How to Change the Food System
Moving into 2021, we’ve had many opportunities to reflect on the issues we care the most about. We’ve realized that good intentions are not enough — we must peel back the layers and focus on the systemic root causes of the injustice that plagues our food system.
We hope that coming into the new year, we can work to be better allies, summoning this passion we have for change in the food system that will bring lasting transformation — this is an opportunity to evolve together, to reflect, and to grow towards the bold, audacious dream of a food system that nurtures everyone, especially the ones who grow our food. Here are nine truths we all need to know about our food system if we want to work towards achieving this goal.
- Increasing yield does not solve hunger. You won’t solve the world’s problems by increasing crop yields. In fact, we already produce enough food to feed 1.5x the global population. The problem is one of access and distribution; a large percentage of crop calories are diverted to more profitable industries like biofuels, animal feed, and now plant-based meat alternatives, rather than feeding people directly. Calories produced is not the same as calories delivered. When people are hungry, it’s not because there is a lack of food — it’s because they cannot access the food that exists because they cannot afford to buy it. This is evidenced by the fact that the majority of the world’s hungry are actually involved in agriculture.
- Industrial agriculture doesn’t feed the world. The peasant food web — a worldwide community of fisherfolk, pastoralists, farmers, ranchers, herders, landless people, craftspeople, tradesmen, and more who use unbridled ingenuity in all sorts of adverse ecological and social conditions to produce 70% of the world’s food — does. They control less than 20% of the world’s resources but they safeguard 80% of the world’s biodiversity while still out producing industrial agribusiness. Further, the majority of the world’s farmers are not white — we must shift narratives about agriculture to center BIPOC communities who really feed the world. So many solutions to the food system’s problems focus on making the industrial food chain better, when efforts would be better placed in supporting and strengthening the peasant food web instead.
- Our food system is unjust, not broken. Our food system is expertly designed to produce calories, not provide nutrition; to consolidate control, not democratize production; and to protect multinationals’ bottom line, not feed the world. When we reinforce the narrative that our food system is broken, we further perpetuate the understanding that social and environmental ills are accidental byproducts rather than intended consequences. Corporate control of resources has led to almost total consolidation of market control, and this consolidation didn’t happen by accident. This system was facilitated by trade agreements led by bodies like the WTO, who claim to be in support of food security but ultimately further an extractive system that erodes access to food. This extraction, and the resulting lack of food access, doesn’t warrant aid; it warrants reparative justice.
- Our relationship with the environment mirrors our relationship with each other. The very first seeds sown in the agricultural revolution were not seeds of wheat, but of injustice. This shift marked the transition from a hunter-gatherer, relatively egalitarian society to one marked by hegemony, patriarchy, and surpluses. It is where classes and feudalism first emerged. It is the oldest and most profound shift in our social relationships with one another, and these dominant relationships continue to this day; today’s transnational corporations are yesterday’s pharaohs. Because of this, sustainability is a byproduct of justice; not the other way around.
- Stop pretending food isn’t political. The current food system is a human rights issue, and it is fundamentally about power. Across the world, peasants and land defenders are killed by their governments for fighting against unjust laws. They are sued by multinational seed companies who patent a variety they have cultivated for millennia. They are thrust into cycles of debt by corporations who make farmers dependent on subsidized inputs then hike up prices. They are financially ruined by neoliberal policies that only benefit large, commercial farms. This is not going to be solved by shifting to a new farming model; this is going to be solved by fundamentally shifting these exploitative dynamics and power imbalances at their core.
- ‘Food security’ is too narrow a goal. We need food sovereignty. The discourse around food security emerged alongside the neoliberal policies of structural adjustment programs, the rise of food aid, dumping of surpluses on Majority World countries that disenfranchised small farmers on a wide scale and promoted rapid industrialization in agriculture that had disastrous effects on the environment, vastly reducing the biodiversity that is so crucial for food security. The fundamental problem with food security is that it attempts to solve the problem within the existing food system through technocratic solutions; but our food system is built to grow the profits of corporations, not to nourish people. Food sovereignty directly addresses the power dynamics of agriculture, calling for the right of peasants to define their own agricultural systems, set their own prices, and grow food free from the confines of the corporate system; it celebrates and preserves Indigenous and traditional knowledge and land-use practices, rather than erasing them. There is no genuine food security without food sovereignty.
- Conscious consumerism isn’t the answer. If you are able to participate in practices like buying local, ethical foods, there’s nothing wrong with that. But we are mistaken when we begin thinking that conscious consumerism will solve the injustices of the food system. Shopping is not a moral act; we all must buy food to survive under this economic system. Increasing our engagement with capitalism will not solve the issues primarily caused by capitalism in the first place. In order to truly make the system more ethical, we must move our energy from what we purchase to fighting to fundamentally shift relationships of power in the food system; this happens through supporting peasant-led movements, not ethical purchasing. It’s not a bad thing, but it isn’t enough if we want real change.
- If you are not a peasant, you are not the hero of the story. This work is participatory. Community-led. The solutions to feeding the world do not come from Silicon Valley and Wall Street. They come from farmer-innovators around the world who are constantly devising new ways to cultivate the environment sustainably and provide food for their communities. If you want to truly help the food system become better, do not work for, amplify, or lead efforts that treat peasants as beneficiaries rather than active innovators and problem solvers. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for agriculture; no app, algorithm, or farming technique will be the silver bullet that solves the food system’s problems. Your solutions need to address power, humanize, de-objectify, and center the ones who grow our food.
- True allyship takes constant reflection. Many people want to see change in the food system. But not all approaches to accomplishing change are equal. Oftentimes, organizations and individuals have good intentions, but their approaches end up causing harm or fail to center the right communities. We as an organization are constantly reflecting on our approaches, our lenses, our biases, and are committed to learning and unlearning so that we can truly be in support of the ones who grow our food, and stand beside them as they fight the unjust consolidation of power that stacks the deck against them. We must be willing to let go of the pursuit of our own power, and focus on the ways in which we can use our privilege to transfer that power to others. Redistribution is at the core of true allyship.
Being willing to engage in this process of learning and unlearning is the only way to move towards real, transformative change in our food system. This next year, we invite you to reflect on these truths and join us in this goal of becoming better allies for peasant movements around the world, join them in the fight for food sovereignty, and to begin building a food system that nourishes us all.