Involve marginalized groups to make food systems more climate-resilient

July 22, 2020

Written by Nout van der Vaart, Hivos Advocacy Officer Sustainable Food

At last week’s 2020 High Level Political Forum (HLPF), UN member states discussed how to get back on track to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. They focused on a dire need for “accelerated action and transformative pathways to realize the decade of action and delivery for sustainable development.”

Given the fact we’re also entering an unprecedented climate emergency, let’s be specific about what’s needed. Responding adequately to Covid-19 and achieving the SDGs in the next ten years will need to include serious efforts to rein in and adapt to the impacts of climate change.

Climate change is already hitting low-income and marginalized groups the hardest. If we want to realize a just and rights-based transition to climate-resilient and inclusive societies, we need to make sure of one important thing. That all those in today’s food system – especially those hit hardest – are involved in re-shaping our future food system.

Why transforming our food systems will be essential

Food production systems are among the largest contributors to climate change. Last year’s IPCC special report on climate change and land stated that an estimated 21 to 37 percent of greenhouse gas emissions caused by human activities come mainly from animal production and deforestation.

At the same time, the changing climate is also adversely affecting food production systems and food security worldwide.

Who is caught up in the vicious circle of climate change? Everyone. From smallholder farmers and informal food vendors to factory farms and powerful multinationals. Yet marginalized groups are impacted the most. Groups like low-income consumers, ethnic minorities, indigenous peoples, and women in particular. The problem is, the powerful – who are the most responsible – have the resources to dodge the bullet, while the marginalized need support to adjust and adapt.

What many people ignore – or don’t realize – is that these groups are vital elements of local food systems. Smallholder farmers and informal food vendors largely shape and sustain these systems. We simply cannot overlook this fact as we enter the “decade of action and delivery for sustainable development.”

How civil society enables marginalized groups to transform food systems

As the climate emergency advances, it’s clear that those who are least responsible for climate change suffer from it the most. In this context, the SDG mantra “leaving no one behind” is also a call to enable marginalized groups – smallholder farmers, low-income consumers, and informal vendors – to become resilient to climate change. That will help bolster everyone’s food security and protect food systems worldwide. Hivos and our partners recognize the pivotal position of these groups. At the same time, “leaving no one behind” must go hand in hand with broader climate mitigation efforts, including structural changes to food production practices and marketing, and food consumption patterns.

Our new paper with IIED shows how our Sustainable Diets for All (SD4All) program has empowered CSOs and low-income groups to advocate for more inclusive, sustainable food system policies that integrate climate resilience. We can highlight two examples here.

In Zambia, monoculture production of maize is encouraged by national agricultural policies. This has led to soil degradation and biodiversity loss, leaving many smallholder farmers vulnerable to climate change. Our SD4All partner Civil Society for Poverty Reduction worked with the government to create an e-voucher system that helps smallholder farmers access seeds and other inputs for different crops than maize.

In Uganda, our SD4All partner Volunteer Efforts for Development Concerns (VEDCO) has trained and deployed what they call “diet champions.” They go into the field, visiting farmers and local authorities alike. Their mission is to promote the production and consumption of local vegetables among farmers. And to convince local authorities to adopt policies and pass regulations that stimulate the same behavior. The champions have special advice for both: indigenous crops are often better suited to the local climate and more resistant to climate shocks.

How government can multiply civil society’s efforts to change our food systems

The good work civil society does to tackle the climate crisis and transform our food system can only go so far. For truly effective global change, governments, international institutions and other relevant stakeholders must scale up these efforts. In light of upcoming international conferences like the UN 2021 Food Systems Summit and the Nutrition for Growth Summit, we urge them to prioritize three action areas:

  1. Strengthen the role of citizens and CSOs in food governance. Lasting results are only possible if you include the voices normally left out of decision-making. So governments need to hold transparent and inclusive dialogues with everyone who has a vested interest in food systems. Only then will the needs and opinions of the most marginalized and underrepresented groups be included.
  2. Promote and invest in diverse, climate-resilient food systems. Agricultural biodiversity is the key to thriving, resilient food systems. So governments, agribusinesses and civil society organizations should promote food production practices that create and maintain agrobiodiversity – including indigenous foods and knowledge.
  3. Embrace and empower smaller, local players in food systems. Most underprivileged citizens in low-income countries buy their food at local informal markets and smaller businesses (formal and informal SMEs). At the same time, these are the main outlets smallholder farmers use to sell their produce. Governments need to acknowledge the vital role these local markets and SMEs play and encourage them. They can do this in two ways. Through policies that allow a wide range of local food producers and sellers to thrive within food systems. And by adopting legislation that prevents large companies from monopolizing the food system.

It’s now or never

The next “decade of action” for sustainable development and combatting climate change is here – and the time to act boldly is now. With Covid-19 amplifying the imbalances and unjust structures of our food system, the need for an inclusive and green recovery is staring us in the face. Failing to shift towards climate-proof food systems risks collapsing the ecological and social-economical support structures our societies are based on. For the benefit of future generations, we must prevent the climate crisis from worsening any way we can. Radically transforming the food system by putting citizen’s voices and needs – so often ignored – at the center of the transformation is crucial.