‘We’ve had enough of words. Now, we need to see some action,’ was the message of Kanayo Nwanze, President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), in a speech that was for me one of the highlights of the day.
Another hard-hitting talk was given by Jeffrey Sachs. He outlined the depressing yet true facts of our current crisis. Climatic change and biodiversity loss are both accelerating at an unprecedented rate. In the process, they are destroying both functioning ecosystems and livelihoods worldwide. Yet he also gave us a concrete action: To stop using agricultural land to produce biofuels. Well, this is an action that almost seems manageable! Except, as he said, ‘I’m not going to win Iowa with that one.’ This was a stark reminder that corporate lobbying and political regimes continue to have an alarming amount of destructive power over our food system. This power, in the wrong hands, may be an even greater threat than that of the nuclear codes.
The role of corporations in changing food systems was also - unsurprisingly, perhaps - a major theme throughout the day. As Hans Herren put it in one afternoon panel discussion, the greatest elephant in the room is the concentration of power in the hands of a few. This, he warned us, is getting worse. The inequality and dissatisfaction that result are soon going to reach a tipping point.
The profit-focused action of corporations is a very real problem. In an earlier panel, Rosie Boycott, chair of the London Food Board, gave this example: Research suggests that exclusive breastfeeding reduces the risk of childhood overweight and obesity. Yet, as sales of formula milk fall in North America and Europe, and African consumers are still too poor to be a substantial target market, provider Danone decided to set its sights on China. China, a country with a rapidly rising prevalence of obesity and associated diseases.
Researcher Marta Antonelli, in the later panel discussion, suggested that corporations should be held accountable for the impacts they have on human and environmental health, and this information should be readily available to consumers.
Alex Thomson, who chaired the day’s proceedings, took this opportunity to remind us of the ever-present elephant in the room again: Inequality. ‘What about the poor?’ What about the current tradeoff between market price and product sustainability?
Here’s the optimistic answer: If companies come clean about their environmental footprint, and both acknowledge and pay for it, then those who can afford it will be able to purchase food that they know has a lower environmental impact. Subsidies and higher market demand will cause prices of sustainable food to fall, until everyone can afford food that is good for their health, and the health of the planet.
Of course, there are lots of missing links in this chain of causation, and it’s not only price that is causing poor nutrition to threaten our wellbeing and cripple our healthcare systems. But the conclusion did seem to be that corporations have the power to act and set this chain in motion.
Yet - can this happen? How can this happen?
Perhaps corporate foundations can be part of the solution. In his speech, Nwanze emphasised the importance of involving and investing in smallholder farmers when trying to achieve positive change in the global food system. 98% of agricultural holdings are smallholders, representing up to 500 million farms. These, he told us, are the backbone of the current food system. Yet many of them are increasingly crippled by poverty and climatic change. They need investment, and investment is something that corporate foundations can provide.
Nwanze made it clear that he believes in the power of smallholders. ‘I’ve travelled across the world’, he said, ‘and I’ve seen what smallholders can do.’
So there is hope. As he went on to conclude: ‘Food systems are within our control. They don’t just happen. We make them happen.’
A great example of this was another highlight of the day: The announcement of the winner of the BCFN Young Earth Solutions competition. The winning project - a collaborative project between two Jamaican students, Shaneica and Anne - will educate and empower many smallholder farmers who are adversely affected by climate change. You can more read about their project here. With 20,000 euros, they’ll make an impact.
So I think I can end this post on an optimistic note. Because perhaps, with more initiatives like this - large corporations investing in smallholder farmers - we’ll start to see things change.