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A sustaining transformation


Despite unprecedented global economic growth, the current food systems are unfair, inadequate and inefficient

The current food system needs to change dramatically. Nearly 800 million people--or one in 10 people on the planet--are hungry, and almost one-third of the people are food-insecure, while obesity and micro-nutrient deficiencies are growing rapidly.

The current food systems are unfair, inadequate and inefficient. Most of the food we eat is produced by the people who are food insecure or hungry. One-third of the calories consumed globally come from less than 11 percent of the total farmland, and from small-scale producers--farmers that produce on less than two hectares of land. Furthermore, over one-third of the total carbon emissions occur within food systems.

Small-scale producers, rural workers and entrepreneurs produce, process and distribute much of the world's food, yet many of them are unable to earn a decent living or can access or afford a nutritious diet. Recent estimates show that up to 3 billion people worldwide do not have sufficient access to healthy diets because of poverty and income inequality.

Despite unprecedented economic growth globally, food systems--production, processing, retailing, delivery and consumption of food--do not always increase incomes for producers, nourish consumers or protect the world in which we live from economic disruptions and adverse events.

In fact, as we have witnessed, food systems can be deeply affected by a pandemic or geopolitics.

Pandemics create both demand and supply shocks in all economic sectors, to varying degrees and at different rates. Although the agricultural sector has proved to be more resilient than other sectors to the COVID-19 pandemic which has disrupted regional and international trade, the food systems in developing countries have taken a significant hit.

For countries that rely on food imports, a food system crisis may strike earlier than the effects of the pandemic itself, or be exacerbated by the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. According to the International Food Policy Research Institute, Russia and Ukraine together export about 12 percent of global food calories. Impacts are already being felt in the Near East and North Africa regions and are spreading to the world's most vulnerable countries, including those in the Horn of Africa. Even though China maintains a relatively high level of food self-sufficiency and has comparatively high levels of food reserves, both Ukraine and Russia are important sources of agricultural products and inputs.

China imports about 30 percent of its maize and about 60 percent of its sunflower oil from Ukraine. About 30 percent of China's imported potassium fertilizer was from Russia last year.

We need to ensure that all people are able to consume diets that are healthy, that food is produced within the planetary boundaries and that those working in the food system earn a decent living. Livelihoods, nutrition and environmental goals are interlinked. We also need to ensure that food systems are resilient to shocks from extreme weather events, pest and disease outbreaks, climate change and market anomalies.

Transforming food systems means increasing investments and the application of digital technology innovations, increasing opportunities for large numbers of smaller-scale producers, developing pricing systems that reflect the true cost of production, overcoming market constraints, building partnerships and putting policies in place that safeguard the most vulnerable, including small-scale producers and poor consumers.

The International Fund for Agricultural Development's 2021 Rural Development Report identifies three ways to ensure that rural people benefit from such a food systems transformation.

One way is to create new employment opportunities and invest in local midstream food businesses. Local small and medium-sized enterprises provide ways to access markets and non-farm employment opportunities, while supplying healthier food to meet consumer demands. Also, local SMEs generate jobs. Youth, particularly women who run SMEs, can use their connections with local small farmers, and, in turn, drive change in the food systems to make them more inclusive and equitable. This is the focus of the recently approved International Fund for Agricultural Development-supported projects in Yunnan and Hunan provinces in China.

Another way is to help small farms become more productive and profitable by investing in agricultural systems as a whole. Needed are investments in small-scale farmers, especially those who build synergies with midstream SMEs linking them to essential services and markets and providing them with the opportunities to diversify into off-farm employment.

Lastly, a commitment to financing agriculture is an important tool to leverage change and correct power imbalances. For example, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development CRS database, the share of agriculture in the total official development assistance envelope has been declining since 2014. In 2018, the agricultural share in the total official development assistance envelope was 5.2 percent, the lowest since 2008.

Only 1.7 percent of climate finance--a fraction of what is needed--goes to small-scale farmers in developing countries despite their disproportionate vulnerability to the impacts of climate change, according to a report released by the United Nations' International Fund for Agricultural Development and Climate Policy Initiative in November 2020. Financing is key to enabling change and creating incentives for change. With the conflict in Ukraine, official development assistance risks being even lower, as countries commit a larger portion of their budget to humanitarian aid and national security.

We also need to focus on social protection measures such as targeted social safety nets, empowering small-scale farmers to make better nutrition decisions, earn better incomes and have more options and autonomy to improve their health, prosperity and quality of life.

The author is an associate vice-president for strategy and knowledge at the International Fund for Agricultural Development. The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

Contact the editor at editor@chinawatch.cn