Food for All
A Recipe for Sustainable Food Systems
IN CHIPATA, ZAMBIA, A REVOLUTION IS TAKING PLACE. The organization Zasaka is getting farmers in that southern African country access to corn grinders, nut shellers, solar lights, and water pumps. Although these technologies might not seem revolutionary, they are producing game-changing results, helping Zambian farmers increase their incomes, prevent food loss and waste, and reduce their load of backbreaking manual labor. But Zasaka is doing more than helping farmers become more prosperous; it is showing the country's young people how farming can be an opportunity, something they want to do, not something they feel forced to do simply because they have no other options. This project in Zambia is but one ingredient in a recipe for something truly revolutionary: a radically different worldwide food and agriculture system, one built on practical, innovative, and, most important, sustainable solutions to the problems plaguing our current agri-food system.
Farmers, eaters, businesses, funders, policymakers, and scientists are continually learning better ways to increase food's nutritional value and nutrient density, protect natural resources, improve social equality, and create better markets — in short, to develop a recipe for sustainable agriculture for both today and tomorrow. This recipe is being developed in fields and kitchens, in boardrooms and laboratories, by farmers, researchers, government leaders, nongovernment organizations (NGOs), journalists, and other stakeholders in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Experts from a variety of socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds are finding ways, firsthand, to overcome hunger and poverty and other problems — while also protecting the environment — in their countries.
Ironically, their recommendations are not that different from those that could be reasonably offered to farmers in North America. Despite all the differences between the developed and developing worlds, there is a growing realization that the Global North's way of feeding people — relying heavily on the mechanized, chemical-intensive, mass production of food — isn't working, and that policymakers and donors might be wise to start following the lead of farmers in the Global South rather than insisting that they follow ours.
In Ethiopia, for example, farmers who are part of a network created by Prolinnova, an international NGO that promotes local innovation in ecologically oriented agriculture and natural resource management, are using low-cost rainwater harvesting and erosion control projects to battle drought and poverty, increasing both crop yields and incomes. In India, women entrepreneurs working with the Self-Employed Women's Association are providing low-cost, high-quality food to the urban poor. In Gambia, fisher folk are finding ways to simultaneously protect marine resources and maintain fish harvests. And hardworking, innovative farmers from all over the world are encouraging more investment in smallholder and medium-holder agriculture and telling policymakers that farmers deserve to be recognized for the ecosystem services they provide, which benefit us all.
There are countless others whose work is showing the world what a sustainable, global food system, or recipe, could look like. They know that the way the food system works today isn't the way it has to work in the future.
They understand that we can help build a food system that combats poverty, obesity, food waste, and hunger, not by treating a healthy environment as an obstacle to sustainable growth but by understanding that it's a precondition for that growth. A food system where science is our servant — not our master — and where it's understood that costly, complicated technology often isn't the most appropriate technology. A food system that honors our values — where women, workers, and eaters all have a seat at the table and none are left on the outside looking in.
The world has a real opportunity and an obligation to build that kind of system, and we don't have a minute to waste. We need to gather the ingredients today so that future generations can build on the recipe for a food system that provides healthful food for all, promotes a healthy planet, and preserves and appreciates food culture.
Ingredients for Sustainability
There are a variety of ingredients to consider if we are to come up with a successful recipe for sustainable agriculture. First, though, we must understand what we mean by "sustainable," which is a term that can encompass so much but is often overused and misused. For us, sustainable agricultural systems are able to efficiently and comprehensively meet the food, fuel, and fiber needs of today without compromising the ability of future generations to meet the needs of tomorrow. What we hope to highlight in this book is how we can create a food system that is not only environmentally sustainable but also economically, socially, and culturally sustainable and that helps ensure that we are nourishing people as well as the planet.
This chapter will introduce the ingredients necessary for sustainability in food and agriculture and explore how the components of sustainability can add up to better food production, more opportunities for farmers, and a healthier planet and population. This section will also discuss in depth a critical ingredient of a sustainable food system: safe and stable access to nutritious food for all. The following sections are devoted to a deeper analysis of the elements crucial to sustainability. This book is much like a cookbook, offering not only a recipe but also insight from experts as well as illuminating real-life examples. Together, this information can provide a well-rounded look at how more sustainable food systems are made.
