Why the transformation of our food systems is imperative


Current crises highlight the need to transform food systems. Dr Sinclair, team leader of the World Food Security Committee HLPE report, presents 13 agroecological principles to effect change.

Farmer in Burkina Faso (c) GIZ/Michael-Jooss

By Dr. Fergus Sinclair

Dr Fergus Sinclair is Chief Scientist at CIFOR-ICRAF (Center for International Forest Research – World Agroforestry) based in Nairobi through collaboration with Bangor University, UK. He is Co-convenor of the Transformative Partnership Platform on Agroecology and led the Livelihood Systems flagship of the CGIAR research program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA).

All contributions

The global food system is broken and calls for its transformation abound. It is an urgent priority for humanity, on the one hand, because there are widespread problems of malnutrition, with many people hungry or with nutrient deficiency, amidst a rising tide of obesity; while on the other, agriculture is a key driver of climate change, degradation of land and water resources and biodiversity loss, at the same time as being hugely affected by them. Business as usual agriculture and food systems are unsustainable, inequitable and a major cause of humanity exceeding planetary boundaries, threatening global sustainability.


Even before the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic were felt, after decades of improvement, global food security had started to decline. Since 2014 the prevalence of undernourishment has steadily risen to 8.9% globally, but distribution is unequal with hunger much more prevalent in Africa at 19.1%. (FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, WFP and WHO, 2020) This means that there were 690 million people hungry across the world before COVID-19, and it has been estimated that the pandemic will cause this to rise sharply, especially in Africa. (FAO, 2020) Business as usual food systems are not providing adequate food and nutrition in an equitable way.


It is estimated that from 21-37% of total greenhouse gas emissions are attributable to food systems


including farm production (9-14%), land use change (5-14%) and storage, transport, packaging, processing, retail and consumption, including loss and waste (5-10%). (Mbow u.a., 2019) Massive increases in food supply since 1961 to feed a growing population have involved much greater use of nitrogen fertilisers (increase of about 800%) and water resources for irrigation (increase of more than 100%). Climate change, in turn, threatens food security through, increasing frequency and severity of both droughts and floods, change in the distribution of pests and diseases and in where some crops can be grown. Business as usual food systems massively contribute to climate change and need to rapidly adapt to the effects of climate change.


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Watering operations in Ethiopia (c) GIZ/Kraemer.

Land degradation is estimated to affect 25% of the earth’s land area disproportionately affecting people in developing countries. (Olsson, L. et al., 2019) Soil erosion and reducing soil organic carbon content with attendant consequences for soil structure, water holding capacity and biota are quick to happen but take a long time to reverse. Climate change exacerbates degradation through higher temperatures and increasing frequency and severity of droughts and floods. In many places water tables are lowering because of the amounts of ground water extracted and surface water abstracted for irrigation, while many water courses are contaminated with pollutants ranging from excess nutrients from leached fertiliser to toxic substances derived from pesticide use. Business as usual agricultural and food systems often deplete the natural resources upon which they are themselves based, making them fundamentally unsustainable.


Recent assessments found that 64% of agricultural land globally (approximately 24.5 million km2) is at risk of pesticide pollution causing adverse effects on water quality, biodiversity and human health. (Tang, F.H.M. et al., 2021) Agriculture is a major driver of an unprecedented loss of biodiversity with a million species at risk of extinction, the rate of extinction increasing and the average abundance of native species having fallen in most major land-based habitats by 20% or more over the last century. (IPBES 2019) Up to US$577 billion in annual global crops are at risk from pollinator loss. Business as usual agriculture and food systems are responsible for catastrophic levels of biodiversity loss, that undermine agriculture itself as well ecosystem function.


Essentially, we are in a perfect storm, where multiple global crises interact with one another to generate a spiral of degradation and humanity finds it difficult to tackle such complex problems


It is evident that fixing broken food systems will require, holistic solutions working across sectors and scales. Important sectors include agriculture, environment, water, energy and trade; while scales include that of the field, farm, landscape, nation and the whole planet, which is the scale at which the global conventions on climate change (UNFCCC), biodiversity (CBD) and land degradation (UNCCD) are focused.


