A Manifesto for Disrupting Global Food Politics

Food & Drink

When I started thinking about a manifesto for Disrupting Global Food Politics, I got really excited. For those of you who don’t know me or Food Tank, I am usually on stage as a moderator or interviewer. I ask other people their deepest thoughts about food systems change and what it will take to transform our agricultural systems.

Writing this has made me think about how, having had the privilege to talk with so many experts—from around the world and with a wide range of interests—has perhaps given me a unique vantage point on some of the important, overarching issues we face today. So, I want to share the five things that I think will contribute to more environmentally sustainable, economically viable, and socially just food and agriculture systems.

In true manifesto style, I have a list of not exactly demands, but necessary components to help us all save the world. And each has a call to action.

First, invest in women in agriculture.

Globally, women account for approximately 43 percent of the agricultural labor force and in some countries, they make up nearly 70 percent of all farmers. Universally, women are not allowed access to the same resources and respect as their male counterparts.

They face discrimination when it comes to land and livestock ownership, equal pay, participation in decision-making entities, and access to credit and financial services.

Across all regions women are less likely than men to own or control land, and the land where they grow fruits, vegetables, and other nutritious foods are often of poorer quality.

Simply, we ignore women at our own peril. I was recently an emcee at the Borlaug Dialogues in Des Moines, Iowa and Samantha Power, the Administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development, was a speaker. She says, “When we hold women back, we hold everyone back.” Let me give you just one example of how this works.

According to research from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, if women farmers had the same access to resources as men, the number of hungry people in the world could be reduced by up to 150 million due to productivity gains.

And I’ve seen this on the ground with groups like the Self Employed Women’s Association, the world’s largest labor union with more than 2 million members. I was able to visit SEWA farmers several years ago—about 50 women who are growing organic food and selling it under their own label to other women in urban areas. These are women who, when they have access to land, invest it back into their families. Their children go to school and receive medical care. And they’ve gained respect in their households and villages because they have decision-making power. The thing is, when you invest in women, you don’t only invest in an individual or a group, but an entire community.

My call to action to begin treating the world’s women farmers as—at least—equals seems like a no-brainer. Policymakers and the private sector are missing a chance if they don’t provide investment and capital to ensure true equity.

Second, respect and honor Indigenous Peoples and people of color in our food and agriculture systems. Again, it seems pretty simple. But all over the world and especially in the United States, Indigenous peoples have experienced systemic racism, cultural appropriation, and genocide.

But keep this in mind: Despite the discrimination they face, Indigenous peoples comprise 5 percent of the global population yet are protecting 80 percent of the world’s remaining biodiversity. They do all of this work for the planet without compensation for the most part.

Traditional foods are the foundation of First People’s Nations well-being and frankly, I think in many ways, are the foods of the future for all of us. These foods are resilient to pests and disease, resilient to climate change, and as I said, healthy and nutritious. And they contribute to maintaining biodiversity—something that Indigenous Peoples have been doing for thousands of years in their territories.

At the recent COP27 Climate Change conference in Egypt, I spent a lot of time with Indigenous Leaders like Matte Wilson of the Sicangu Food Sovereignty Initiative and Chief Caleen Sisk Winnemem Wintu Tribe who are thinking about how future generations can respect Indigenous practices. They are restoring traditional Indigenous foods into their communities and helping young folks understand why they are important. They believe that to go forward, we need to go back and look at why Indigenous food systems are so successful and how the world can learn from them.

In the city of Baltimore, where I live and where 65 percent of the population is black, Chefs Tonya and David Thomas are teaching eaters and young folks how to recognize and honor the black food narrative with their work. They are recognizing the foods that those who were formerly enslaved started growing in the United States and the environmental, economic, health, and cultural benefits they still provide. That kind of remembering and honoring of people and food is more important, in my opinion, than ever before.

My call to action is there needs to be more spaces where the next generation of farmers, advocates, and activists learn how to care for, respect, and honor the earth and its stewards. And like women in agriculture, they need investment. But they also need to receive reparations. Their land was stolen, diminishing their abilities to feed themselves. They deserve more than an apology, but actual financial compensation so that future generations can thrive.

