​​By Danielle Nierenberg​​​​​​

2016​ is a year for solutions

There’s no question that the​ global food system is at a turning point. Nearly 1 billion people go to bed hungry while another 1.5 billion people are overweight or obese, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization.

An astounding 1.3 billion tons of food is wasted each year, according to FAO; WHO adds that 2 billion people suffer from micronutrient deficiencies; many other diet-related diseases, including heart disease and diabetes, afflict millions more.

Meanwhile food production is responsible for 70 percent of fresh water use, says the FAO, and 80 per cent of the world’s deforestation. It contributes an estimated 25 to 30 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to climate scientists.

Farmers are ageing all over the world: globally, the average age of farmers is around 55. The young continue to migrate to cities, not viewing agriculture as a viable job or career. Investment is lacking in rural livelihoods, in the information, communication and other technologies that would entice younger people to stay in rural areas.​

“Consumers and producers are finding ways to make the food system more environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable.”

​​​​But there are solutions, and they’re happening all over the world. Consumers and producers are finding ways to make the food system more environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable. And several innovative and forward-thinking companies are seeing tremendous opportunity — and profit — in a more just, fair, and secure food system.

And 2015 marked the end of the Millennium Development Goals — the global targets for alleviating extreme hunger and poverty, disease, lack of shelter, gender equity, and other goals — which will be replaced by the Sustainable Development Goals.

The UN General Assembly’s Sustainable Development Working Group has, so far, proposed 17 goals with 169 targets, including the ending of hunger and the promotion of sustainable agriculture. And these goals can help to build a more sustainable and just food system while creating jobs, sequestering carbon in soils, conserving water, protecting biodiversity, and lessening rural to urban migration. All of these strategies can lead to less hunger and malnutrition, and less obesity and better health. Livelihoods for farmers can be secure, but they need investment and support — from governments, from civil society, and from businesses.

​The recipe for sustainable agriculture is constantly evolving, but many of the ingredients stay the same:

  • Encourage businesses to become more environmentally and socially sustainable
  • Invest in women
  • Increase diversity

Unfortunately, these components don’t often receive the attention and investment that they need. But when they do, they can transform food and economic systems. Here are some of the best initiatives around.​

Image: Food Tank President Danielle Nierenberg, photo courtesy of Romero Editorial Commercial Portrait Photography New Orleans​

​​Encouraging businesses to go green

At the Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition’s conference in Milan in 2012, Guido Barilla, president of the 137-year-old Italian food company that funds the nonprofit organization, talked about the importance of companies having “a double responsibility”. In addition to making a profit, he said, they needed to take responsibility for the impact their products can have on the world, particularly the food system.

The company’s “Good for You, Good for the Planet” model sets goals for 2020 including bringing Barilla’s products to more than 1 billion people worldwide, increasing quality standards, and focusing on the healthiest foods, which also happen to be the best for the planet.

​Recently Barilla worked with the Barilla Center to launch the Milan Protocol, an international agreement to improve sustainability in the food chain through preventing food loss and waste, promoting healthy lifestyles, and limiting food price speculation and land grabs. Barilla is seeking global support from other companies, governments, and civil society to move the Protocol forward.

The US Agency for International Development has emphasized that it will take private enterprise to help to address the global food crisis — whether it’s worldwide obesity or hunger. Governments can’t do it alone, according to former USAID Administrator Raj Shah. Public-private partnerships are needed to make sure everyone has access to safe, healthy, sustainable, and affordable food.

“Policymakers, civil society and industry are coming together from May to October to discuss the themes of Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life.”

​​​​Public-private partnerships are a key part of the World Economic Forum’s New Vision for Agriculture. Monsanto, Pepsico, Bunge, Cargill and other corporations have pledged to be part of the program, to help countries “by aligning investments, programs, and innovations around shared priorities for agricultural growth”.