Water wells in Niger facilitate irrigation of the fields (c) GIZ/Oberthür.

Food systems are impacted by and hugely influence the three global conventions and involve the production, storage, processing, transport, sale and consumption of food. These activies do not operate in a simple linear sequence but interact with one another and are influenced by policies that incentivise or regulate how they operate. Indeed, it is consumption decisions that ultimately drive demand for production. A practical example of how these interactions play out is that: as people in China became wealthier and decided to consume more pork, demand for pig production increased, leading farmers in Northwest Vietnam, encouraged by government policy, to grow monoculture maize on once-forested sloping land for export as pig feed, resulting in widescale soil erosion, exacerbated by more intense rainfall, as well as biodiversity loss.


This shows how consumption and production decisions interact with climate change and trade, to generate a web of impacts on food supply, its sustainability and the environment. Agroecological transformation of landscapes in Northwest Vietnam is now taking shape as policy has shifted to work with farmers to encourage contour planting and agroforestry, including with high value indigenous fruit trees for which there are expanding markets.


It is clear that transformative change is required to develop sustainable agricultural and food systems


and that this will involve challenging some of the norms and vested interests surrounding and sustaining business as usual agriculture and food systems. The severity of the interlinked crises associated with food systems mean that incremental change is not enough, a fundamental system wide reorganisation is required involving technology, economic, social and governance aspects. Agroecological approaches involve an alternative paradigm to business as usual agricultural and foods systems with different goals, values and mindset. (HLPE 2019) These are summarised in 13 generic agroecological principles that when applied through participatory processes with local stakeholders result in a diversity of agroecological practices that suit the local cultural and ecological context. (Wezel, A., et al., 2020)


Farmers in Gaoua, Burkina Faso (c) GIZ/Michael Jooss.

Seven of these principles are mainly concerned with agroecosystem management to encourage farming that is in harmony with nature and confers resilience: avoiding environmentally disruptive inputs; recycling; using and maintaining biodiversity; synergy (managing interactions amongst components), economic diversification; and, ensuring animal and soil health. The other six concern whole food systems and are fundamental for catalysing and sustaining transformative change: co-creation and sharing of knowledge; land and natural resource governance; connectivity (particularly of producers and consumers); social values and diets; fairness; and, participation (referring to agency of producers, consumers and all other actors in food systems). The need for these principles to be applied simultaneously has led to agroecology manifesting as a science, a set of practices and a series of social movements. Widespread transformative change is only likely to occur where these three manifestations coalesce and work together.


Implementing agroecological principles requires fundamental change to science, policy and practice


A reconfiguration of research and extension is required to take equitable account of indigenous and local knowledge. This implies a need for transdisciplinary science, that is focussed on real world problems and solution-orientated, involves stakeholders and their knowledge, and employs reflexive methodology that can evolve to suit the context. The need for this is palpable, given a recent global assessment of agricultural research that found that over 95% of research was not relevant to smallholder farmers, despite 83% of farms globally being less than two hectares. (Nature 2020)


In Niger, donkeys are used to transport water from the water well to the field (c) GIZ/Oberthür

Equally important is policy reform to remove those, such as subsidies for chemical inputs that ‘lock in’ business as usual agriculture at the same time as formulating policies conducive to agroecology. These might include measures to overcome constraints by, for example, financing the time lag between investing in agroecological practices and returns, and ensuring that consumers have agency to express preferences for sustainably and equitably produced food when they are making purchasing decisions. Perhaps the biggest challenge is reconciling the need to make global impact through local action. This requires efficient methods of supporting local innovation at scale by embedding research within development initiatives. This can accelerate impact by addressing rather than ignoring, the heterogeneity of local context, thereby moving beyond silver bullets to understand what works where and for whom using the options by context paradigm. (Sinclair, F. und Coe, R. 2019)


Transformation of food systems is imperative if global challenges are to be addressed and while it will not be easy, there is a growing realisation that it is worth the effort to meet the needs of current and future generations.

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