Webinar recap: food’s ferocious footprint

Each Wednesday, One Earth will be featuring a webinar recap from organizations and scientists around the world that focus on important topics such as biodiversity, conservation, food justice, and the intersections of environmental and human health.

Pavan Sukhdev is an Indian environmental economist whose field of studies include green economy and international finance; he also serves as the President of WWF International’s Board. In the webinar below he focuses on the true cost of food and why systemic change in agriculture is needed for planetary and human health.

He opens up the conversation by asking us to picture in our heads what we imagine food systems are. Many people envision huge industrial fields filled with tractors and one type of crop, and because of this they believe this is the only way to solve food insecurity. Sukhdev questions this assumption. He says the reality is that globally three-fourths of food consumed in food insecure regions are grown locally by woman farmers. Food is grown and purchased locally, which stimulates the local economy, and delivers adequate nutrients with a lower carbon footprint. Now how do we bring this reality into the picture when talking about food systems?

Today’s food system, he argues, focuses on calorie production and does not succeeding in delivering proper nutrition. There are 850 million people worldwide starving, along with an intersection between micronutrient deficiencies and people who are overweight. The current food system is broken and filled with hunger, malnutrition, obesity, diet-related and input-related diseases, poor soil health, greenhouse gas emissions, and more. Input-related disease focuses on antibiotic overuse in livestock and the resulting antibiotic resistance, herbicides and cancer risks, and pesticides and endocrine disruption risks. Sukhdev says the way in which we evaluate our food systems uses a narrow lens of “productivity per hectare” which reinforces business as usual and is not addressing the needs of the planet or the people. He says this ‘business as usual’ model is increasing costs to global health, causing it to escalate to extreme amounts. The Global Nutrition Report from 2016 seems to agree, stating that “diet is now the number-one risk factor of global burden of disease.” 

Sukhdev wants food systems to focus more holistically: on human capital—people and their employment, social capital—communities and how they work, nature capital—biodiversity and ecosystems around us, and produced capital. There are food system analysis frameworks that are universal and comprehensive which can be used when assessing food policies. The frameworks, he describes, take into account business analysis, national accounting, agricultural management systems, policy evaluation, and dietary comparison. Sukdev says that his analysis of different food system frameworks brings up a consistent problem, they overlook the significance of smallholder farms when it comes to addressing hunger, poverty, employment, and ecosystems health. Around 525 million smallholder farms employ more than 1.1 billion people around the world. There is no a single alternative occupation for that many people. For example, two other massive global industries - the automobile industry and information technology - employ just 15 million and 6 million respectively. 

Sukhdev tries to answer the question “How do we make these sustainable smallholder farms more productive and less risky?” since climate change is affecting both soil and water for farming which puts our current system at risk. In changing how we think about our food systems we may also find solutions to poverty, hunger, and employment.

Sukhdev presents a sustainable smallholder farming example as a success story that can be replicated. In Andhra Pradesh, a state of India, a natural farming movement is taking off, meaning these farms have chosen to move away from chemical based farming. This type of farming, focusing on biology rather than chemistry, goes back to the fundamentals of agriculture Sukhdev expresses. The natural farming movement, when he came across it, started with 150,000 farmers and now has grown to 750,000 farmers in the region. Within the farms in this movement, higher yields across all crops were reported. The movement gained so much momentum and success that there was a published opposition letter from the Chairman of the Pesticide Association of Andra Pradesh. 

The movement to highlight and help guide the success of smallholder farms is important for farmers’ livelihoods, food security, and human and planetary health. To learn more about how smarter metrics can help fix our food system, read Pavan Sukhdev’s article in Nature.