Exploring sustainability means exploring the foundation on which food production is built (see Chapter 2, "Food for Sustainable Growth"). Air, water, and soil are all important components, and soil — literally the foundation of a healthy food system — is the one most often overlooked. Besides being the physical land beneath our feet, soil stores and filters water, provides resilience to drought, and sequesters carbon. One of the biggest threats to the food supply is the loss of topsoil. Indeed, in the past 150 years, roughly half of Earth's topsoil has been lost.
Nearly 40 percent of all land on Earth is used for activities related to agriculture and livestock, and all told, some 4.4 billion hectares (roughly 10.8 billion acres, or about 146 times the area of Italy) is suitable for farming. Yet in the past 40 years, 30 percent of the planet's arable land has become unproductive. In many regions, problems related to soil quality affect more than half of the acreage being cultivated, as seen in sub-Saharan Africa, South America, Southeast Asia, and northern Europe. Each year, the planet loses an agricultural area as big as the Philippines (put another way, we are losing a Berlin-size plot of land every day).
Soil Degradation around the Globe
North America (Iowa, United States)
In Iowa, soil is eroding 10 times faster than regeneration rates.
Farm fields' ability to retain water has decreased due to sediment loss; the average 5-ton loss of topsoil per acre per year translates to 300–400 gallons of water retention lost per acre.
Iowa reservoirs are being filled with sediment that has run off from agricultural fields, which reduces their capacity to hold water.
Soil degradation costs the United States $37.6 billion each year.
Across Europe, soil is eroding 3 to 40 times faster than regeneration rates.
About 30% of Italy's agricultural area is at risk for erosion, evidenced by an increase in suspended sediment in rivers from runoff and gully erosion.
Additional soil degradation is caused by a reduction in organic matter, overgrazing, and nonsustainable agricultural practices.
Asia (China, India)
In China, soil is eroding 30 to 40 times faster than regeneration rates.
In India, economic losses from soil degradation are estimated at 1–7% of agricultural gross domestic product (GDP).
Africa (Zimbabwe, Niger, Ghana, Kenya, Ethiopia)
In Zimbabwe, 70% of farmland has been degraded because of erosion.
Degraded soils are less responsive to fertilizers because of deficiencies in calcium, zinc, nitrogen, and phosphorus.
In Niger, 40–50% of land was deforested between 1958 and 1997; current estimates of degradation are 80,000 to 120,000 hectares annually, causing extensive soil loss.
In Ghana, between 2006 and 2015, soil degradation was projected to reduce agricultural income by approximately US$4.2 billion, or 5% of agricultural GDP over that 10year period.
In Kenya, 65% of soil has been degraded, and 19% of agricultural land is experiencing serious degradation.
The average cost of replacing nutrients to degraded soil is equivalent to 32% of average net farm income in Kenya.
In Ethiopia, the gross discounted cumulative soil loss (assumes continued degradation over time) ranges from 36% to 44%.
The rocky northern highlands of Ethiopia receive unpredictable rain, causing extreme erosion that strips nutrients from the soil, devastating crops and livelihoods. Central America (Costa Rica)
In Costa Rica, uncontrolled soil erosion has led to predictions that coffee yields would decline by half in 3 years and to zero in 20 years, potato yields would decline by 40% after 50 years, and cocoyam yields would decline by more than half after 1 year and to zero after 4 years.
Soil degradation has reduced agricultural productivity in Central America by 37% — the largest loss of any global region.
South America (Chile)
In Chile, soil degradation has caused a 50% reduction in wheat yields and a 23% decrease in goat rearing.
Soil degradation and erosion can negatively impact tourism, a major source of income. Australia (Australia)
Since 1950, populations on "fragile lands" in Australia have doubled; these environments are prone to land degradation and are less suitable for agriculture.
The livelihoods of agricultural families living on these degraded lands are seriously threatened, placing them in a "poverty-environment trap."
Wes Jackson, an agronomist and the co-founder and president emeritus of the Land Institute, an organization studying the best ways to improve soils worldwide, says we're plowing through our soil bank account and sending those riches downstream to the ocean. Still, there are solutions. For example, the Land Institute touts the value of growing more perennial crops. Agronomist Jerry Glover, formerly at the Land Institute and now part of the Africa RISING project at the U.S. Agency for International Development, also calls for more research into perennial crops, which, unlike annuals, survive from season to season and have deep root structures that can stabilize soils and hold water. Some perennials are also very nutritious, providing an extra source of high-quality food to families in the developing world. According to Glover, more than half the world's population depends on marginal landscapes unsuited for producing annual crops. But perennial crops can be sustainably produced on those lands and improve farmers' yields, he says.
