Healthy Food Systems and Sustainable Development

Food production and consumption changed radically and intentionally according to public policies during the last century. The Green Revolution, an international movement to modernize food production, replaced indigenous agricultural practices, beginning in Mexico during the 1940s. Based on scientific research, including experiments with hybrid strains of maize, rice and wheat, new crops were planted using new techniques and chemical fertilizers (to replace animal manure), and irrigation of large land holdings that replaced small farms. Initially, these changes produced higher yields of crops (Lobb, 2003). Then, the approach was reapplied in many other countries including China, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Pakistan, and Turkey during the 1960s and 1970s. This international movement was founded on specialized knowledge (stemming from controlled experiments) that replaced indigenous place-based communal knowledge and knowhow. Then, the Green Revolution was supported by many international donor organizations and subsidized by national governments. It was repeatedly claimed that this movement would eradicate famine. However, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) reported that this is incorrect (FAO, 2015). Statistics confirm that initial higher yields declined after the mid- and long- term impacts of this kind of intensive cultivation on arable farmlands.

The industrialization of agriculture, and the globalization of food production, processing and distribution, transformed local food markets. National agricultural systems and rural life were challenged, and local diets and nutrition changed in many countries. All these changes produced radical consequences, including loss of biodiversity, changes to land use, increased energy consumption, and greater dependency on the supply of water, uses of herbicides and pesticides (FAO, 2017). There have also been significant negative consequences for population health: Empirical research indicates that increased consumption of fats, sugars, salt, meat and processed food is associated with large increases in diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and obesity (World Health Organization, 2014;2016).

Food borne illness and disease remain a major public health risk in both developed and developing countries, as shown by reported cases of Hepatitis A and Salmonella. There are an estimated 0.8 million deaths each year from diarrhoea stemming from contaminated food and water (World Health Organization, 2016). The negative impacts of malnutrition, especially when experienced early in childhood, can recur throughout the life course and include lower life expectancy, impaired cognitive development, and stunted growth.

In addition, a growing reliance on mass produced food for global markets, and the increased cost of locally produced seasonal food, have created risks related to the environmental degradation of agricultural land, and access to safe drinking water for local populations. Rapid increases in food prices in recent decades, and especially since 2008, have provoked social protests in many countries in Africa and Latin America. Food security has become a political issue because the sustenance of large populations is at stake. Official reports indicate that access to affordable food extends beyond countries of the global South to low-income families in Australia, Europe and North America (FAO.2017).

Since 2000, there have been numerous policies and programs to combat hunger and malnutrition in the context of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). However, data and statistics confirm that there still is an urgent need to increase affordable and sustainable food production by means of more public investments in agricultural production at the local and regional levels. Indeed, since 2000, the share of government expenditure in the agricultural sector has declined despite the increase in the market price of cereals and other edible produce (FAO.2017).

Food sovereignty is a societal challenge that should be addressed by inter-sector initiatives for the production and consumption of food in terms of ethical, ecological and economic principles that are meant to serve the common good. We propose that community-led initiatives that promote food sovereignty can be arenas and catalysts for urban transformation and social change towards sustainable development. The next section explains why the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development provides a comprehensive framework for these initiatives if food security in SDG 2 is replaced by food sovereignty.

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