And that leads me to my third point of the manifesto. We must recognize what youth bring to the table. Farmers, unfortunately, all over the world are aging—their average age in the U.S. is about 58 and the same is true in parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

For so long, conferences have not included youth voices. And youth all over the globe have looked at farming and our food systems as a punishment rather than an opportunity. Thankfully that’s changing.

And it’s not just the Greta Thunbergs of the world who are advocating for youth leadership.

It’s also groups like YPARD, an international movement by young professionals FOR young professionals for agricultural development. They work strategically to get young agronomists, scientists, farmers, and others at international conferences and negotiating tables, as speakers so that all of us can understand what youth want and need when we’re talking about the future of food.

And credit must go to organizations like Slow Food International who are lifting up young people into positions of power. In the mid-2000s, I met Edie Mukiibi in Uganda, where he was leading a school project to help students understand the importance of traditional foods—that they could be delicious and economically sustainable—and that farming is something to be respected, not looked down upon. Now, about 12 years later, Edie is the President of Slow Food International, and working to improve food sovereignty and biodiversity all over the world.

My call to action is partly based on the work of Act4Food Act4Change. It’s a campaign that brings together youth from around the world, with the goal of providing all people with access to safe, affordable and nutritious diets, while protecting nature, tackling climate change, and promoting human rights. As part of the campaign, these youth have developed a list of actions and are asking governments and businesses to take action to address the broken food system. It’s these kinds of collaborations among young folks, policymakers, and the private sector that are needed to make systemic change.

Fourth, we must utilize true value and True Cost Accounting in our food and agriculture systems.

Let me try to put this in perspective for all of us. The global population consumes about $9 trillion dollars’ worth of food each year. But, according to a report by the U.N. Food Systems Summit 2021 Scientific Group, the external cost of that food production is more than double that—nearly $20 trillion. These external costs include biodiversity loss, pollution, healthcare costs and lost wages from diet-related diseases, worker abuse, poor animal welfare, and more. Unfortunately, these externalities tend to impact folks of color and Indigenous peoples the most, further exacerbating inequality and inequity. Just one example is that Indigenous folks are 19 times more likely to have reduced access to water and sanitation than white folks in the United States.

In addition, we have to remember that our food system is based on just a handful of crops like maize, soy, wheat, and rice—starchy staples that can be incredibly resource intensive to produce and which don’t provide much in the way of nutrients.

We’re good as a global economy at filling people up, but we are not good at actually nourishing eaters. But what if we placed value on crop and livestock systems that are actually healthy for people and the planet? That provide delicious, nutrient-dense food, that protects workers and the environment, that is regenerative and gives back more than it takes? A food system that carefully accounts for externalities and makes it more profitable to be sustainable?

Organizations like The Rockefeller Foundation are researching how to implement True Cost Accounting on the ground. The idea of measuring what matters can help governments, businesses, and farmers understand what it really costs to produce food, to make better decisions.

I recently moderated a panel on True Cost Accounting as a way to help solve the climate crisis. The world has “created a value-destroying food system,” says Roy Steiner, Vice President of the Food Initiative at The Rockefeller Foundation. The United States creates roughly two times more economic cost than economic value from its food and agriculture systems. Similar trends can be found around the world, and Steiner asks, “Who wants to be part of a value-destroying food system?” No one, right? At least, I hope not.

The Rockefeller Foundation partnered with India’s Public Distribution System to supply subsidized food grain to more than 800 million people in the country. Using True Cost Accounting, the Foundation was able to identify hidden costs associated with greenhouse gas emissions, water use, and more. They found that the grain distribution system creates $6.1 billion per year in hidden environmental and health costs. If you can find and eliminate those externalities, you’re doing more than just feeding people. You’re creating a system that looks at the future, that considers future generations and values them.

And if we followed the advice of food policy councils to procure food for institutions like schools and hospitals locally and regionally, we could limit the transportation costs of distributing food, have more transparency in food systems, and ultimately provide more delicious, seasonal ingredients to students, patients, and others.

