Let’s Put an End to the “Feed the World” Narrative

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Deciding to write for a forum on agricultural research and development about actually not focusing on feeding the world  might seem a bit counter-intuitive. It might seem a bit off-track. But bear with me, because as a previous “Feed the World” advocate myself, I hope to explain properly why we should leave this way of thinking.

So let’s start with diversified agroecological systems. Simple enough. No, but actually what is a diversified agroecological system? Well, to try and speak simply, it is a food system that is sustainable, and sustainable in many different facets. Environmental sustainability is a key factor, but so is the ability for the food system to produce social equity, good health outcomes, rural development, and economic prosperity, while also being culturally adapted and limiting disruptions to other systems. It is basically all the good things you would want the agricultural field to incorporate. Sustainable farming, organic agriculture, and crop diversification can all be considered aspects of it.

Also importantly, it should lead to a sustainable, socially just, and secure global food system (1). And yet, this is not the current standard in agriculture and not even the current trend for agriculture. Instead, agriculture is still majorly dominated by the opposite types of systems: monoculture and industrial farming being two of the largest. But why is that the case when there is so much evidence that sustainable food systems are far better, especially in the long run?

Emile Frison, as part of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (iPES-FOOD) presented eight key reasons for why the shift towards more sustainable food systems is not currently occurring. Namely, the obstacles.

Though I will focus on one, each of the eight obstacles are important and compelling in their own manner, and all of them will need to be tackled in order to change the current paradigm. The eight include sunk investment in current food system infrastructure, emphasis on export crops, expectations of cheap food, narrow views on the food system instead of an interdisciplinary scope, short-term thinking and policies, incomplete measures of agricultural success, the concentration of power in large companies which have reason to maintain current systems…

…and finally the “Feed the World” narrative. So now we’re getting to the point. There are currently 795 million undernourished in the world today (2). This is a startling number, which calls for actions to be taken. But these actions must be strategic.

Too often this is a narrative which allows for those calling for stagnation in the current unsustainable food systems to gain credibility. This is a narrative that allows some to shout: ‘We need more and more food to feed the current and growing population, quickly let’s continue pushing for greater yields and expanding current systems. We cannot trust less conventional methods while millions are starving.’

And we cannot allow those voices and those views to be the one driving the agricultural landscape. We cannot keep pushing the current systems to feed the global population. Because when looking at agricultural yields, we can already feed more than even the future high prediction of the 2050 global population of 10 billion people (3). The problem is not in our total global ability to produce enough agricultural yields. The problem is indeed in more complex issues.

Poverty and unequal access to food being notable ones. We know producing more food globally does not automatically mean that more food will reach those undernourished in less developed areas who need it. Increasing yields, greater food aid, and greater food exports will not lift those 795 million undernourished.

So back to what we actually need. Sustainable systems where those in less developed areas can create strong livelihoods by growing a diversity of crops that contribute to the food security and overall good nutrition of their localities in an environmentally sustainable manner. Basically, the previously mentioned diversified agroecological approach for sustainable food systems.

This should not only go further in helping to solve the problems of hunger today, but it should also ensure that we are setting up systems in which we can continue to feed the greater populations of tomorrow.

So that is why I say the let’s “feed the world” mentality needs to die. Because it is a narrow mentality that can be used to imply that one region or one system can actually feed the entire world. This has not been the case and I do not think it can ever be the case.

So instead, let’s feed our families. Let’s feed our communities. Let’s feed our countries. And maybe let’s even contribute to feeding our regions. And let us do this sustainably, and equitably, and with a focus on human health from the outset.

And then maybe we won’t have to worry about feeding the world.

Special thanks to Emile Frison, with information taken from his presentation and from an interview on the topic.

Sources

  1. Kremen, C., A. Iles, and C. Bacon. 2012. Diversified farming systems: an agroecological, systems-based alternative to modern industrial agriculture. Ecology and Society 17(4): 44
  2. United Nations World Food Programme on hunger
  3. Huffington Post, We Already Grow Enough Food For 10 Billion People — and Still Can’t End Hunger, Eric Holt Gimenez

Blogpost by Natalie Orentlicher, #GCARD3 Social Reporter – norentlicher(at)gmail.com
Pictures courtesy Wikipedia Commons and Andreas on Flickr

This post is part of the live coverage during the #GCARD3 Global Conference in Johannesburg, South Africa, 5-8 April 2016. This post is written by one of our social reporters, and represents the author’s views only.


One thought on “Let’s Put an End to the “Feed the World” Narrative

  1. Great piece. This is where backyard farming can really help. Back to basics approach, plant to feed your family first, then sell whatever is excess. The technical support and some inputs should be provided by the governments of the countries most affected by hunger. Instead of giving welfare, they can give farm inputs for people to start their own farm, or farm in a community setting.

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