care costs to explode, with diet-related health costs linked to mortality and illness. noncommunicable diseases that are expected to exceed $ 1.3 trillion per year by 2030.

Again, powerful economic interests are fueling this trend. The food and beverage industry benefits greatly from the sale of unhealthy processed foods and sugary drinks. After all, fats, sugar, and carbohydrates mixed with a lot of salt are the cheapest calories. In 2019, the world’s five largest food companies, Nestlé, PepsiCo, Anheuser-Busch InBev, JBS and Tyson Foods, achieved combined sales of $ 262.7 billion.

Healthy diets are much more expensive, so obesity is often the result of the poor purchasing power of the poorest populations. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimated that a sufficient calorie diet cost $ 0.79 per day in 2017, while a sufficiently nutritious diet cost $ 2.33 per day and a healthy diet cost $ 3.75, making it unaffordable for over three billion people.

Scientists around the world have proposed future food systems that protect the health of humans and the environment. The EAT-Lancet Commission, for example, has shown that it is possible to provide healthy food to ten billion people by 2050 without destroying the planet. The panel advises doubling the consumption of fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes, and reducing the consumption of red meat and sugar by more than 50 percent.

What is missing are political leaders who understand the urgency of the food system crisis and initiate the necessary transformations. In doing so, they should oppose powerful economic interests and focus on the needs of the most vulnerable.

The pandemic has accelerated demands for a more resilient and diverse model of agriculture and food production. Local initiatives based on community decisions and open source ideas can help develop local food systems free from corporate grip, such as community kitchens, nutrition centers, and urban agriculture initiatives. About 300 urban farms influenced food choices in Johannesburg, South Africa in 2020.

Sadly, the upcoming United Nations Food Systems Summit looks set to anchor the status quo. The agenda leaves little room for critical structural issues rooted in power imbalances and political economy. And the industrial agriculture lobby may well seek to dilute discussions on important scientific topics on the agenda, including access to locally adapted seeds, the consequences of highly hazardous pesticides and the regulation of land and water. .

What we need is a People’s Food Systems Summit that aims to end hunger and malnutrition, protect ecosystems and provide small farmers with decent livelihoods. Those most affected by the negative consequences of our current food systems should play a vital role in the discussion about how to transform them.

—Project union

About Sharon Joseph

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