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Foro Global sobre Seguridad Alimentaria y Nutrición • Foro FSN

Re: Towards a common understanding of Sustainable Food Systems

Nitya Rao
Nitya RaoSchool of International Development and LANSAIndia

This is overall a very good draft that tries to highlight the linkages between sustainable production and consumption, pointing to a range of entry-points for achieving sustainable food systems. Congratulations to the team.

While trade-offs are briefly mentioned, my main concern is the lack of adequate acknowledgement of power relations and hierarchies embedded within all stages of the process, that is, the distributional issue. We know that there is a huge gap between the rich and poor in terms of food consumption and dietary diversity, with indigenous people in India confronting a decline in dietary diversity over the past three decades, due to larger changes in land use patterns and the conflicts between macro-economic policies that encourage GDP growth through ‘industrial and infrastructure development’ often at the cost of biodiversity and local livelihoods. Divisions based on social identity – class, caste and ethnicity – need to be acknowledged, so the challenge of rising global income inequalities can be addressed.

We also know that there are power inequalities by gender which both shape divisions of labour and consumption patterns. Women in many contexts may be inclined to cultivate a diverse set of crops for food security, however, they may be excluded from decisions on land use, and lack control over inputs and resources. Greater attention needs therefore to be placed on social and gender power dynamics at each stage of the SFS, and the resource entitlements of women and men across diverse communities, in order to identify and address possible constraints.

A second element relates to shifts in diets to ultra-processed foods, contributing in turn to the double burden of malnutrition. There are many reasons for this, which are often not well understood. First, at a policy level, taxation policies need to restrict the sale and use of such foods, promoted often with several subsidies and incentives by the producing firms. On the other extreme, at the micro-level we need to better understand local livelihood patterns and the gender divisions of labour that may be encouraging the consumption of ultra-processed fast foods. In the hills of Uttarakhand in India for instance, where a majority of men migrate to the plains in search of employment, the entire burden of production and reproduction falls on women. Firewood for fuel is often not easily available and requires long treks. As a result, food that needs little fuel for preparation is potentially preferred. It is also easier for children to consume fast foods, when their mothers are absent from the home.

Third, several countries in the world today are facing growing youth employment, contributing to a competition for scarce resources for ensuring survival. I would like to draw attention to the marine fisheries sector in India. This continues to be dominated by small-scale fishers, however, over the past decade or so, there has been a push towards rapid capitalisation to enable boats to fish further from home. The size of catch has been declining, though with rising prices, earnings have remained stable. Sustainability however is in question on many fronts – ecological, economic and social. Overfishing has contributed to resource depletion, alongside rising pollution and other problems in the coastal environment. Economically, large export companies have replaced small-scale fish vendors, mainly women, depriving the latter of their livelihoods, as they can no longer access fish catch for local sales. Also, more young men are migrating to other countries to raise the capital for investment in larger boats and more technologically advanced gear (albeit often destructive). Socially, and in terms of diets, not just are women losing their source of income, but also access to fish for home consumption. Shifts in diets dependent largely on carbohydrates (rice), rather than including protein (fish) is enhancing problems of obesity, especially amongst women.

While I really appreciate the link being made between nutrition and health, social protection and agricultural production policies, bringing in social differences and power relations, based on gender and class in particular, will help move towards sustainable solutions.