Fix the system!

Millions of people go to bed hungry every night. With enough food on our planet to feed everyone, this need not be the case. The African scientist Jemimah Njuki explains how this could be changed and why women have an important role to play.

Jemimah Njuki
Illustrationen: Florian Bayer

In September this year, the world will meet for the first UN Food Systems Summit. And one of the things this gathering will show is that our food system is broken and needs to be fixed! Unequal, unsustainable, and unable to feed the world – that sums up the current state of our food systems pretty well. The Summit is expected to come up with solutions and commitments to ensure that we can deliver healthy diets and adequate livelihoods for all.

At the moment this is not the case. As a matter of fact, we are living in a parallel world where too many remain hungry while a growing number of people are suffering from obesity. Two billion people, or close to 26 per cent of the global population, experienced hunger or did not have nutritious and sufficient food regularly in 2019; 690 million people are undernourished. And while in absolute numbers most of these were in Asia, Africa is projected to have the largest proportion of undernourished people in 2030. At the same time, the world continues to lose or waste about a third of all food between the farm and the plate.



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Give power to women

There are many reasons for this broken system. Gender inequality is one of them. Women have a 13 per cent higher chance of suffering from moderate or severe food insecurity than men. Another key challenge is access to a healthy diet that provides adequate calories and nutrients and includes diverse foods from several different food groups. Such diets cost, on average, five times more than food that simply provides enough calories. Also, nutrient-rich diets are generally less available and affordable. In Africa, 965 million out of 1.35 billion people cannot afford to eat healthily.

Ironically, those who produce our food are among the hungriest. There are 500 million smallholder farms worldwide. They produce about 80 per cent of the food consumed in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa; women comprise 43 per cent of the agricultural labour force on these farms. Despite their important contributions, smallholders and farm workers often suffer from malnutrition and have no access to healthy diets. They literally go hungry next to the field.

Illustration: Ernährung

There are also concerns about the growing inequities within the global food system. Smallholder cocoa farmers in Côte d’Ivoire, for instance, are poorer now than they were in the 1970s or 1980s despite the fact that the chocolate industry is worth more than USD 40 billion a year. Smallholder farmers only capture about six per cent of the turnover of the industry, even though they produce a large proportion of the yields.

Harmful to the climate

The current food system also adversely affects the environment and the climate. As a matter of fact, agriculture generates between 10 and 14 per cent of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that the social costs of emissions associated with current dietary patterns will exceed a staggering USD 1.7 trillion per year by 2030.

‘Ironically, those who produce our food are among the hungriest.’

But that’s not all: this shattered system has had to cope with the additional burden of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has caused shocks to both the supply and the demand side throughout the world. On the supply side, disruption to food and input supplies between and within countries, the closure of markets and shortages of labour are reducing access to food. On the demand side, the loss of jobs and increased domestic care work (like home schooling), particularly for women, are reducing peoples’ purchasing power.

So, we are facing a severe crisis that has been worsened but not caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. This makes it all the more urgent to remedy the situation. But what will help? What really needs to be done to end hunger and other forms of malnutrition in the world, while transforming the system to provide all people with affordable and healthy diets in a sustainable way?

Ensure a minimum

A report entitled ‘Ceres2030’ shows that changes in agriculture will only work if some basic minimums are ensured: producers need to have at least a minimum level of income and education; they need access to networks and resources such as extension services and robust infrastructure including improved markets and roads.

Against this background, it makes more sense to engage in multiple actions rather than single interventions aimed at individual objectives. That means, for example, improving farmers’ livelihoods by promoting crops that are both in demand and climate- and pest-resistant, while facilitating their access to markets. In Kenya, for instance, there is increasing demand for sorghum, not least on the part of the brewing industry. Sorghum is higher in nutrients than maize and also climate-resistant. Nonetheless, it is not widely grown in the country.

Illustration: Ernährung

Evidence also shows that membership in farmers’ organisations leads to higher income. A comparison of data from 24 countries, mostly in Africa, indicates that membership of such organisations was associated with positive effects on income in 57 per cent of the cases reviewed. These interventions must, however, be accompanied by important services such as extension services that meet the needs and priorities of different types of farmers, including women. They should also include market analyses such as price information, and weather forecasts – activities that help to manage production risks. Very importantly, these services must be economically viable for farmers.

