Produce market in Ubud, Bali. Photo: Steve Satushek / GettyImages.

Sharing meals together is a simple and delightful ritual, and it’s hard to imagine any celebration where food doesn’t play a central role. In short, we can’t live well without eating well, and the COVID-19 pandemic has underscored that a healthy diet can shield us from diseases .

Today, food systems drive environmental degradation and biodiversity loss, and are responsible for 37% of greenhouse gas emissions. Nearly one in every ten people in the world suffers from severe food insecurity, which at its worst means they have not eaten anything for days. Most  of the world’s premature deaths occur due to diet-related diseases and one-third of all the food produced globally is wasted, while people who grow it populate poverty  statistics.

These are only broad brushstrokes. However, it’s clear that changing our food systems for the better would win us a chance at a liveable world, where everyone enjoys good health and prosperity.

Making such changes entails resolving complex systemic challenges and joint coordinated action from all sectors of society on local, national and global levels. Here are five ideas drawn from SEI’s research for how to drive transformation in food systems – ideas that might not usually come to mind. 

1. Cut ground-level ozone pollution

Ozone is usually thought of as the “good gas”. That’s true when it’s 15–30 km above the Earth’s surface, forming the ozone layer that protects our planet from harmful radiation. However, when it floats in the troposphere, just 8–14 km above the ground, ozone poisons plants, causing yellowing, necrosis, reduced photosynthesis and biological deterioration, all of which stunt crop yields. In fact, India is already losing 14% of wheat and 6% of its rice harvest due to ozone pollution. Other ozone hotspots are in the Midwestern USA, much of mainland Europe and the coast of China.

Air quality monitoring hardly ever focuses on rural areas and is rarely considered in seasonal crop-yield forecasts. Installing ozone monitoring networks in rural areas and incorporating calculations of ozone pollution effects into crop modeling is essential, but, ultimately, addressing ground-level ozone pollution is about switching to clean energy, especially in industry and transportation.

2. Invest in sustainable sanitation

COVID-19 has made us all acutely aware that simple hygiene measures, like handwashing, can go a long way in limiting the spread of infectious diseases. However, it’s not as widely known that people who lack access to clean water and sanitation also suffer from recurring gastrointestinal infections, which lead to malnutrition and stunting, with huge implications  for human and economic development. Increasingly, scientific evidence  indicates that safe water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) are a priority when it comes to better nutrition.

But WASH can deliver even more than that. Installing circular sanitation systems that capture, recycle and repurpose waste can help generate valuable resources locally, like fertilizer, energy and water and can improve food security and resilience, all while creating jobs and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. For example, SEI’s Clean and Green framework was developed to help establish effective resource reuse in rural areas, in parallel with hygiene and sanitation promotion. Developed into an open access online platform, the Revamp tool facilitates the transition to a circular economy by estimating the financial value and reuse potential of waste on a city scale.

Amazon agroforestry farm with a variety of tropical crops, including bananas, brazil nuts, copoazu, papaya, pineapple, yuca and more Photo: Alexandre Morin-Laprise / GettyImages .

3. End deforestation

Forests are most often cleared with the intention to grow agricultural crops, so it may sound counter-intuitive to say that deforestation is detrimental to food security. Trees, however, are essential for maintaining environmental conditions favourable for agriculture. Bare land can’t regulate and store water, has lower fertility because it lacks organic matter and is susceptible to erosion. All of this forces people to apply synthetic fertilizers and heavy irrigation and then expand further into forests in pursuit of more farmland, maintaining a vicious cycle.

Additionally, forests are sacrificed in favour of industrial agriculture; soy farming in Brazil’s Cerrado, cattle pastures in the Amazon and palm oil in Indonesia are the most well-known examples. These farms may provide jobs to local farmers, but the produce usually goes to affluent consumers and most of the profit to intermediaries handling sales on the international markets, while local communities are often left with nothing but depleted resources. Forests, on the other hand, have supplied local and indigenous communities with nutritious foods, healthy game meat and medicines for millennia.

Halting deforestation, therefore, can not only improve food security but also spur the transition to climate-smart sustainable farming in balance with nature, as demonstrated by agroecology, agroforestry and other innovative approaches . Understanding where and how industrial farming causes deforestation is the first step. The Trase  tool uses publicly available data to increase the transparency of agricultural supply chains, revealing their environmental and social risks in tropical forest regions.

Woman farmer holding green banana on farmland. Photo: Visoot Uthairam / GettyImages .

4. Bank on social equity and gender equality

The world produces enough food to feed everyone , yet we are far from ending hunger. Many experts agree that poverty, injustice and inequality, rather than scarcity, are the root causes of hunger. Farmers, farm and food workers often have meagre social protections and are paid poorly for essential labour that is exhausting and hazardous. Additionally, fresh and nutritious foods, like fruits, vegetables, fish, eggs and meat, are expensive and hard to get if you are poor, your family has low socio-economic status and you happen to live in a marginalized community or remote area. This, in turn, pushes people to eat unhealthy foods, which results in higher rates of non-communicable diseases (NCDs), missed workdays, climbing healthcare bills and, ultimately, deeper poverty and a shorter life.

Women’s empowerment and higher gender equality tend to correlate with better nutritional outcomes and are a well-recognized tool against hunger Women are more likely than men to be food insecure , a fact driven by cultural norms, such as favouring boys and men in household food distribution, and structural inequalities, like income gender gaps and lower education. Women comprise 43%  of the agricultural labour force in the Global South, but men are persistently considered the de facto heads of households as well as their main providers. Because of this, women farmers often can’t own land and lack access to credit, information, extension services and agricultural inputs.

SEI research on women’s empowerment in rice value chains in Cambodia, Pakistan and Vietnam shows that women often are confined to production, processing and small-scale retail, while men dominate business and trade. Traditional gender roles like domestic chores and caretaking prevent women from accessing the lucrative stages of food value chains. For example, out of 200 members of the Cambodian Rice Federation, which manages rice export companies, only two are women. In turn, policy tends to work in favour of traders, who are mostly men. For example, price regulation policies in Vietnam benefit rice traders but do not reduce production costs for small rice producers, while the country’s Rural Development Strategy 2010–2020 did not include gender at all.

Questioning and correcting gender inequalities and other systemic power imbalances can go a long way in helping to make food systems more sustainable, and in reducing hunger and improving nutrition.

5. Prioritize collaboration over competition

The global food system is very complex and full of “wicked” problems. From plant genetic engineering and lab-grown meat, international trade, agricultural subsidies and sustainability certifications to child labour and land rights, plant-based diets, loss of agrobiodiversity and advertisement of sugary drinks, many diverse issues are part of the food system dilemma and no single actor can possibly solve it alone.

So, fixing our food system will require collaboration on different levels and scales. Partnerships between governments, businesses, scientists, advocacy organizations, artists, chefs, communities and citizens will be vital. Working with people who do not share the same interests, values and vocabulary isn’t always easy, but is essential for covering more ground and increasing influence, combining efforts, sharing resources and enriching the food systems discourse with diverse voices and experiences. Networks and digital communication platforms, like SIANI , can help with that. Crucially, such networks can help us break out of silos, generate safe discussion spaces, make connections and power integrative solutions that we urgently need to get our food systems on track.

As the UN prepares to convene the 2021 Food Systems Summit , it’s vital to employ all the solutions we can think of and turn the vision of a sustainable future into reality.