Leaving no one behind on World Food Day 2022

This year’s growing season was particularly difficult for farmers around the world. With supply disruptions caused partly by sanctions against Belarus and Russa, synthetic fertilizer prices skyrocketed, doubling their prices at the beginning of the growing season in April and May 2022.

This past summer was also among the hottest years on record, with many parts of the Horn of Africa, Europe, China, and North America experiencing severe droughts, while South Asian countries like Pakistan having devastating floods. These issues, combined with an ongoing pandemic and international tensions, have affected global food security.

But there are still many unanswered questions. Questions like what else is driving food insecurity? And how are our current practices within the agri-food market systems contributing to the problems in the first place? And lastly, how is the agri-food sector contributing to climate change and market shocks?

Considering the theme for this year’s World Food Day is “Leave NO ONE behind,” we’ll look more deeply into understanding what factors are driving these issues and what we can do to make our food systems work better for everyone.

Food market prices

Above: shoppers at a busy market

Many countries expanded their agricultural policy in the last decades to increase crop production to cope with increased food demand from higher population growth. As a result, between 1965 and 2000, agricultural production doubled, but mainly but mainly through extensification (using more land for agriculture) rather than intensification (growing more crops or raising more animals on agricultural lands). This extensification has led to an increased need for arable land and subsequent deforestation. Yet, despite all the negative impacts of agricultural production on our natural ecosystems, the prices of most food commodities have decreased in the last century. A family in the United States (US) in the 1940s would have spent on average 20% of its disposable income on food. Now, this number is less than 10%. Comparatively, income wages in the US have increased by more than 45% in the last four decades. This decrease in the percentage of income for food shows us how the full cost of food is not fully reflected in international markets. On the other hand, some households in the Global South, like in Nigeria, spend over half of their household income on food. Understanding these discrepancies in economic growth and the cost of food will help us value food more fairly.

Climate change and biodiversity loss

Above: the impact of climate change

Our global food system is an important contributor to climate change and the primary driver of biodiversity loss. Indeed, approximately 26% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions result from food and agriculture, and agriculture was identified as the main threat to 86% of the 28,000 species at risk of extinction. Yet, looking to indigenous ecological knowledge practices might provide a solution. Understanding how indigenous populations can safeguard 80% of terrestrial biodiversity on only 22% of the Earth’s land surface will support us to build more resilient food systems.

A dependence on synthetic fertilizers

Above: a farmer spraying vegetables in the garden with herbicides.

The surge in chemical fertilizer prices affected farmers because our agricultural lands have become dependent on chemical fertilizers and pesticides. With the advent of synthetic fertilizer use, which has increased steadily since the 1950s and 60s, the health of our soils and water ecosystems has decreased. Chemical fertilizers kill beneficial microorganisms in the soil that convert detritus into nutrient-rich organic material, ultimately leading to a decline in soil organic matter. Nitrogen, phosphate, and potassium-based (NPK) fertilizers leach into groundwater and increase their toxicity, causing water pollution. They also disrupt aquatic ecosystems by seeping into bodies of water, such as rivers and lakes, causing massive algal growth which can lead to dead zones.

Chemical fertilizers are also important contributors to climate change since more than 80% of nitrogen is lost to the environment prior to food consumption (e.g., during food production). When combined with oxygen, nitrogen becomes a potent greenhouse gas and nitrous oxide (N2O) is 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Understanding this dependence on synthetic fertilizers and minimizing their use will lead to more prosperous food systems. A paradigm shift is required in how agricultural production is organized from chemically produced to organic food production.

High tillage and soil compaction

Preparing land for agriculture is not an easy task. With the emergence of new tools and technologies, the last century saw a change in farmland preparation methods from shallow-hand and livestock-plowing of land to deep, tractor-plowing. High tillage, compounded by the change from fallow rotational systems to permanently farmed systems, has led to important issues such as soil compaction. Soil compaction increases the density of the topsoil, hampers water infiltration and retention, and minimizes seedling emergence and root growth, ultimately reducing yields. Minimizing tillage and building soil structure for water and nutrient flow and microbial activity will promote healthy food.

Food loss and waste

Above: food waste

Our food distribution systems and consumption patterns are leading to food loss and waste, which also amounts to 6% of total greenhouse gas emissions. The global percentage of food lost after harvesting at the farm, transport, storage, wholesale, and processing levels was estimated at 13.3% in 2020, while regions such as sub-Saharan Africa face losses as high as 21.4%. In fact, it is estimated that 3.4 billion acres (1.4 billion hectares) of land – 28% of the world’s agricultural area – is used annually to produce food that is eventually lost or wasted. Understanding the root causes of food loss and waste will increase the efficiency of our global food systems.

Financial strain

Currently, the global food system compromises the food security of food-producing communities. In addition to leading to dire consequences for the natural ecosystems and climate change, many of the problems lead to financial strain on farmers. Climate stressors and dependence on chemical fertilizers and pesticides affect not only our ecosystems but farmers’ financial health and overall well-being as well. The growing problem of suicide among the international community of farmers has received well-deserved media attention in recent years since farmers and ranchers are at a higher risk for suicide than others. As women and youth farmers are included and empowered within our global food systems, these issues cannot be taken lightly and must be considered when supporting farmer resiliency.

How to address global food insecurity

Above: healthy soil

Food production is critical to making food available everywhere in the world without leaving anyone behind. However, simply producing more food is not a solution. Food must also be produced in an environmentally sustainable manner. In fact, the quality of production is essential for healthy diets. Food is more nutritious when produced regeneratively and when the soil in which it is grown is healthy. The careful use of inputs for production that keep the ecosystem in balance is essential. There is enough food that is already produced, but loss and waste are an issue. Making food available while leaving no one behind requires efficient food distribution systems.

MEDA acknowledges the drivers of food insecurity and the interconnections between market and financial constraints, gender, and social barriers, and environmental and climate issues. As a result, MEDA promotes a Triple Impact Approach for Decent Work in Agri-food Market Systems.

In the technical assistance provided to farmers, MEDA makes sure to understand the drivers and challenges that they face. We then identify areas within the agricultural production systems where best practices – e.g., as relates to water, soil, and crop management – can be implemented. By strengthening the capacities of farmers on these environmentally sustainable practices, providing access to finance and incentives to acquire appropriate technologies, and fostering market conditions that are inclusive, MEDA creates the conditions for food security, healthy agricultural systems, climate change adaptation and mitigation, and decent and sustainable work for farmers and entrepreneurs worldwide.

Looking for something else to read? Check out our Storehouse to read blogs, news and other content that focuses on providing farmers and entrepreneurs with the tools to create prosperous livelihoods and businesses.

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Kristine

Thank you Mira and Zakaria for this insightful article on what we need to address within food systems in order to leave no one behind, and the complexities that come with it. Really inspiring to see how MEDA is uplifting farmers through technical assistance, and especially on how it is focused on long-term impact that is also healthy international development!