IN recent years, there has been much discussion on sustainable food systems (SFS).
What does this mean?
Our world is made up of countless essential inter-dependent elements — viz sunlight, oxygen (CO2), water and soil.
They are part of the many mutually dependent components required for a sustainable, secure food system.
In a sustainable food system, these elements operate in a state of balance, without causing further damage to the environment, impact on society and the long-term food supplies (food security).
Food security is generally defined by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) as “…when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their daily dietary needs for an active, healthy life.”
Given the rising levels of global food insecurity, including in Zimbabwe where currently over 1,8 million people are estimated to be dependent on food aid and 34 percent are considered ‘chronically malnourished’.
This makes sustainable food security an imperative for Zimbabwe.
Sustainability in agro-food production is the production of ample nourishing, healthy foods that takes into consideration the care, along the food chain, of the earth, the environment and all living life forms.
This includes the minimised use of non-renewable resources and harmful inputs such as pest chemicals and synthetic fertilisers.
Sustainable agriculture builds on human and social capital while working with local farmers’ indigenous knowledge in order to improve self-reliance.
In a sustainable food system, these elements operate in a state of balance.
Some strategies for sustainable agriculture include conservation farming, organic farming and permaculture.
Currently, many aspects within our food system are under considerable stress. Food production, on the whole, faces increasing risks from climate change.
Habitat conversion and poor production practices are causing loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services.
Soil erosion and loss of soil fertility undermine crop yields. Overfishing threatens fish stocks while food is wasted across all stages of the value chain.
All these and other issues threaten not just the future of food production, but also the prospects of the farmers, especially poor rural farmers, communities and workers whose livelihoods depend on the food system.
Even today, farmers and communities all over the world face a constant struggle to make ends meet.
If we are to prevent a global environmental breakdown, end hunger and food insecurity as well as create a better future for people, especially those whose livelihoods depend on food production; we need to transform the global food system urgently.
This was discussed during a milestone occasion – the UN Food Systems Summit that was held recently (2020), where it was agreed that: “…to build a sustainable food system, we need to address everything from production practices to consumption patterns”.
At the same time, it was agreed that instead of a food system that traps millions in poverty, we need one that empowers people to achieve a better standard of living.
To build a sustainable food system, everything from production practices to consumption patterns need to be addressed and we need to work towards a food system that delivers food security and nutrition for all without jeopardising its ability to do so in the future.
In addition, participants deliberating at the UN Food Systems Summit agreed that the critical issue of inequality also needs to be addressed.
Fostering more sustainable food systems requires the reappraisal of the disparity and imbalances that occur at all levels of a food chain.
It was further agreed that lack of infrastructure and resources, economic pressures and the marginalisation of vulnerable communities all limit the opportunities for positive change.
Two fundamental principles needed to build a sustainable food system were brought to the fore at the UN Food Systems Summit – namely accountability and inclusivity.
Accountability means that all stakeholders within the food system must take responsibility for their role and work to improve the way food is produced, transported and consumed.
Inclusivity means that everyone within the system should have a voice and opportunity to participate in making positive and long-lasting changes in the face of global warming and rising hunger.
When tackling poverty, the concept of a living income – ensuring that farmers receive adequate returns for their crops to provide for a decent standard of living for every member of their household — was one potentially transformative approach recommended at the Summit.
A living income provides a clear, measurable and consistent target and enables farmers to improve yields and profitability, offers access to financial services, develops additional sources of income and affords basic services such as water, healthcare and education.
Although fixing the food system may appear a broad and difficult process, by looking at what constitutes a living income for rural smallholder farmers in a region and at what they presently earn, (particularly in Zimbabwe where they constitute over 75 percent of the population), it is possible to get a better idea of what action needs to be taken to address that gap.
Understanding what constitutes a living income can also help to determine what a fair price is for a particular article of trade.
Inclusivity and accountability are at the heart of achieving living incomes.
It is essential, therefore, that all voices, beginning with the farmer and across the value chain, are heard and considered in order to address the root causes of poverty more systemically, and to target interventions that meet with the needs of different groups and types of farmers in different regions before we can address the issues of sustainability in agro-food production and food security in the face of climate change in Zimbabwe.
But almost three year later, is the UN Food Systems Summit in danger of being all talk and no action?
Are the food system transformations plans, like so many others, destined to remain on paper or can they be brought to life?
Dr Michelina Andreucci is a Zimbabwean-Italian researcher, industrial design consultant and is a published author in her field. For comments e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org”