Our food systems are in urgent need of transformation, as humanity faces one of our biggest challenges yet; feeding a future population of 10 billion people with safe and nutritious food while keeping a healthy planet. Our food system has the power to tip the scales and transform the future of our planet and humankind.
This year, the United Nations Food System Summit, called by Secretary-General António Guterres is looking to propose innovations and solutions that will transform our food systems and change our current course; in 2020, as many as 811 million men, women and children went without enough to eat, according to the recent UN State of Food Security and Nutrition report.
One of the biggest questions is what it will take to build a food system that is not only healthy and sustainable for the planet, but also recognises the critical role of smallholder producers in feeding our world. The good news is, they already hold the key to tipping the scale for true transformation.
Smallholder producers, including Indigenous Peoples and local communities are responsible for producing 60-80% of the food worldwide. Most often, in a way that is healthier for people, more sustainable for our planet and based on centuries of traditional knowledge that ensures food production needs are met and available resources are used in the most optimal way. These are the women, men and communities who must be the centre of the healthy, sustainable and inclusive food systems of the future. Better supporting their role in food systems also allows a move away from models of intensive large-scale production predicated on cheap food, but at great cost to local societies and ecosystems.
So what is the most pressing challenge that smallholders across the world are facing?
It is impossible to speak about building and supporting sustainable food systems without talking about the land and territories on which the food is grown, and more importantly, who is in control of that land. While farmers and communities may have lost the ability to determine what is grown on their land through market and strong consumer preferences, a step in the right direction towards building confidence, transparency and trust among stakeholders on what is grown and how it is grown can be the turning point for families, communities and countries' development.
Farmers have demonstrated time and again that given the rights to the land they farm, they are good custodians of our production ecosystems. Indigenous Peoples, who occupy over a quarter of the world’s land, help to preserve global biodiversity by using their traditional knowledge and food systems. But today, they are also challenged by climate change and all forms of degradation, including lack of alternative livelihoods that leads to over-exploitation of the very resources they treasure the most.
It is also about respecting the rights of women. Women make up more than 60% of the agricultural labour force, yet despite being the majority food producers, less than 15% of landholders are women, with men controlling the family’s income generation and resource allocation. But it does not have to be the case. For example, female farmers in Rwanda co-own family land with their husbands. We need policies that advance land rights and gender equity.
New research by the International Land Coalition shows that land inequality directly threatens the livelihoods of an estimated 2.5 billion people involved in smallholder farming, as well the world’s poorest 1.4 billion people, most of whom depend largely on agriculture for their livelihoods. Access to agricultural land has become highly unequal – with the largest 1% of farms operating more than 70% of the world’s farmland. Giving an equal chance to smallholder farmers to play their full role in feeding our world means ensuring they have access to sufficient land – which may require redistributing land from large landholders. In some cases, land inequality is not only worse than we thought but is on the rise as smallholder producers are being squeezed off their land, their human rights violated, and their production systems undermined.
The UN Food Systems Summit is an opportunity to find solutions we can work towards together.