During the UN Food Systems Summit, taking place in September 2021, the global community will discuss how we will transform our food systems, which “encompass the entire range of actors and their interlinked value-adding activities involved in the production, aggregation, processing, distribution, consumption and disposal of food products that originate from agriculture, forestry or fisheries, and parts of the broader economic, societal and natural environments in which they are embedded”, as defined by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).
Today our food systems do not work for us. They use far too many resources, spilling beyond the planetary boundaries while leaving millions of people hungry. And the COVID-19 pandemic, with its disruption of mobility and social interaction, is predicted to increase the hunger statistics even further.
Evidence-based policymaking and social inclusion, the impact of the COVID-19, as well as how organizations and individual citizens can take action to contribute to sustainable food systems, were the focus of the first session at the SIANI Annual Meeting 2021, held on January 27.
Research base for food systems
The role of scientific research and evidence in achieving sustainable food systems is crucial. Magnus Jirström, Professor of Human Geography at Lund University, presented findings from a project about food environments in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and food and nutrition security therein.
Jirstöm’s research team found that amongst those surveyed as part of their study, all persons or families depended on neighbourhood food environments, meaning that what is available in local stores and markets, shapes people’s diets. By all means, one might say that this is obvious. However, this research provides clear evidence and data showing that food in local stores and food retailers can in many ways define healthy and unhealthy food choices. These insights can be a step in the right direction toward counteracting malnutrition and obesity by informing food distribution and by making healthy food choices easier for all.
Listening to the voices of the unheard
Judy Matu, National Chairlady of the Association of Women in Agriculture Kenya (AWAK), works with women living in informal settlements in Nairobi and Mombasa. Here, maintaining social distancing and washing your hands frequently can be impossible. Additionally, mobility restrictions, introduced as a measure to counteract COVID-19, have disrupted livelihood activities of the inhabitants of these informal settlements as most of them are employed in sectors where working from home is not an option. Judy Matu and AWAK have helped women to create kitchen gardens and food processing initiatives that allow them to feed their families and generate income through sales of their produce.
Next, the session took us to rainforests, where Nonette Royo, Executive Director of The Tenure Facility, works with indigenous communities. The Tenure Facility helps indigenous and local communities to access funding and legal support in order to secure their rights to forest land.
Nonette Royo described how these indigenous communities have used ingenious methods to make facemasks and hand-sanitiser, as well as to stay food secure during the pandemic, relying on traditional knowledge of forests and sustainable forest management. Indigenous peoples have been successful in integrating agricultural production and nature conservation for millennia. Thus, they can offer valuable lessons for food systems’ transformation.
Muteti Francisca Ndinda, Agripreneur and Co-owner of Hallmark-Bio Enterprises, told the audience how her social enterprise works with people living in refugee camps, providing training in mushroom farming (with a pivot toward wine production now during the pandemic as bars are closed).
Additionally, Hidayat Greenfield, Regional Secretary for Asia-Pacific of the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tourism, Tobacco and Allied Workers’ Associations (IUF), brought to light the plight of informal and migrant farmworkers. These marginalized communities are rarely represented in agricultural policy discussions, yet do most of the agricultural work and are severely underpaid. Without tending to their realities and encouraging structural support for their empowered representation, socially just food systems cannot become a reality.
Taking action: bottom-up and top-down
We can all play a part in achieving sustainable food systems. Essentially, we must ask ourselves, ‘What can I or my organisation do to make our food systems more inclusive and sustainable?’. Interactively, the event participants discussed this question in breakout groups. This pie chart presents a summary of their responses.
Some of the actionable solutions suggested, included ‘training rural women and youth’, ‘empowering local and indigenous communities’, ‘engaging in community education’, and ‘implementing community gardens’.
However, achieving a paradigm shift in food systems cannot only rely on bottom-up initiatives, change also needs to be supported by governments and international organizations. Esse Nilsson, Senior Policy Advisor for Rural Development and Food Security at the Swedish International Development Agency (Sida), emphasized that development agencies like Sida have to be braver in their discussions about food systems development. They need to show courage and discuss flawed power dynamics. They need to protect the right to food, as well as the rights of farmworkers.
Achieving more inclusive and sustainable food systems is not going to be easy. The COVID-19 pandemic has deepened inequalities within food systems and made them even more pronounced. The global community is in dire need of change at all stages of the food system and needs to consider the needs of all the stakeholders involved. As so, we must all play a role, we must all step up and be brave, be it with the fork in our hand or with the next agricultural policy we design.
Read more about the solutions suggested during the meeting.
Reporting by Ebba Engström, Research Associate at the Stockholm Environment Institute, SEI.