My next call to action is to the private sector. Stop designing foods that give us cheap calories. Food Tank has a Chief Sustainability Officer Working Group with more than 150 companies who are small, medium, and large. They can—and should—see a more sustainable food system as a huge opportunity, not something that will cost them. I talked about young folks before. There is a new generation of eaters that wants the story of their food, where it comes from, who grew it, and its impact on the planet. Companies that can’t pivot will not be around a decade from now if they don’t change. True Cost Accounting gives businesses and farmers the ability to provide transparency and traceability to eaters.

My fifth and final recommendation for this manifesto is that policymakers need to get their heads out of the sand. We need common sense law-making around food and agriculture. Food waste is just one example. If food waste were a country, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions, after China and the United States. In the United States, the Farm Bill comes up for renewal every five years and it’s always disappointing. We need more regular conversations on Capitol Hill or in Parliaments around the world around food and agriculture issues. Laws that solve the problems that actually need to be solved, the problems that farmers, eaters, and businesses face every day.

Recently, Food Tank worked with the Healthy Living Coalition to help raise awareness around the proposed Food Donation Improvement Act. Simply, it’s a bill that makes it easier for individuals and institutions to donate food that would otherwise be wasted. Again, pretty common sense. Previous legislation, however, didn’t provide oversight over who should administer or oversee the donation process or provide guidance. The Food Donation Improvement Act was an unusual piece of legislation because it had bi-partisan support. Republicans and Democrats came together to solve something that is low-cost, for the most part, and can address the environmental and moral costs of food waste and help feed millions of Americans who are going hungry because of the pandemic and food price inflation. And it passed on December 21st. For me, it shows that the food movement in the United States does have power. And it sets the stage for more bi-partisan legislation around food and agriculture—issues that should never be partisan. As Congressmember Jim McGovern, who I consider a food superhero, says: Hunger should be illegal.

So, my recommendation and call to action is for us all to become citizen eaters, people who vote for the kind of food system they want. And while it’s important to vote with your dollar, it’s also important to vote with your vote for candidates who will improve our food and agriculture systems. And it’s not just at the national level, but at the level of local school boards, credit unions, and mayoral races. Or run for office yourself. I’ve been meeting people in their twenties who are farmers or food advocates who are becoming local politicians because they want food procurement to change or they want more focus on solving the climate crisis. They’re the next generation of leaders.

That’s my manifesto. And while my calls to action are important, they are not enough.

I’m not ranking them. These are 5 actions I know are important. They’re necessary but not sufficient, as my husband would say because he is a mathematician. But the general point is this: We have, inarguably, wandered off a sustainable path. We’re facing multiple crises—the climate crisis, the biodiversity loss crisis, the public health crisis, conflict. And by “we” I mean all of humanity who have been cultivating our own food for about 10,000 years. For most of that time, we’ve been spoiled. There weren’t that many of us, and there was plenty to live from. That abundance tended to make us lazy—it made us think that the earth is expendable. It’s not. And that illusion and laziness can’t last.

There are simply too many of us. To put it into context, if you were to total up the people that have lived during the last 10,000 years since we domesticated plants, more than 1 in 14 of us woke up this morning. 7 percent of everyone who has ever depended on a farmer for food is alive right now. That’s a huge number. Population scientists say we’ll top off at 10 billion people at a time on this planet in about 30 years. This year we passed 8 billion. The time when we could take sustainability for granted is over. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that we still have time. There is time to realize what we’ve taken for granted is not guaranteed. We can get back on track. Humanity is still young. I said we’re 7 percent of everyone that’s lived since farming began, but if humans survive another 5,000 years, all of our farming ancestors and all of us combined will account for just ten percent of human history. It boggles my mind every time I think about these numbers. As Oxford Professor of Philosophy William MacAskill says, “We are the ancients.” Unlike anyone before us, and just like everyone who will come after, we must discover how to live on a full planet. We need to start thinking and behaving like the future’s ancestors, or we won’t be.

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