In Burkina Faso, Ghana, Mexico, Rwanda, Vietnam, and six other nations, the New Vision is working with farmers, governments, and NGOs to develop strategies for increasing food production and improving livelihoods. The partnerships are meant to be company-led and implemented, to work on the involvement of small farmers, and to be market-based and transparent. The World Economic Forum says Indonesia and Tanzania, for example, have alreadyinvested a lot of time “to engage stakeholders, build trust and define shared goals and principles before launching pilot projects”.

Individual companies are also developing collaborations within countries. In 2010, Unilever launched the “Unilever Sustainable Living Plan” as its blueprint for sustainable business. The Plan has three main goals including improving health and wellbeing, reducing environmental impact, and enhancing livelihoods.

One of the company’s most important drives could transform the palm oil industry. Most palm oil is extracted through unsustainable practices including deforestation, and is responsible for at least 15 percent of global emissions. Unilever hopes to source 100 percent sustainable palm oil from certified, traceable sources by 2020. The company is one of the founding members on the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) that was developed through a collaboration with the environmental organization WWF, and currently the company is able to trace 58 percent of the palm oil in its supply chain.

CNH Industrial has developed similar initiatives. The company’s ​Sustainability Plan incorporates environmental, social, and corporate responsibility to create transparency and promote development. In 2013, the company planted vegetation on its property in England to contain a highly invasive species, Reynoutria japonica. In Italy and Germany, CNH Industrial completed assessments of biodiversity indicators (BVI) and in India, the Company helped to plant more than 1,000 native plants and flowers for migratory birds.

Iveco, a brand that is a part of CNH Industrial, promoted Slow Food International’s 10,000 Food Gardens in Africa project, and Iveco supported the Ethiopian Slow Food Presidium for the camel milk of the Karrayyu shepherds, a cooperative of more than 40 herdsman, south of Addis Ababa.

Restaurant chains are also moving toward sustainability in the food system. Fast-casual chain Panera has made a commitment to phase out protein treated with antibiotics. Its former Chief Concept Officer and Executive Vice President Scott Davis described this change as part of the company’s efforts to create a better product and to encourage the growth of small and medium-size farm which are raising animals without the use of antibiotics. Chipotle has made similar commitments, working with Niman Ranch to provide sustainable meat to their customers.


“The company’s Sustainability Plan incorporates environmental, social, and corporate responsibility to create transparency and ​promote development.”

​Investing in women

2014 was the International Year of Family Farming. Today, there are an estimated 500 million family farmers producing some 56 percent of the world’s food, according to the FAO. They’re not only food producers but business people, innovators, teachers, and stewards of the land. Not surprisingly, 2015 was the International Year of Soils — and it’s the world’s family farmers, especially women, who safeguard what may be the most important agricultural input of all.

Unfortunately, women are the least recognized for their efforts, not just in protecting and building soils, but in safeguarding food and nutrition security and creating more inclusive societies.

In Ghana, for example, the Abooman Women’s Group has worked with local and international NGOs, including Heifer International, to organize themselves into a cooperative to raise dairy cows to make yogurt and other value-added products. When they formed the cooperative, their husbands were at first angry that their wives had dared to create the co-op without their permission. But as the men saw their family incomes grow, the more their opposition turned to enthusiastic support.

And in India, the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) has more than 1 million members. One of their biggest priorities is food security. They’ve built a training center and farm outside Ahmedabad and are training women about agroecological practices such as vermiculture, rainwater harvesting, and growing indigenous crops.

SEWA goes a step further, training urban entrepreneurs to market and sell SEWA’s products — rice, lentils, and spices — under SEWA’s own label to low-income women slum dwellers. These products are higher quality than most of the products available and the sellers are able to build a reliable customer base, giving them higher incomes.

The role of women in agriculture is so important that the FAO reports that if women had the same access to resources — land, credit, inputs, education, and extension services — as men, they could lift 100-150 million people out of hunger. But to ensure that women have the resources they need, governments and policymakers as well as civil society and businesses must push for women’s equality in all aspects of their lives.

