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Industrial food production system must change as one in nine now live with hunger

One person in nine, some 815 million people globally, were living in hunger in 2016, up from 777 million the previous year, according to The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2017 report recently released by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

The favoured industrial food system is not eliminating hunger or addressing the real causes of why so many of the world’s hungry are small scale farmers. It is boosting production of a small number of commodity crops that are reliant on expensive external inputs such as fertiliser and patented seeds. This food system marginalises small scale producers, concentrates ownership of natural resources, degrades agricultural ecosystems and represents the highest contribution of all human activities to climate change. 

This is simply not a sustainable food system.

Trócaire believes food systems based on sustainable agriculture and natural resource management are the basis for realising everyone’s right to food and nutrition security, to greater social and ecological justice. 

To those ends, we must harness the potential of agroecology – applying the science of ecology to agriculture – a sustainable alternative toward which both industrial and subsistence farming can evolve. 

Agroecology challenges the concentration of power that has emerged under the industrial food system. It does this by, for example, protecting small scale producers’ resource rights, including their right to save, reuse, exchange and sell their seeds while favouring short value chains and strengthening the connection between producers and consumers.   

The scaling up of agroecological practices can be assisted by public policies that support short supply chains and market opportunities. A growing number of municipalities and countries are introducing public food procurement programmes that support the purchasing of diversified foods from local family farms.

This is the type of agriculture and resource management which Trócaire supports in its programmes in eight countries in Africa (Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone and Democratic Republic of Congo), three in Central America (Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua) and one in Asia (Pakistan).

And we can bear testament to its transformative effects. Across these programmes we have seen positive impacts including improved and diversified production, and farmers gaining access to organic and fair trade markets. 

Research commissioned by Trocaire in Guatemala found that family farms based on agroecological practices produced more diverse foods and had higher levels of income than peers who use more conventional farming systems. The higher number of plant species in agroecological fields also serve to promote soil health and enhance farmers’ resilience to environmental and economic shocks.

Last month, we were amongst several hundred participants at the first ever Agroecology Europe Forum in Lyon, France and co-facilitated a workshop on agroecology principles. The workshop had a large and very active attendance reflecting the relevance of developing guiding principles for communicating a better understanding of agroecology. 

Such an understanding can assist in the strengthening of the agroecology movement.

We must do all we can to reverse the upward trend of hunger identified by the FAO, and deliver on smallholder farmers and consumers’ rights to nutritious food in a truly sustainable manner.

Rose and Michael are technical and policy advisors on agriculture and food systems at Trócaire.

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