Food justice and sustainability


On March 20th, we had the pleasure of a guest presentation by Elsadig Elsheikh, a researcher and project director at the Haas Institute for a Fair & Inclusive Society at UC Berkeley. Elsadig presented on the global food crisis, ethical and policy questions around food sustainability, and challenges and opportunities for the global South (and particularly Africa) within that context.

The quantitative facts related the global food crisis were striking to me: hunger kills more people than AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined; 1 in 8 people worldwide are hungry (that’s more than the total combined population of the US + EU); 1 in 4 children in the global South are underweight; girls and women are disproportionately affected. Between hungry, stunted and malnourished people, over 3 billion people suffer from inadequate access to food.

The good news is that we actually produce more than enough food to feed everyone adequately. So how is it that this food doesn’t make it to hungry people? In a nutshell, this is due partly to underdevelopment of agriculture in former colonies that were managed as extractive economies; partly due to the overarching valuation of money over people and the planet; and partly due to the (related) creation of a ‘foodopoly’ that has monopolized the global seeds trade and driven increases in food prices. (On the ‘foodopoly’, note that 10 agrochemical companies control over 75% of the global seed market.)

At the same time, the rise of large-scale land deals (LSLDs) has resulted in the accumulation of agricultural lands by mostly-wealthy investor countries, to the detriment of the economic, social and environmental fabrics of the target countries. Yet despite this trend, and the broader the march of neoliberal capitalism, industrial supply chains feed only 30% of the world’s population, with 50% relying on peasant farming and the remaining 20% on hunting, gathering, and urban gardening. The more agricultural land that is absorbed into the corporate food system, the less equitable and more wasteful the distribution of that food is; and the more negative the local and global environmental impacts.

All that is rather depressing. So what are the opportunities or grounds for optimism? One is the ‘food sovereignty’ movement, which is founded on a conceptual reframing of food: food is for people, not for profit; we should localize food systems and control; we should value food providers and nurture their knowledge and skills; we should work with nature, not destroy it. Another opportunity is reflected in ‘agroecology’ initiatives, which promote agricultural practices that are ecologically sound, for example intercropping, composting, biodiversity, and locally-appropriate crops. These result in social, public health, economic and environmental benefits.

Real policy reforms in the global North and the global South could address food injustices. Elsadig suggested a number of specific reforms, which I present below in near verbatim from his presentation. 

In the North:

  1. Discourage industrial-scale meat and dairy production and encourage diets high in grain, vegetable and fruits. This could liberate 40% of the world’s grain production, reduce energy consumption through transportation saving and reduce GHG emissions while improving human nutrition and lowering health costs.
  2. Reject agrofuels/biomass crops except for locally-produced, community-based consumption.
  3. Prohibit land speculation and land grabs.
  4. Eliminate industrial farming and fishing subsidies, and adopt regulatory regimes that encourage genetic diversity among plant, animal, and aquatic food species.
  5. Eliminate intellectual property regimes and unnecessary phytosanitary regulations that privilege genetic uniformity.
  6. Expand public research on the beneficial use of microbes for soil fertility and as bio-control agents.
  7. Ensure that food retailers do not exploit agricultural workers through labor contracts and procurement standards. 

In the South:

  1. Revise the colonial nature of customary laws that tend to increase land concentration and marginalize small farmers and poor, rural communities.
  2. Reverse existing legal frameworks and institutions that manage land allocation and land use to better serve the interests of the people who suffer most from the impact of large-scale land deals.
  3. Promote targeted access to land and resources for rural women and small farmers.
  4. Halt all LSLDs and renegotiate these deals on the basis of social, political and economic national interests that strive toward food security, poverty alleviation, and environmental protection.
  5. Strengthen customary use-of-land and -resource rights, while taking special measures to protect women’s rights to productive assets.
  6. Encourage urban and semi-urban food production, which will support women producers.
  7. Support the conservation of endangered genetic diversity for small farmers through conservation programs in gene banks.
  8. Avoid excessive reliance on trade, and ensure resilient local food production systems.
  9. Reject industry-based food safety and phytosanitary standards that discriminate against peasant farmers and small-scale businesses.
  10. Prohibit any measures—public or private—that constrain the right of peasants to save or exchange food genetic resources.
  11. Encourage and support peasant-based food production and facilitate direct peasant-based consumer marketing arrangements with special attention to the role of women.
  12. Incorporate the UN’s Right to Food in binding law, nationally and internationally.

Please share your thoughts on what was most striking to you about the presentation, and where you think the greatest opportunities lie for improving food justice and sustainability. If helping people to see food as something for people and not for profit is a requisite part of the change, how should we try to promote that?