Dr. Sieglinde Snapp, a Michigan State University agronomist who has also worked with the Africa RISING project, strives to create options for smallholder farmers in southeast Africa. Snapp, who focuses on describing what a "greener revolution" could look like, has criticized recent attempts by governments to both suppress perennial crops and "annualize" them in what she sees as an effort to make them more suitable to conventional, chemical-dependent agricultural practices. She writes, "Management approaches that harness biological processes to improve nutrient efficiency are urgently needed. ... [A]lternative systems can be economically feasible and support sustainable use of resources."
Farmers can also revitalize and protect soils by planting cover crops such as winter wheat, rye, and clover. Besides preventing erosion, cover crops, when plowed under, can increase soil permeability and provide a significant source of soil nutrients for future crops.
In addition, growing diverse crops rather than relying on a single crop, such as corn or soybeans, can restore soil nutrients and help farmers, both large and small, build healthier, more productive soils. Snapp's work has shown that "in Africa, crop diversification can be effective at a countrywide scale." For example, small farmers in the Global South who are raising cattle can use manure to fertilize crops and promote earthworm production. This not only restores nutrients to the soil and protects its microbiota — the microscopic animals that live in soil by the millions — it also helps farmers save money by eliminating the need to buy fertilizer out of a bag and helps mitigate climate change.
Prolinnova works with farmers in Cambodia to fertilize their soil with locally available organic matter. In Nepal, it has installed wasp trappers to encourage beekeeping enterprises, and it is assisting Nepalese farmers as they shift to the more sustainable method of using an ox plow. In Ghana, Prolinnova has developed salt licks from local minerals for cattle, and in Ethiopia it has engineered a low-cost underground drainage system for frequently waterlogged fields. Prolinnova has also introduced native termite predators as a way of controlling infestations in Uganda. These methods of improving agricultural productivity and soil fertility are inexpensive and sustainable and can be maintained at the local level, providing long-term solutions for farming communities plagued by soil infertility.
"Foodprints," or the ecological footprints or impacts made on the environment — on air, water, and soil — throughout a food's production and distribution processes, are tools crucial to understanding and building sustainability. Dr. John Barrett, of the Stockholm Environmental Institute in New York, attributes the growing awareness of ecological footprints to "the increasing acknowledgment of the environmental impact being placed on other countries by the developed world through their consumption patterns. ... The ecological footprint provides an overview of the developed countries' dependency on energy and materials."
As Earth's supply of freshwater dwindles, its temperature is on the rise. Climate change's effects are being seen everywhere, from the relentless melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets to the increasing acidification of the ocean's surface waters, which are 30 percent more acidic today than at the start of the Industrial Revolution. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, agriculture is a top contributor to the climate crisis, because more than 14 percent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions come directly from the growing crops. According to the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture, and Food Security, that number climbs to between 19 and 29 percent of global emissions when the rest of the food system's impacts are considered, including land use change for agricultural purposes, the production and use of synthetic fertilizers, and the transportation of inputs and outputs.
At the same time the modern food system is wreaking havoc on the environment, obesity rates are climbing all over the world. The Double Pyramid (see Chapter 2,Figure 2.1), developed by the Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition (BCFN) in 2010, is a visual, intuitive tool eaters can use to calculate the effects of their dietary choices on both the planet's health and their own. The food pyramid portion of the Double Pyramid, which is based on current nutritional science, visually represents which food groups should be consumed most for a healthful, balanced diet. The environmental portion is designed to showcase the environmental impacts, including GHG emissions and water consumption, of different food groups.
The BCFN describes the Double Pyramid as a visual tool that allows eaters to see that "the foods that are advised to be eaten more are also, generally, those that have the lowest environmental impacts. On the other hand, foods that are advised to be eaten less are also those that have a greater environmental impact."
A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science reveals that in the United States, beef production requires 28 times more land than pork or chicken production and 11 times more water and creates five times more GHG emissions. Along with its negative impacts on the environment, the fat and cholesterol in beef can be bad for the eater's health.
The final ingredient is the observation of food culture: honoring the traditions and indigenous knowledge around agriculture and recognizing the nutritional importance of the Mediterranean diet (See Chapter 4, "Food for Culture"). Food can be as important to a culture as language. Not only is it a tool for communication, it is also a source of social engagement, the foundation of many religious practices, and a platform for human expression. Understanding the culture of food also means acknowledging the important role of women and youth in creating a more sustainable food system.