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Every day, it seems like there is another solution to addressing our broken food system: Farmers need more sophisticated technologies to monitor their soil health, or an app to give them real-time information about market conditions. A new, drought-tolerant seed variety must be adopted to increase crop yields. Cash transfer programs to increase purchasing power to reduce hunger and malnutrition.
Most of us can agree that our food system requires massive transformation in order to meet the needs of a growing population while preserving the integrity of our environmental systems, but these solutions may have short-term positive effects. They aren’t enough to create the kind of transformational change that’s needed in the food system, because they deny farmers and their communities their agency to define both the problems that face them and to develop solutions at the local level.
We know that hunger has its roots in poverty and is more complex than simply producing more food. We also know that the way we are currently meeting those production targets is degrading the environment faster than it can be replenished.
But external solutions often stem from a food security mindset: That food is nothing more than an economic commodity, and that food security is best-addressed through market-driven solutions. But, as journalist Raj Patel puts it, you can be food-secure in prison or under a dictatorship, because food security says nothing about the manner in which the food was produced — it focuses on the end-state only, rather than taking into account how the people growing the food were treated, or how sustainably it was produced.
These approaches are symptomatic of a wider culture of philanthropy that often privileges the measurable over the systemic. And it makes sense — funders want to know that their support is making an impact on people’s lives. But this can easily collapse into continually funneling funds into treating symptoms, without addressing root causes.
And the root causes here always come back to asymmetries in power. Farmers have long had the odds stacked against them — from predatory seed companies to expensive input programs to land grabbing and social marginalization. Peasant and smallholder communities all over the world are already out-producing industrial agriculture using a fraction of the resources and land. Imagine what they could accomplish if the balance were finally tipped in their favor. If their agency and ingenuity were properly recognized.
To move closer to the kind of food system we all envision, we must begin by asking more questions about the solutions put forth by nonprofits, foundations, and philanthropists. We must ask who truly benefits from the solution. We must ask who had a hand in creating it. We must ask whether it centralizes power or whether it distributes it. We must ask whether it targets root causes. We must ask whether farmers are treated as active agents of change or beneficiaries of aid.
We must look beyond short-term achievements that please funders, staff, and stakeholders but yield only incremental change, and instead hold ourselves accountable for the harder-to-achieve long-term outcomes that will ultimately solve social problems.
Remember that oftentimes, the solutions that are most needed won’t come from abroad. They’ll come from resourcing the people who know their situations best; who hold the solutions already. They’ll come from asking communities “what do you need?” and offering that support. They’ll come from external actors stepping back and letting communities set the agenda.
This is the future of food systems change. It is political, it is slow, it is less measurable, but it is profound. It’s a journey that will result in transformative change in the food system. And it’s the one that we must lean into.
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