Three Keys to Healthy Food Systems in both the United States and the Developing World

From foodtank.com, by Marissa Sherman
Three Keys to Healthy Food Systems in both the United States and the Developing World

In January, EcoAgriculture Partners had the pleasure of attending the first annual Food Tank Summit at The George Washington University. EcoAgriculture Partners livetweeted the two days of discussion centered on a collection of major agricultural issues and challenges to our modern food system.

During the opening panel of the Food Tank Summit on January 21st, Thomas Forster, a Fellow with EcoAgriculture Partners and a professor of food policy and governance at The New School in New York City, began the discussion of two major themes of the Summit: the need to "shift away from fossil fuel-based food systems" and that all food stakeholders and groups need to work together in order to create a better food system.

Among the expert panel discussions and keynote speeches that followed, one thing stood out: the keys to a sustainable food system are critical to sustainable development in general. Increasing workers' rights and women’s empowerment, shifting to sustainable consumption and production systems, and making healthier food easily accessible to women and children are all goals of developed world food system revolutions and development programs in the Global South. Each one of these issues needs critical attention here in the United States, where EcoAgriculture Partners is based, and in the dozens of places we work around the world.

Recognize Workers in the Food System

Danielle Nierenberg, President of Food Tank, started off a panel discussion on agricultural workers' rights by stating, “We all need to have rising expectations for a real food movement; for the farmers, the land, and food workers.” Jose Oliva from the Food Chain Workers Alliance pointed out that, “People think about food in terms of health, the environment and accessibility; but there is no labor aspect in the conversation.” Barbara Ekwall from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) emphasized that internationally, family farmers are vital, “yet they do not have a voice and do not reap the benefits of their hard work.”

The landscape approach that EcoAgriculture Partners promotes puts people at its center, so that farmers help plan agricultural development as well as conservation projects. This ensures that these projects prioritize fair wages, healthy working conditions, and improved livelihoods for farmers, which we know leads to more, better, healthier food. Involving farmers and agricultural workers directly in the “food movement” in developing countries ensures the sustainable use of natural resources, since farmers and food workers are inclined to plan with their children and grandchildren in mind.

There is more to do to bring the workers’ rights and food movements together, but one powerful way to begin is to make sure farmers and food workers have seats at the negotiating table when agricultural development projects are being planned. In those moments, the actors in the two movements are one in the same.

Consider “Non-Food” Factors and Global Initiatives

As Jahi Chappell of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy said, “over the last 40 years, 80 percent of the reduction of hunger was from non-production factors, like education, equality, and access.” This makes it all the more important to invest in women’s empowerment, worker’s rights, farmer education, and inclusive governance.

Many speakers and panelists specifically urged that women’s empowerment should be a more pressing issue in the food movement. Laurie Benson of 1% for Women reminded the Summit’s audience that if women farmers had the same access to resources, land, and capital as their male counterparts, total worldwide yields could grow by 30 percent. "We will not have sustainable and resilient food systems unless we invest in women farmers,” chimed Nabeeha Kazi of Humanitas Global. Kedar Mankad of ONE Campaign reminded, “With empowerment and education initiatives for women, there has been a 55 percent reduction in hunger over the last 15 years.”

Mankad also stressed that “international agreements are critical to ensure action is taken on food security.” Mankad emphasized that ONE Campaign is dedicating 2015 to making sure the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) include agriculture and food security high on the agenda. Forster, who has worked closely on United Nations food and environment negotiations for decades, noted that the language in the SDGs is much more integrated and holistic than in the Millenium Development Goals. Critically, he added, the SDGs will be universal, applying to both developed and developing countries.

Mankad also remarked that the U.N.'s International Year of Soils is a great opportunity to look at healing the land. Large-scale restoration commitments like Initiative 20x20  in Latin America can have powerful impacts on the food system, but only if they are implemented with the voices of farmers, food workers, healthcare workers, teachers, mothers, fathers, and other grassroots stakeholders at the table. Fortunately, as Thomas Forster pointed out, “the really good news for us is that food is a silo buster.”

Get Businesses on Board

At the summit, many advocated for business involvement in the sustainable food movement through sustainable sourcing initiatives. John Buchanan of Conservation International encouraged consumers to look for certifications that companies engage in sustainable sourcing. Buchanan stressed that sustainable sourcing is good for both consumers and businesses. For businesses, it provides security to their supply chain, which minimizes costs.

Jessica Rosen from Forum for the Future stated that, “responding to consumer and NGO demands, there is a strong business case to strategically plan for the future by investing in sustainable landscapes.” Rosen said  that the sustainable food movement should work with large businesses because companies can provide the proper support to create tangible solutions.

“I want to plug the Landscapes for People, Food and Nature Initiative for showing how integrated approaches can work,” Buchanan noted. The integrated landscape management (ILM) approach that the Landscapes for People, Food, and Nature Initiative promotes involves long-term collaboration among different groups of land managers and stakeholders, including businesses,  for better local livelihoods and improved health and well-being. As David Aylward from Ashoka stated, “If we just make it about food, we lose. If we just think about the environment, we lose. We need to think about it all together.”