Grasping and Fixing food systems

In rural development circles, what used to be a focus on sustainability has now become a focus on food systems, but to me liking food systems is too big a word. When world leaders say that food systems are broken and need to be fixed, I have the feeling I’m not the only one wondering what they mean. Probably a wide array of activities including industrial agriculture, the agrochemical and the food industry, food trade, food waste at all levels, child labour, and finally also consumption by all sorts of different consumers. While I have no doubt that a lot of this needs to be set right to become sustainable, the list encompasses processes that lead to the nearly toxic highly processed foodstuffs just like the organic farms producing local, healthy delicacies. Somehow I find the term not specific enough to address the problem, and fear that everyone is shaping their understanding to their individual comfort zone.

So what is the problem? Let’s start with the land that is the origin of all our food. If we don’t treat the land well, the system cannot be sustainable. And in order to reach sustainable land use, I like to think in terms of advancing towards three global objectives: climate protection, biodiversity and food security. Naturally there are also overlaps with human development objectives, such as more equal access to land and other resources, and better education, but these seem more distributional by nature, and will not inherently lead to the required improvements in land use sustainability.
And now we can come a bit closer to what is actually broke with the food systems, as these three areas that affect land use are all in crises: the climate crisis and the drastic loss of biodiversity are well understood, while the growing challenge to provide adequate food for the growing world population can safely be called a food security crisis, not only since the food systems summit a few week ago. And what’s more, the climate, biodiversity and food security objectives appear to be conflicting around the land issue: the climate-friendly switch to non-fossil energies requires large areas of land for solar panels and biofuels, the conservation of many plant and animal species requires untouched land areas, and the production of healthy food in sufficient quantities also requires lots of land to be farmed at high intensity. It would appear we need to make serious compromises, and that achieving all three objectives at the same time is unrealistic. After all, we don’t have an abundance of land in any country.

And this brings me to the IFAD-supported projects in Brazil and elsewhere, which I find do with some activities miraculously manage to combine to meet the three objectives in spite of the obvious conflicts. Take agroforestry, a concept that corresponds well to the semi-arid environment of Northeast Brazil, where rural poverty is concentrated in the country. The high biodiversity of this production system allows high vegetative coverage of the soil throughout the year, also during the dry season that can last up to eight months, thus maintaining the soil cool. It also accumulates lots of carbon in the form of organic matter in the soil, giving it fertility and a high capacity to store moisture. This in turn provides for a sufficient and well-diversified food supply for the farm family. Now compare this to a field of a single crop such as maize, which by its sheer size can be considered a green desert as it’s a hostile environment that doesn’t allow a butterfly or small mammal to cross, and that leaves the soil bare to dry and bake in the sun after the harvest. Now think of the effects on climate and biodiversity of this maize field and the few people it will feed in Brazil, and the way in which food systems need to be transformed becomes obvious.

Or take the underground dams, where a plastic sheet dug vertically into the soil to hold back the rainwater that would otherwise gather and erode the slight slope on which it’s constructed. It can hold hundreds of cubic meters of water, feed a shallow well from which fields can be irrigated, and also allow the area covered by the underground dam to be cultivated with fruit trees and other crops. A system that can adapt well to rising temperatures and dwindling rainfall as a result of a changing climate. And again: biodiversity, carbon, plant growth and plenty of diversified food for local consumption and sale at the market.

So these small solutions, that seem so sustainable at a local scale, are also the key to the big land issues that our so-called food systems face. They provide small-scale answers to the triple crisis that threatens the way we are using the land globally: the climate crisis, the biodiversity crisis and the food security crisis. It’s so good to see that what can improve a poor rural family’s lot can also be a solution to the big issues of this planet and the people living on it. And eventually a way to fix some part of the global food systems.

Claus Reiner is Country Director & Chief of the Latin America and Caribe International Fund of Agricultural Development (IFAD) Triangular Division and South South Cooperation Knowlegde Center.