Field Report: Why Redesign Food Systems?

Emilio Travieso, SJ, is a DPhil student in the Oxford Department of International Development working under Dr. Laura Rival.  He does research in partnership with grassroots organizations that are building sustainable, healthy, and just food systems. Below is the second part in a series of reports from the field where Emilio will explain his work and its place in the larger Jesuit mission. 

Within the last sixty years or so, the way in which the world’s food is produced and distributed has become more and more industrialized and intertwined with global markets.  Today’s dominant system has increased yields, so that we produce more than enough food to feed the world’s population, but it hasn’t solved the problem of hunger: over one out of every nine people on the planet, 795 million in all, are still undernourished.  As Amartya Sen has famously demonstrated, the problem is not only guaranteeing production, but also access.

Not only has the agro-industrial complex failed to solve the problem it was meant to address, it has also created new ones.  The system creates incentives to produce unhealthy foods, high in fat, sugar, and salt, along with additives designed to increase a product’s shelf life (as opposed a person’s life expectancy), while giving consumers less control over what they eat.  One result is that obesity has become an epidemic in many countries, often coexisting alongside hunger.

Inequality is exacerbated by financial speculation on food prices, coupled with corporate land grabs that push out traditional smallholder farmers, many of them indigenous.  These peoples’ place-based knowledge is being lost as they are forced to migrate, thereby undermining our capacity to restore ecological harmony to our agriculture.  This point is crucial, not only because industrial agriculture is a main culprit behind climate change, but also because the social changes it brings undermine traditional farming’s role in conserving biodiversity.  When we lose biodiversity, we lose resilience in the face of new diseases and erratic weather patterns, which are becoming more frequent as the system’s ecological damage takes its toll.  It’s a vicious cycle.

Some people say that we can trust technology to come up with new products that will solve all these problems we are creating, before it’s too late.  To many others, including myself, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that, as Arjun Appadurai puts it, we need to use our creativity not to design new objects for a given situation, but rather to re-design the situation itself.  In other words, we need a better system.  If the current system was designed to produce more food in a profitable way, what we need is a system designed to deliver enough healthy food to everyone, in a sustainable way.

So how do systems change?  According to theorists, dominant systems are viable because the larger context offers favorable conditions for them to establish themselves.  When a game-changing circumstance (such as growing awareness of climate change) puts pressure on that system, cracks begin to appear.  This gives innovators, who have been incubating alternative models in protected niches, the opportunity to negotiate a reconfiguration at the system level.  When their models are persuasive for the new context, social transformation occurs.

Among food systems innovations, the most promising ones respond to all of the problems of the other system by designing alternatives that are sustainable, healthy, and just.  These tend to combine agroecology and social and solidarity economy, within a framework of food sovereignty.  Agroecology is about producing food in an environmentally and socially sustainable way.  Social and solidarity economy is about putting people over profits.  As for food sovereignty, it is not about achieving autarky, as many people assume, but rather about giving people control over their own food systems.

In future posts, I will be saying more about all of these aspects, as incarnate in real initiatives that are based in Latin America.  More specifically, I am studying two innovative organizations that are building better food systems.  One, Yomol A’tel, is based in Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state.  The other, the Mesoamerican Permaculture Institute (IMAP by its Spanish acronym), is based in neighboring Guatemala.

This is an especially relevant region for many reasons.  It is rich in both biodiversity and cultural diversity, but also marked by extreme poverty and inequality.  It is a disputed territory, where the harmful chemical fertilizers of the “Green Revolution” and the agroecology movement compete fiercely.  The stakes are high, as the region is among the leading producers of coffee, one of the world’s most traded agricultural commodities.  Even more crucially, the biodiversity of maize, one of the world’s top three staple grains, is seriously threatened by the pressures of capitalist agriculture. 

In my next post, I will explain how this threat takes shape through the lens of milpa, a traditional Mesoamerican farming practice that is essential to indigenous Mayan life and identity, and to humanity’s food security, but is under attack.  After that, I will write more about Yomol A’tel, since I am in Chiapas with them now (I’ll be with IMAP in Guatemala starting in April).  In the meantime, you can read more on all the topics I’ve mentioned here, and find the bibliographical references that support my arguments, in my research proposal.