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Towards a more sustainable, just and inclusive food systems

Florence Badaaza has initiated the Rural Farmers market in Kangulumira, Uganda, where farmers can sell their produce two mornings a week. Photo: Maria Larsson

Food systems need to be changed dramatically so they may deliver available, accessible, adequate, and nutritious food for all in a sustainable manner. How to do that and why is it dealt with in the IFAD Rural Development Report 2021. Obviously, small-scale farmers play an important role in making rural livelihoods prosperous.

The report was launched in September 2021 in a very critical situation where the covid-19 pandemic had had devastating effects on income losses and food prices throughout the world. But when IFAD, SIANI and Sida carried out a seminar on the report’s recommendations in March 2022, the situation had worsened with Russia starting a war against its neighbour Ukraine. Both countries are important in feeding the world. Russia and Ukraine are both major exporters of wheat. Russia is the main exporter of fertilisers and Ukraine of sunflower, among others. According to the FAO director-general, even with the mildest effects of the war, prices of grain and oilseeds are expected to rise by 10 percent. In Egypt, food prices are already escalating, where 85 per cent of the wheat and 73 per cent of the sunflower oil come from Russia and Ukraine.

Food systems should be fair, green and sustainable

Food systems include the production, processing, retailing and delivery of food as well as consumer dietary preferences and disposal of what remains of food consumed and produced. Today, the food systems are unfair. Those who feed us go hungry or do not make a decent living. Secondly, the food systems are inadequate with a tremendous increase in production but the triple burden of nutrition (hunger, obesity and lack of micro-nutrients). Thirdly, they are inefficient and contribute to 37 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions, and, for instance, have a high biodiversity environmental footprint.

Romina Cavatassi, Lead Natural Resource Economist in IFAD, claimed that IFAD works towards diversified livelihoods based on productive farming and off-farm enterprise and jobs and with a safety net of social protection. A systematic change is needed to achieve rural prosperity and include empowered rural people, inclusive markets, and catalytic governance.

Indigenous people in Kasepuhan Karang, Indonesia, grow several local varieties of rice with bananas, beans and other crops. The idea is to combine farming with eco tourism. Photo: Maria Larsson

Small farms diversify more than big ones

Rural small-scale farmers produce about a third of the world’s food on less than 11 per cent of the land at the same time as they are experiencing hunger and poverty. They are the key to rural prosperity and the focus of IFAD.

3.2 billion people live in rural areas of low- and middle-income countries. More than 500 million people work less than two hectares of land. It is impossible to keep dividing the land with each new generation and still assume that farming can offer a decent living. More so, as prices for produce are low, environmental conditions are deteriorating, productivity is low, and the market access is poor.

However, small-scale farmers diversify. They shift rapidly towards nutrient-dense and diversified food crops and ask for advisory (weather, market, financial) and adaptation services (precision). But they also diversify into labouring on other farms, operating different kinds of small and medium enterprises, taking up salaried employment or receiving money from migrated family members.


Synergies and trade-offs to consider

Panelist Carl-Johan Lagerkvist, Head of Department of Economics, SLU, lifted a figure combining aims and policies in the report.

One of the challenges is the goal conflict between open trade and local food production, he said.

Small-scale farmers are seldom active in the international market. But you could regard local food processing as an engine. Then, a higher value of the production will be offered to the local consumers.

Romina Cavatassi reassured him that economy is driving all other goals. Trade in the model is minimised more than in the real world. The supply chain is important, but most of the profit is lost between the farm gate and the consumer. IFAD has tried to connect farmers with the market to reduce the loss. In a successful fish project in Indonesia, the fishers were better equipped with cooling techniques and access the micro-market with their mobile phones.

We all need to change to reach the goals

Panelist Jens Berggren, Sustainability Expert, LRF, feared that the report would demand the farmers to do the transformation. Instead, we ought to ask how we as a society could address the problems with climate change, planetary boundaries, soil erosion, biodiversity loss, etc. In the next step, we could ask the farmers how they could contribute.

The report’s purpose is to make the small scale farmers get a livelihood from agriculture. It is not to give them the responsibility of transforming the food systems. To achieve this, consumers have an important role. They must shift to a healthier and more diverse diet on sustainably produced food.

Agricultural production must feed a growing population

More than 800 million people are hungry and 2.4 billion are food insecure. The increased food prices due to the war in Ukraine may throw another 7,6 million people into malnutrition. The global food security situation does not look bright. Yet, agricultural production must increase by 20–30 per cent by 2050 to feed a growing population.

To enhance a world without hunger in 2050 large-scale policy reform coordinated across countries is needed, designed for politically feasible, economically fair and socially just transition.

Reporting by Maria Larsson, Freelance Journalist.