The changes and investments we need to make in the food system have to go beyond the farm and across multiple value chains. According to an FAO-commissioned study, around one third or 1.3 billion tonnes of food produced for human consumption are lost or wasted globally each year. There is evidence that better storage, such as the use of airtight bags and containers, can effectively reduce post-harvest losses for cereals and pulses. Other technologies are effective at reducing losses of fruits and vegetables including local processing, better handling practices, improved packaging, more careful timing of the harvest, and cold storage.

‘Technological improvements must go hand in hand with the development of local food systems.’

Using plastic crates, liners for containers, and smaller containers for the packaging and transportation of tomatoes, guavas and cabbages can reduce damage by 30 to 60 per cent as studies have shown. Technological improvements must go hand in hand with the development of local food systems that shorten the distance between producers and consumers by, for instance, building markets and processing factories close to where food is produced.

Social transfers to the rural poor

Social protection policies are also central because they help to increase the purchasing power of vulnerable populations. This way they can better afford to buy healthy foods instead of consuming nutrition-poor diets. Social safety nets in the form of cash transfers, food stamps, or vouchers for people affected by hunger are examples that go in that direction.

In the Global South, small and medium-sized enterprises are very common and play a critical role in the food system. Although they have mistakenly been referred to as the ‘missing middle’ in developing countries, they are in fact very much present, active and dynamic in the food-producing industry. And they have an even greater potential: millions of them are needed in transportation or processing, and they can promote inclusion of the rural poor.

In Africa and South Asia, midstream activities already represent a substantial portion of the agri-food sector, ranging from 25 per cent of the GDP in countries like Rwanda to 60 per cent in middle-income countries like Egypt and Indonesia. In Africa, up to 64 per cent of domestic food supplies are handled primarily by small and medium-sized enterprises.

Additionally, gender and equity matter for the way we feed the world – first as a human rights issue because women deserve the same access to nutrition as men. And secondly, because the system can only be fixed if women’s role in agriculture is strengthened. If women have equal rights, they can boost production significantly. The future must be just and equitable.

Communities, households and individual men and women must be enabled to produce enough food for their own populations using environmentally sound processes, while also being able to participate in local, regional and global food trading systems. Trade agreements such as the new African Continental Free Trade Area agreement include a gender objective that recognises the full, equal and meaningful participation of women in an integrated continental market. That is very encouraging for the fight against hunger.

Illustration: Ernährung

Equal pay and access to financial services

It is critical to guarantee land rights to women and transform finance systems (beyond microcredit) so that that they serve female smallholder farmers, owners of small businesses and other women actors in the food system. For women workers in the food industry, it will require gender standards that include workplace dignity and equal pay (with monitoring and accountability mechanisms) – whether it be large farms, food factories or the service industry. In the United States for instance, women working in food processing made 74 cents to the dollar compared to men in 2019. And the situation is similar in most countries. That is not only unfair but also counterproductive.

There are inherent power dynamics in the food system, especially between global players and local producers, that must be addressed so that more of the added value goes to the producers who are doing the most work in keeping the world fed. This should be done by ensuring fair prices for smallholder farmers and open and transparent trade regimes between countries and actors in the market system.

Consumers also have a big role to play in ensuring healthy populations. It is important to recognise that national food systems in low- and middle-income countries are transforming rapidly from traditional to modern. That holds true for most African countries for instance. In this transition, nutrition education and campaigns on healthy diets are a critical part of ensuring that populations stay healthy. A good example is the ‘we are what we eat’ campaign in Tanzania that reaches out to the population through different communication channels. Equally important is the role of dietary guidelines. With the support of CGIAR’s Agriculture for Nutrition and Health programme, Ethiopia has now developed its first-ever food-based dietary guidelines. They provide concrete recommendations on types of foods and food groups to be eaten regularly to promote health and prevent chronic diseases.

Investing more money

And last but not least, the fight against hunger needs more investment. The ‘Ceres2030’ report recommends an additional USD 14 billion per year on average to end hunger by 2030 and double incomes of small-scale producers in low- and middle-income countries. That seems a reasonable sum compared to the trillions of dollars profit the industry makes year by year.

‘The good news is that change is possible. We have the means and the know-how to alter the dysfunctional food system we have now.’

It is more than obvious that the present way of producing and consuming food serves neither the global population nor the environment. It must change. The good news is that change is possible. We have the means and the know-how to alter the dysfunctional food system we have now. Let’s tackle it! Let’s seize the moment! The first half of the 21st century should be the one that ends hunger and malnutrition once and for all, because it is the greatest avoidable scandal of our times. The Food Summit in September offers the perfect opportunity to really get going.

published in akzente 1/21

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