Who IMPORTED my cheese?
A call by the U.N. Secretary General for a global food systems summit has raised both hopes and concerns among different actors. This blog highlights the structure of current food systems and their influence on rural livelihoods, public health, and food security.
HAMATI, Kamil. Who IMPORTED my cheese? Expert-ISE.ch, 2021
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Who imported my cheese?
On World Food Day 2019, the United Nations Secretary-General (UNSG) called for the convening of the UN’s “Food Systems Summit” (FSS) in fall of 2021. Adopting a systems- thinking approach to the 2030 Agenda, this call subtly recognizes the importance of dismantling our existing food system in order to achieve the 2030 Agenda and, particularly, to eliminate hunger and malnutrition while also fighting climate change.
But first, what is a food system, what is it supposed to do, and why does ours need changing?
A system, by definition, is a group of interconnected items (or activities, in this context) that work together to form a functioning whole. If we apply this basic thinking to our food system, we quickly identify several items – including other systems – that ensure its functioning, namely: seeds, soil, water, climate, harvesting, storage, processing, packaging, labeling, transport, marketing, retail, and consumption, to name the obvious few. So, in other terms, the food system is made of three overarching components, all of which are crucial in defining and influencing food security :
• the supply chain, which includes activities that drive food from production to consumption, and which influence which food is available and accessible, and the way it is produced and consumed ;
• the food environment, encompassing the physical, economic, political, and socio- cultural context considered as “food entry points” for consumers ; and
• customer behavior, reflecting the way consumers choose and use food, which is largely influenced by marketing strategies in the food environment, on top of personal preferences.
Food security is ensured when “all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life”. This lays out four dimensions to understanding and achieving food security :
1- Availability: the physical presence of healthy, nutritious, and sufficient food to cover the dietary needs of people as well as their food preferences (cultural, religious, taste, and other preferences) ;
2- Access: the ability to acquire food both physically and economically without challenges or obstacles which may be caused by poverty, conflict, or poor infrastructure, for example ;
3- Utilization: considering that food is adequately and sufficiently available, and that it is accessible to everybody, utilization refers to the consumption of food through an adequate diet; which could be affected by the quality of water, sanitation, and health care. For instance, many non-communicable diseases are results of inadequate utilization of food, caused by poor sanitation conditions ;
4- Stability: when the three aforementioned dimensions of availability, access and utilization are sufficiently met, stability is the condition in which the whole system is stable (i.e. stable availability of, access to, and utilization of food), thus ensuring that households are food secure at all times. When stability is not guaranteed, either
because of climatic, economic, social, or political factors, the situation can lead to acute food insecurity (in case instability is short-term, such as the case for disruptions in procurement of food), or to chronic food insecurity (when instability is medium to long-term, such as the case of wars for instance).
These four dimensions are inherently entangled with the components of the food system, which creates a strong synergy between food systems and food security. In theory, properly functioning food systems are supposed to ensure universal food security, which, in reality, is not the case.
In 2018, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimated that around one in four people, globally, suffers from moderate or severe food insecurity – or 26%
of the world’s population, to be more accurate. Achieving food security is intrinsically multiscale; if individuals are not food secure, neither are households, and if households are not food secure, countries cannot be considered food secure, and this culminates in food insecurity at the global level.
People often think of food insecurity as an equivalent of hunger, but in reality, there’s more to it than that. Increased availability of processed foods and shifts in people’s dietary preferences (also known as the westernization of diets) have led to increases in the prevalence of obesity and of micronutrient deficiencies. Therefore, having access to available food is not enough to curb nutrition-related diseases; the accessible food has to be nutritious as well. In this sense, food security also includes nutrition security. This triple burden of malnutrition, where obesity, micronutrient deficiencies, and undernourishment, exist together, poses a tripartite challenge to our food system.
Our food system is a major culprit in greenhouse gas emissions and therefore a main driver of climate change, which, consequently, exacerbates pressure on the planet’s natural resources and jeopardizes people’s livelihoods. However, to respond to increasing demand for food, our food system’s strategy was to produce more, either by converting natural ecosystems for crop production, and therefore accelerating biodiversity loss; or by intensifying agricultural production by relying heavily on fertilizers, pesticides, energy, land, and water. This second strategy has contributed significantly to degrading soils, which consequently decreased the productive capacity of lands, and, in turn, led to higher needs for intensification of agriculture.
For instance, Chinese protein imports are projected to rise 3500% by 2050 to answer to an increasing demand for meat-based proteins, as a result of increasing income and a growing middle class in the country. Such a change in diets, and hence in demand, has the ability to alter the global food landscape as well as the public health profile of the Chinese population.
In Africa on the other hand, particularly south of the Sahara, rapid urbanization and higher incomes have been associated with a higher demand for processed foods on one hand, and with a higher prevalence of overweight and obesity on the other, all while around 250 million Africans still suffer from hunger.
This entangled series of vicious feedback loops is the result of a production-centric food system that treats food as a commodity rather than a human right and seeks to produce more at the lowest cost, even if this meant maximizing profit at the detriment of rural livelihoods
and finite natural resources. Behind the food system and its profit-oriented business model, stand large agri-food corporations, which are expanding further through mergers and are thus becoming “too big to feed humanity sustainably, too big to operate on equitable terms with other food system actors, and too big to drive the types of innovation we need” (IPES-Food, 2017).
Therefore, the call for the Food Systems Summit by the UNSG gave a glimpse of hope for a much-needed overhauling of the food system. But following reports of involvement of mega- philanthropic societies in the initial organization of the summit, many concerns were quickly raised by human rights groups and farmer-led social movements over fears of the summit being biased in favor of the private sector and high-tech intensive farming. The UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food as well as other experts and UN officials shared the same concerns and highlighted a significant market-based approach, rather than a human rights- based approach, in the summit’s analysis of the problems and suggestion of solutions.
But what can I do? Why are you telling me this, instead of leading an advocacy campaign?
While you sip on your French wine and you feast on Australian beef tenderloin, German potato and Chinese garlic, sautéed in Tunisian olive oil with a side of Moroccan tomatoes and Italian cheese, all of this talk about changing global systems and promoting human rights may seem very far from your reach, but you mustn’t forget a crucial detail, even though decision- makers – whether agri-food business owners or politicians – stand on one end of the food system, we, the consumers, represent the other end.
You therefore have an important role to play in favoring local produce, encouraging smallholder family farms, choosing plant-based diets, minimizing your amount of food waste, and picking healthy and un-processed foods.
Globally, agriculture is estimated to employ around 1.1 billion people who often work long hours in hazardous and precarious conditions with no written contracts and little to no social protection. Their work becomes even harder, and oftentimes obsolete, when they are overshadowed by global corporations and industrial farms. Encouraging smallholder family farms and locally grown foods not only contributes to the livelihoods of farmers, but also curbs the greenhouse gas emissions and the environmental degradation that result from intensified agriculture and transportation.
I leave you with these suggestions before you indulge in your Swiss chocolate, sprinkled with Ivorian cocoa powder and flavored with Madagascan vanilla and Sri Lankan cinnamon, as the world looks in awe at your dinner table that, alone, has probably caused more environmental damage than the car you drive to the meetings where you preach about the fight that you’re leading against climate change.
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