The global food system is broken; here’s how to fix it


Jay Naidoo is founding General Secretary of Cosatu, former minister in the Nelson Mandela government and former chair of Gain, a global foundation fighting malnutrition in the world.

“One in four people in South Africa do not have enough to eat, and half the population is at risk of hunger, despite the country producing more than enough food. According to a new report by Oxfam, low incomes, rising costs, a lack of access to productive resources and climate change are amongst the reasons causing 13 million people to go to bed hungry.” Oxfam SA.

The UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon at the Rio Summit in 2012 called on leaders, business and civil society to step up efforts to end hunger and launched the Zero Hunger Challenge. Today is World Food Day – is it another promise made by global leaders that remains deferred?

Our challenge of hunger in South Africa is not unique: the global food system is broken. Despite there being enough food in the world to feed everyone, half of humanity, over 3 billion people, eat inadequate diets – whether hungry, malnourished or obese. Each year, malnutrition erodes health of billions of people’s. It kills over 3 million children under five and leaves 165 million stunted. One in 9 people go to bed hungry every night.

Rapid population growth and climate change pose new challenges to an already over-stretched food system. The monopolization of the food system by large vertically integrated corporations ( controlling land, seed, fertilizer, herbicide inputs and distribution input) has pushed up prices and led to large scale ‘land grabs’, especially in Africa, where 60 % of the remaining global arable land resides. The food system can be fixed, but only by a collective global effort and political will from all stakeholders.

These are some of the crucial issues we need to focus on:

Family Farming

2014 is the International Year of Family Farming. This year, World Food Day focuses on unlocking the barriers to family farming and smallholder farmers.

A successful effort would have a compound effect in eradicating hunger and poverty, providing food security and nutrition, improving livelihoods, managing natural resources, protecting the environment, and achieving sustainable development, particularly in rural areas. There are more than 570 million farms in the world, responsible for at least 56% of all agricultural production. Most of the world’s farms are very small, with more than 475 million farms being less than 2 hectares in size. (FAO 2014).

Women and Farming

Although women make significant contributions to the rural economy, they often have less access to productive resources like seeds, tools and training than men because of their limited access to resources, education, ?nancial services and labour markets.

Women produce more than half of all the food that is grown in the world yet receive less than 10% of credit offered to small-scale farmers, only 7% of agricultural extension services, and own less than 1% of all land. In Africa, most food from smallholder farmers is produced by women, especially in commodity sectors like coffee and cocoa. The workforce of the coffee industry in Ethiopia, for example, is 80% female. There is empirical evidence that improving incomes and rights of women has a direct impact on improving the education, health and nutrition of their children.

The FAO estimates that if women farmers had the same access as men, agricultural output in 34 developing countries would rise by an estimated average of up to 4%. This could reduce the number of undernourished people in those countries by as much as 17%, translating to up to 150 million fewer hungry people.


The UN predicts that two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050, posing unique infrastructural challenges for African and Asian countries, where 90% of the growth is predicted to take place. In many cities, over half the population live in informal settlements and slums, and already rates of malnutrition are extremely high there. To make matters worse, urban food systems in many countries are not developing rapidly enough to cope with the challenges of a fast growing population, a factor in increasing obesity levels as traditional diets are swapped for snacks and high-energy, nutrition-poor fast foods.

Climate Change

Climate change is already making people hungry, disrupting crop yields, pushing prices up and increasing food insecurity for ever increasing percentage of the world’s population. And it is not just food but nutrients that are becoming scarcer as the climate changes.

A study led by the Harvard School of Public Health found that rising levels of CO2 are stripping staple foods of vital nutrients, rendering staple crops such as wheat, rice and soya less nutritious for millions of people in developing countries. If climate and socio-economic trends continue the number of under-nourished children in Africa alone is expected to rise ten-fold by 2050.

Fighting Food Wastage

Over 30% of all food produced in the world for human consumption every year — which amounts to a staggering 1.3 billion tons of food — gets lost or wasted. The world could feed 870 million hungry people in the world in the world if just 25% of the food currently lost or wasted globally were saved.

In the developing world, food waste and losses occur at early stages in the food value chain, tracing to flawed harvesting, storage, inefficient cooling practices and poor infrastructure. In medium- and high-income countries, food is primarily wasted and lost at later stages.

What future?

It is encouraging that the UN Open Working Group has put ending hunger, improving nutrition and promoting sustainable agriculture high on the list of the proposed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which will succeed the MDGs. By the time the SDGs expire in 2030, the document expects the international community to have put an end to hunger and all forms of malnutrition for good.

It won’t be an easy task. Demographic shifts and climate change are increasing food insecurity for large numbers of the world’s population. And, as cheap, empty calories enter the diets of consumers across the globe, more and more low and middle-income countries will grapple with the double burden of malnutrition and rising obesity.

The post-2015 system must support the world’s smallholder farmers so that they are able to grow, sell and eat more nutritious foods. This includes empowering women in rural communities to control their income and encouraging farmers to form collectives that enhance their bargaining power.

We need adequate regulation that protects consumers, especially children, from unhealthy diets, particularly those that are fuelling the obesity crisis. This becomes particularly crucial as urbanization moves consumers towards packaged food and away from traditional diets. We need to link production to making more nutritious foods and improving diversified diets for the poorest.

We must push for proven priority interventions, such as exclusive breastfeeding up to 6 months and continuing with nutritious complementary foods after that, until at least 2 years of age. We need to make investment in nutrition interventions such as fortifying staple foods with essential nutrients like iron and zinc; home fortification with micronutrient powders must be intensified.

We need to be more ambitious if we want to solve the problem of malnutrition in our lifetime. This requires helping individuals and nations empower people to improve access to and consumption of an optimized diet, that is neither insufficient in key micro and macronutrients, and is largely plant based rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and nuts, and low on fats, trans-fats, salt and sugar. Ideally it would also encourage a balanced lifestyle, which includes moderate physical activity. We need to start talking about optimal nutrition to prevent malnutrition in all of its forms.

We need to support farmers’ collectivisation, so they can increase their bargaining power to support greater access to nutritious products amongst local communities, and in the process, creating a sustainable (and price-stablce) market for local farmers growing nutritious foods. The farmers themselves need to be empowered to make decisions on what to produce and in what quantities, supported with access to high quality seeds and a distribution network that takes the fresh produce to supermarkets across the region.

The tasks are gargantuan. But failure to act will lead to even greater social instability and conflicts in our world. DM