A young farmer in Mieso, in Ethiopia’s Oromia region. Photo by: ILRI / CC BY-NC-SA

We need fundamental change in the food system that has developed in the rich world, particularly in the last 75 years or so.

It is dysfunctional and unjust — and it fails to deliver a safe, secure, sufficient, nutritious diet sustainably for everyone with equity. As Amartya Sen noted more than three decades ago, if people go hungry, that is about them not having enough food to eat, not a characteristic of there not being enough food to eat.

The majority of the world's chronically hungry people are rural, most living in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Increasingly, all societies are also faced with problems of being overweight and obese. Our concern should therefore be with malnutrition of both too little and too much and the systemic reasons why — taken together — this is growing and spreading globally.

The systemic issues concern poverty and powerlessness and their expression in different societies and the resultant consequences for people's lives and diets. Such concerns are missing from too much thinking on food security and nutrition.

However, these problems are not confined to poorer countries. Indeed, in 2012, the United States spent $78 billion on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for over 46 million Americans.

Questioning the drivers of innovation

Most approaches to reducing malnutrition still focus on technological innovations to increase food production as the main solution — rather than social, legal, economic and cultural innovations.

However, the true driver of innovation has been the needs of the rich, not the poor. Current food production patterns grew out of the recent history of European imperialism and colonialism, and the development of capitalism to date.

For the key actors in the rich world's food system — from input suppliers to retailers — the key driver of change has been competition between them for who makes what money out of food. But they had to operate in environments governed by problems with overproduction, limited demand and saturated markets, as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development pointed out more than 30 years ago.

The basic problem for business is that we do not need that much food for a healthy life. Enough is all we need. Consuming more than enough causes health problems, yet food businesses compete for capital and returns alongside other business not facing such pressures — people can buy loads of clothes, DVDs or shoes but not consume 4-5 times their food needs. It has led to pressures to increase the amounts consumed, to create more eating opportunities and ever more varieties of processed, value-added — more profitable — foods, and foods that turn cheap materials into expensive ones, which is what much meat and dairy is today.

The industrial, fossil-fuelled production model that developed, which needs uniform ingredients, has also encouraged mono-cropping, with research and development tending to focus on the need to develop technical fixes for the problems that this form of production causes, and to focus heavily on relatively few crops that are widely traded — neglecting many other plants and animals that have always been part of diets in different parts of the world.

Power, profits and technologies

The modern hungers that shaped today’s food system are for markets, for profits, for market power and for technologies that minimize the risks to key actors.

They don’t build upon and support small farmer-based knowledge and innovation systems, nor an ecological approach to food and farming in which knowledge is relatively easily and freely shared. Instead, the focus is on proprietary technologies protected through the creation of the privilege systems involved in patents, plant breeders’ rights, trademarks and copyright, and preventing approaches that compete with these.

Today, it is not so much states as artificial legal entities — corporations — that have become the key global movers that increasingly seek — and often succeed — to structure the global rules in their interest.

As corporations have become larger and more global, they have begun to capture legal and regulatory frameworks, first nationally and increasingly globally. This was clearly demonstrated in the way the rules on intellectual property were inserted into — and then made global — minimum standards across a wide range of areas through the inclusion of the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights into the World Trade Organization.

4 major threats and a paradigm shift

Looking ahead, we have to overcome malnourishment in the context of four major threats to people's wellbeing this century: climate destabilization, marginalization of the poorest, competition over resources and militarization.

This calls for a fundamental shift from what the European Commission’s Standing Committee on Agricultural Research helpfully caricatured as the “productivity narrative,” which assumes that we humans have the creative capacity to invent our way out of the problems we have created through technological innovation under the dominant economic growth model in which demand is not influenced by the activities of different actors in the system.

The challenge is to move to food and farming systems built around what SCAR calls the “sufficiency narrative.” This builds upon agro-ecological principles and cyclical mechanisms across the food system. It respects and builds upon biodiversity and small farmer-based and knowledge-intensive farming systems, as giving the strength and resilience needed to maintain not just food and farming systems, but long-term sustainable societies in which equity and justice are fundamental.

As Donella Meadows discussed in her posthumously published book “Thinking in Systems: A Primer,” the least effective way of bringing about the system change needed is to fiddle around with the numbers or delays in the system. More powerful ways for bringing system change are by shifting the mindset or the paradigms, being clear about the goal or function of the system, maintaining and supporting the capacity of self-organization at the lowest levels, and reordering the rules and incentive systems to deliver on the goal that is sought.

The paradigm shift needed is much more fundamental than one that can be achieved from within the food system, because it requires a shift in our economics to a more ecologically-based economic system in which equity plays a central role.

Want to learn more? Check out Feeding Development's campaign site and tweet us using #FeedingDev.

Feeding Development is an online conversation hosted by Devex in partnership with ACDI/VOCA, Chemonics, Fintrac, GAIN, Nestlé and Tetra Tech to reimagine solutions for a food-secure future from seed and soil to a healthy meal.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Geoff Tansey

    Geoff Tansey works for fair, healthy and sustainable food systems as an independent writer and consultant (www.tansey.org.uk). He is a member and a trustee of The Food Ethics Council, an honorary research fellow at the University of Bradford’s Department of Peace Studies and an honorary visiting fellow at the University of Newcastle’s Centre for Rural Economy. He is currently developing www.foodsystemsacademy.org.uk as an open education resource.