Get inspired by India, Malawi and Brazil

Four ways to help improve our global food system

Published June 23, 2016

Caption: Improving food production means taking into account technical development and social issues. The Soils, Food and Healthy Community Project project in Malawi has helped farmers improve soil fertility, boost community cooperation, reduce dependence on chemicals and reduce child malnutrition. Photo: Soilandfood.org

How initiatives in India, Malawi and Brazil can inspire the world to turn the global food production system into a more sustainable one.

Our food system is broken, says Peter Bakker, CEO of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, in a blog written for the 2016 EAT Stockholm Food Forum. The question is how to fix it. Therein lays both the good news and the bad news. The bad news is that the challenge is enormous; the good news is that the number of initiatives to improve things is increasing. Fast.

The benefits of gender equality

Andhra Pradesh may be mostly known as an Indian pilgrim destination but in a country suffering from severe malnutrition and gender inequalities it can also provide hope for better times to come. About half of all workers in India are employed in agriculture with women occupying a growing role in food production. However, gender inequality still hampers much needed improvements: Access to land, credit and technical support is predominantly in the hands of men, leaving their female colleagues with little influence and scant hope of increased wellbeing.

But things might be about to change: the establishment of all-women farming groups has emerged in an attempt to address gender inequality. These groups provide a counterweight against exploitative contracts and work conditions.

«I have witnessed women’s access to productive resources affecting food availability at the household level and have seen their empowerment transforming the family and then the society.» Birikit Terefe, social entrepreneur and the Executive Director of Women’s Health Association of Ethiopia

With the help from NGOs such as the Deccan Development Society, marginalised women have been able to purchase or lease land that can be used for organic farming and a more diversified crop system. But the benefits do not stop there. Observations from similar all-women farming groups across India reveal improvements in health, diets and education. There has also been reduction in caste or gender discrimination. Pivotal for all the changes has been the empowerment of women.

The experience from India is not unique. Similar experiences can be found elsewhere. Birikit Terefe, a social entrepreneur and the Executive Director of Women’s Health Association of Ethiopia, describes it well in a recently published EAT blog: “I have witnessed women’s access to productive resources affecting food availability at the household level and have seen their empowerment transforming the family and then the society.”

Four strategies for improvement

The example from Andhra Pradesh is referred to in a study recently published in The Journal BioScience. It illustrates how empowerment of vulnerable groups can promote wellbeing and more equitable food systems at larger levels of a society, even a complex one as in India. But the example is also part of an attempt to formulate a vision for a more sustainable global food production system.

The authors of the study call for a food system that is better suited to deal with increasing social, environmental and financial uncertainties. Enter resilience thinking, the capacity of a system, be it an individual, a forest, a city or an economy, to deal with change and continue to develop.

Specifically, the authors argue, there are four strategies that can create a more resilient food system. The first is a food system that better deals with gender and other social inequalities. Do this and you will reap the benefits similar to those seen in India.

The second strategy is to replace chemicals with more of Nature’s own processes. Specifically this means investing more in agroecology to increase productivity. Agroecology is an ecological approach to farming that replaces external chemical input with organic benefits from the many interactions between soil, water, plants and animals. It also takes into account the wider social and economic context of food production.  

A project in Malawi has shown the potential benefits of combining agroecological farming with broader social issues. The project, called The Soils, Food and Healthy Community Project (SFHC) started off as a pilot project where farmers replaced chemical fertilizers with closely planted legumes to improve soil fertility. Researchers mentored the farmers and developed a network that today counts several thousand farmers. The project has also reduced gender inequalities. Male farmers were encouraged to share their farming practices with female colleagues. The end result is a growing network of farmers who have improved soil fertility, community cooperation, reduced dependence on chemicals and reduced child malnutrition.

The third strategy of a more resilient food production system is to close the gap between local and global food sources. Although globalisation provides many benefits it also contributes to a more homogenous, calorie-rich and land-intensive diet. Creating more regional gateways can diversify both diets and agricultural landscapes.

In Belo Horizonte, a Brazilian city of approximately 2,5 million people, specific food programmes have been established to increase the city’s reliance on regional rather than international food sources. Linking urban consumers with regional rural producers has stabilized rural household incomes and slowed down urban migration. Initiatives such as the School Meal Program provides food with at least 30 % coming from family farmers while mobile food outlets are obliged to sell food in low-income areas on the weekends well below market prices in return for access to sell food in more profitable locations during the week. Thanks to several of these innovative food programmes, Belo Horizonte and other cities have witnessed substantial progress in alleviating hunger while also boosting regional economies.

Stronger together, dangerous apart

The fourth and final strategy of a more resilient food system is the sum of the other strategies. It calls for a much better link between food production to human health goals. This means that public health goals should explicitly inform agricultural policies. The case of Belo Horizonte shows how public policy can improve consumer access to a more diverse and culturally relevant diet.

Ultimately, all four strategies demonstrate how integrating several social and ecological aspects can have several benefits at the same time. By contrast, not linking them together can seriously undermine any attempt to build resilience.