Articles, Systems Thinking



In May 2015 the Global Alliance for the Future of Food hosted its first International Dialogue, bringing together over 150 key stakeholders from across sectors to discuss and identify pathways towards a more sustainable, secure and equitable future of food. We invited esteemed author and activist Raj Patel to distill the conversation and respond to what he heard.

“What,” asked Million Belay, the Ethiopian director of the Movement for Ecological Learning and Community Action, “about poor people?” We’d just heard from Duncan Pollard, Nestlé’s AVP for Stakeholder Engagement on Sustainability, about how the world’s biggest food company had done its own internal audit of the true environmental and social costs of its business. The number was high. So high that releasing it to the public would result in the company being ‘crucified’. The costs are bigger than profits and ‘trend towards revenue’. Last year, the company’s profits were $15bn, and its revenue was $98 bn. The number is big.

This isn’t just Nestlé’s problem. It’s a food industry problem. KPMG released a report in 2012 looking at how much environmental harm was ‘externalised’ by industries, calculating the price of damage done but not paid for. The food industry had the highest costs – $200 billion. And that’s 224% of their profits.

The consequences are enormous: There’s no business model where the food industry produces cheap food without destroying the environment.

Either we accept cheap food at the grocery store, and have people – invariably poor people – pay for environmental damage in health, social and economic costs incurred elsewhere. Or we have more expensive food that reflects the full costs of its production. The food industry is, Pollard told us, not averse to doing the right thing and internalizing these costs. But no individual food company wants to go first. If they get together and figure out how to coordinate, they fall foul of anti-trust laws.

“But what about poor people?” is the right question. When you pull at the price of cheap food, the food system unravels. Cheap food helps keep wages down. If food prices go up, even more people will go hungry than the 850 million we already have.

Pollard’s answer was that “there needs to be social safety nets.” It’s a systemic solution of a kind. Let the industry continue in a new economic reality, adapting and changing for the better, and make governments transfer money to poor people, so they can afford to buy the same things as before.

There’s a theory of change here, of a kind. In a world where prices reflect environmental damage, you reward good behavior. If you internalize costs, agroecological food at your local farmers market ends up being cheaper than the packages at a supermarket. Fossil-fuel stops being the life-blood of agriculture, replaced by the sun.

When you pull at the price of cheap food, the food system unravels. Helmy Abouleish of Sekem knows the difference intimately. He’s done the math through his potato farming in Egypt. A LE 1.70 kilo of industrially produced potatoes ends up costing LE 2.12 if you include hidden environmental subsidies, whereas an organic kilo currently costs LE 1.77 and would end up costing LE 1.90, 7% more than before, 10% less than industrially produced potatoes. If we get prices right, sustainable food can compete on a level playing-field, and win.

But if you’re starting to value the environment, why not include the health care costs associated with industrial food? Diabetes is a global problem – every 30 seconds, someone loses a foot because of amputation due to the disease. Put a dollar value to that if you must.

When you pull at the price of cheap food, the food system unravels…If we get prices right, sustainable food can compete on a level playing-field, and win.

And if health matters, surely so do the workers and the social systems that make work possible. If you raise wages, you make it possible for farmers and farmworkers to live well too. And why not value the cultural benefits of polyculture and diversity too? Food cultures and seeds don’t live in cookbooks and seed banks but in vivo, in the living communities of which they’re part.

And if you’re looking at malnutrition and hunger, then you can’t ignore gender. Shiney Varghese, at Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, noted that globally, less than 20% of all reductions in childhood stunting can be traced to increased energy from food. More important than increased calories, at nearly 30%, is women’s education and empowerment. In South Asia, women’s education and empowerment has been responsible for 45% of the decrease in chronic child malnutrition. And if you’re imagining all this, then you’ve got to see the barriers to systemic change, in everything from public infrastructure deficits, austerity, shrinking social programs and corporate pushes for ‘free trade’, lower environmental and labour standards, and the way we ourselves behave and allow this destructive food system to be reproduced.

What’s the link between rural and urban areas? How do those geographies relate to one another, and to national politics? Many countries with endemic hunger are bound by debt to export markets, using their land to export commodities they exchange to buy cheap food. How can change happen without thinking about the international trading regime? And how do different levels of government, society and movements relate to one another in the change to a more just, healthy and sustainable world?

If we get the prices right, sustainable food can compete on a level playing-field and win. There’s much work to do. Systemic solutions emerge from a systemic view of the problem, touching everything from health to workers’ rights to government purchasing.

Faced with the difficulty of these questions, it might be tempting to retreat to one’s urban garden, to hide out with one’s favourite solution and hope that everyone else is doing their part. This is a mistake. Piecemeal solutions are ripe for cooptation. They’re ready to be included into a system that has shown itself remarkably resilient in the face of its failures.

Those failures are so serious that we’re already living beyond the earth’s capacity, and beginning the ‘sixth extinction’. The situation is bad enough to demand emergency action, driven by Martin Luther King’s “fierce urgency of now.” But even here, it’s important to have one’s eyes to the horizon lest the politics of today’s firefighting prevent tomorrow’s flourishing.

Movements for social change have been imagining that future for generations. The Brazilian landless rural workers’ movement (MST) has, for instance, been occupying land and farming agroecologically for over 30 years. But they are also part of coalitions that have instituted terrific federal programmes like the school meal undertaking, which guarantees at least 20% and up to 70% of children’s nutritional requirements by buying from local farmers and providing a premium for food grown agroecologically.

Those ideas can, and should, spread. With the right support, movements for systemic change help build a bridge between today’s system and the next. But how? Olivier De Schutter reminds us that “the word power is one you will not see at the end of documents adopted at the end of international conferences.” Confronting power is, by definition, difficult. Yet without the courage to find one’s place in that confrontation, systemic change remains a dream while in the real world, people suffer.

With the right support, movements for systemic change help build a bridge between today’s system and the next.

Poor people have borne the cost of the global food system for far too long, a system that some of the world’s largest governments, companies and philanthropists helped to hone. Their movements for change may not be perfect, but their visions offer a compass to guide change accountably.

Million Belay is right. Think systemically, radically, accountably and with hope, and the question “What about poor people?” can lead to an entirely different food system.


Raj PatelRaj Patel is a British Indian academic, journalist, activist and writer who has lived and worked in Zimbabwe, South Africa and the United States for extended periods. He is best known for his 2008 book, Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System. His most recent book is The Value of Nothing which was on The New York Times best-seller list in 2010. He has been referred to as “the rock star of social justice writing.”.