Increasing diversity

One consequence of the Green Revolution in agriculture of the 1960s is that over the last 50 years, agricultural production, in developing and industrialized countries alike, has become more focused on the production of raw commodities. Maize, wheat, soy, rice, and other commodity crops dominate global production.

According to AVRDC-The World Vegetable Center, the lack of vegetables in children’s diets has a catastrophic impact on childhood malnutrition and mortality. Very simply put, the more communities and countries have access to vegetables, the fewer children who die before the age of five. The lack of vegetables in children’s diets also leads to a greater risk of malnutrition, stunting and other developmental problems.

But the lack of focus and investment on vegetables and other nutritious foods doesn’t only lead to malnourished children — it is also a leading factor in the obesity epidemic in both rich and poor countries.

For many decades, obesity was a problem facing only rich countries, but today, thanks to inexpensive, high-fat, low-nutrient processed food, it’s also impacting the health of people in poor countries. Mexico has a 70 percent obesity rate; and in India, often the poster child for world hunger, 17 percent of adults are obese.

This has created a surge in cardiovascular disease, respiratory diseases, and type-2 diabetes across the globe. These diseases will cost $30 trillion globally between now and 2030.

Shifting some emphasis from starchy staple crops to vegetables, perennials, and nutritious grains is essential to promoting nutrition and public health while also protecting the environment and reducing poverty.

In Uganda, for example, Developing Innovations in School Cultivation, or Project DISC, is working with more than two dozen schools to teach students from pre-schoolers to teens how to grow, cultivate, and market indigenous fruits and vegetables, such as leafy greens, papaya, and other crops.

The organization rebuilds a taste for these foods — foods that the students’ great-grandparents ate but have now been forgotten as more foreign foods flood the domestic market. Often these indigenous foods are dismissed as poor people’s foods or even weeds.

By helping to restore the market in Africa for foods grown by Africans, groups such as Project DISC are restoring demand for more nutritious foods and keeping more money in their own communities where they’ll generate more jobs and opportunities. This is especially important for encouraging youth to stay in rural areas. The students working with Project DISC also learn that agriculture — something that is often looked down upon — can be profitable and intellectually stimulating.

Indigenous foods also have the potential to be the foods of the future — they’re typically more resilient to the drought, pests, disease, and flooding that are likely to increase as a result of climate change. If farmers and governments from California to Bangladesh act now, they could have a shot at preventing a bigger global food and nutrition crisis..


“It’s a mix, and all stakeholders large and small must play their part.”

​​Towards broader co-operation

These efforts are commendable, but they’re not the only paths toward change. While corporate involvement in the food system and public-private partnerships are likely to become a bigger part of agricultural development, they aren’t the only tools available for increasing food security over the long term.

Investments, large and small, from a variety of stakeholders are needed to make agricultural development economically and environmentally sustainable. Governments — especially in African nations — need to strengthen small and medium-scale agriculture in their own countries. Businesses, governments, NGOs and producers need to find ways to work together to make agriculture more resilient and sustainable.

We will need major corporations to provide research, infrastructure, and other services for agricultural development, filling a hole often left empty by governments in developing countries. But when major corporations are the only stakeholders providing the services for agricultural development, there are potential risks of creating dependence on one company or product and a potential loss of agricultural biodiversity.

Investment can often be better spent on innovations that are already in place. These aren’t always the sexy technologies — biotechnology and high-tech machinery, for example — that companies and funders think are next big things. They tend to be low-tech, high-impact innovations such as information and communication technology, agroforestry, solar drip irrigation, and many other practices with tremendous potential for replication and scale. Local ideas and solutions, in some cases, can be just as powerful as monetary investments from big corporations. It’s a mix, and all stakeholders large and small must play their part.

Danielle Nierenberg is the president of Food Tank​.