Food can either make us healthy or sick - what's cool is the choice is ours! (Part 1)

Progress Namibia - Food can either make us healthy or sick - what's cool is the choice is ours! (Part 1)
20 January 2020

I am currently doing some work for the UN Office that works on the Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity. Part of this work has me going through the body of knowledge we have about the food system and what is needed to transform this system so that it does it not collapse in on itself. Given that food is something that connects all of us, I would like to share a few facts coming from this body of knowledge. The following is a focus on the facts of the current system, and is going to be bleak. The next weekly, I will summarize what kind of transformation is needed to change this bleak reality.

So, here goes. This is what we know the current system is doing:

Things are much more interlinked that most of us think.

More than 1 billion people work as smallholder farmers or landless workers. This is an order of magnitude larger than the number working in any other industry in the world. No economic strategy for sustainable development can work without recognizing and adequately rewarding the role of smallholder agriculture in providing livelihood to humans living in rural areas around the world.

The eco-agrifood system can either cause disease across generations (there are many examples of this, including endocrine-disruptor chemicals that affect women in the pre-natal phase, studies on brain development of children born to mothers who conceived during times of bad cultivation years, etc), or can provide a pathway to healthy lives. You are what you eat, and so are the generations that follow you. Human health depends directly on food. Out of the top 10 risk factors driving the burden of disease, 6 are diet-related. Almost 90% of countries in the world face the serious burden of two to three forms of malnutrition (malnutrition includes those diets where nutrients for good health are missing). Although life expectancy has increased worldwide, 'years lived with disability' also increased due to the rapid increase of non-communicable diseases. The average dietary pattern in the world is not conducive to optimal health. And this is not just the type of food, but also what we use to increase production has affected us. The use of nitrogen fertilizers and pesticides yield crops with fewer nutrients and micronutrients, factory farms produce products low on Omega-3 and other antioxidants, cumulative pesticides and veterinary drug residues in our food further negatively affect us. The combined effect of pesticides in conjunction with the presence of many other substances which we and our environments are exposed to, such as pharmaceuticals, biocides, industrial chemicals, household chemicals going into our water supply, etc) are increasingly dangerous.

Both the absolute and the relative numbers of hungry people are increasing. While the current food system could easily satisfy 7.5 billion people (this is a few hundred thousand people short of our current global population), it does not come even close to feeding that many people. The current question is not about growing more food, it is more about the distribution of food. The gains of international trade and specialization have not been equitably distributed and an unequal international ecological exchange (of natural resources, environmental services and ecological impacts) in the global trade matrix exacerbates inequalities. Just as an example, the international trade of feed (surprisingly the largest component of traded agricultural commodities) has profoundly affected the flows of nitrogen in the form of vegetable and animal protein between continents over the lat 50 years. Despite the universal human right to adequate food, almost 1 billion people do not have access to food. The highest number of hungry people live in food exporting countries. As corporate business control what to produce and what to eat, lands are 'grabbed' by foreign investors, food and agriculture-related wages are the lowest of any sector, and women suffer from unequal access to resources within households. Around 32% of food volume produced for human consumption never makes it to our mouths - so, in other words, 1/3 of all food is wasted. Food wastage not only represents a lost opportunity in terms of economic return and food availability, but also causes substantial societal impacts. The footprint of food waste is 8% of all global greenhouse gas emissions, 1.4 billion ha of land, and the use of 250 km³ of freshwater, let alone the biodiversity loss. The magnitude of economic, environmental and social cost of food wastage totals USD 2.6 trillion annually.

Globalisation, deregulation and privatization has gradually dismantled state-centred agricultural development models, and has diminished social and environmental protection. The current agricultural sector is one of the most hazardous work sectors world-wide, mainly due to the use of hazardous chemicals and heavy machinery. Workers in food processing and catering sectors have the lowest wages and the weakest workers' rights in nation economies. Mergers and acquisitions in the input industry have led to concentrated control of almost the entire food system. Corporate consolidation and control over the first links of the industrial food chain have increased costs as natural processes are substituted with purchased inputs, reducing innovation by smallest industries who cannot compete due to economies of scale. This has cut farmer choices and diminished diversity, with negative impacts on smallholder livelihoods and their food security. The top 10 large agro-industrial food manufacturers and retailers operating in just 65 countries account for more than 10.5 cents of every US dollar spent worldwide.

Currently, our system of measuring success is highly specialized and is not connected to other systems (like health, environment, etc). Applying 'productivity only' metrics in the agrifood system assessment ignores outcomes such as degraded ecosystems and alienated communities, with alarming impacts on health and the poorest segments of society. There are hidden costs and benefits in the way we produce, process, distribute and consume food - these are rarely captured in conventional economic analyses, which usually focuses on the goods and services that are traded in markets. As an example - the evapo-transpiration from the Amazonian rainforests forms clouds as it reaches the Andes and generates precipitation over the La Plata basin, a huge agricultural production system, the value of this output exceeds a quarter of a trillion USD, however its vital dependency on the Amazonian water cycle remains economically invisible both at the macro and the micro level. From an ecological perspective there is little to no recognition of the ecosystem inputs to agriculture (i.e. dependencies). Similarly key outputs of agrifood systems central to human health and wellbeing such as impacts on food security, water quality, food safety and local communities are also unaccounted for. Most significantly, conventional assessment systems do not capture the ability of ecosystems and supporting social systems to continue to deliver these critical goods and services over the long-run. And as such, we continue to degrade the very systems that give us food to begin with.

It therefore cannot surprise us when we have degraded the water, soil, our farmers livelihoods and other essentials to such an extent that they can no longer provide food for us.