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Put rural people at centre of food system to attain sustainability

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This aerial photo taken on June 22 shows farmers planting rice in a paddy in Haian, in China’s eastern Jiangsu province. AFP

Put rural people at centre of food system to attain sustainability

Food systems the “ensemble” of all dimensions and processes related to food: production, harvesting, processing, transportation and consumption are facing enormous challenges today.

An estimated 700-800 million people faced hunger in 2020, and about three billion people could not afford a healthy diet. Nearly 30 per cent of the world’s agricultural land is currently used for producing food that in the end is not consumed, and agricultural production is responsible for about one-fifth of the greenhouse gas emissions. The Covid-19 pandemic has further aggravated the situation.

How to ensure that our food systems continue to provide sufficient food for all without compromising the health of the planet or the prospects of future generations to have their food and nutritional needs met? This is the main question that world leaders discussed on Thursday during the Food Systems Summit – a global summit convened by UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres during the ongoing 76th session of UN General Assembly.

We all know that current food systems are unsustainable, and that we need to change the way food is produced, processed, sold and consumed.

As a representative of an international organisation which has contributed to the development and coordination of the summit through participation in the Advisory Committee for the Summit the International Fund for Agricultural Development, I have three recommendations on how to make our food systems more sustainable.

First, for food systems to be sustainable, we need to put rural people especially the small-scale farmers and other rural workers involved in the production, processing, storage and marketing of food at the centre of any food system change. They produce at least one-third of the world’s food, and up to 80 per cent of the food in communities in Africa, Asia and Latin America. They are involved along the food supply chain. And they are ultimately consumers.

So no solution can be pursued, no transformation can be achieved without listening and considering their perspective, and without having them “owning” the solutions.

Second, for food systems to be sustainable, we need to look at and get inspiration from the existing small-scale farming systems. Small-scale farming systems are often more environmentally sustainable than industrial-scale systems.

Sustainable approaches to agriculture such as agro-ecology, organic agriculture and permaculture rely on the intimate knowledge of local landscapes, biodiversity and ecosystems that these small-scale farmers possess. We should consider scaling up technologies, approaches and practices that have already proven sustainable.

And third, for food systems to be sustainable, they must create decent livelihoods for the people who work within them. Decent livelihoods for the people who work within them contribute to building and maintaining resilient and equitable rural communities, and feeding vulnerable people. When small farms thrive, profits are injected back into rural economies, where they create further jobs and growth.

In sum, there is a need to listen to rural people, consider adopting and scaling up already existing sustainable approaches to agriculture, such as those used in the small-scale farming system, and ensure that the new food system creates and guarantees decent livelihoods for the people who work within them. Only by placing rural people at the centre of food systems can we hope to make them more equitable and sustainable. The health of all people and our planet depends on successful transformation of our current food system.

But such a transformation would require significant investments about $300-350 billion annually for the next decade, according to a recent report of the Food and Land Use Coalition. The uptick is that it may also bring huge opportunities, because it is estimated that sustainable food systems can result in economic gains to society of $5.7 trillion annually.

Matteo Marchisio is the International Fund for Agricultural Development representative in China. The views don’t necessarily reflect those of China Daily.



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