Despite technological advancements that have increased global food production, especially cereals, the earth continues to surprise mankind with events beyond imagination – events too overwhelming even for “developed countries”. A well-known unexpected event of our time is the COVID-19 pandemic, which prompted governments to implement lockdowns and social distancing policies – both of which disrupted food supply chains due to the resulting restrictions on transportation of agricultural inputs and products as well as market operations. Evidence from sub-Saharan African (SSA) countries reveals that nutrition as well as food access, availability, and affordability – the three pillars of food security – were affected by the pandemic.
The Ukraine conflict has further disrupted supply of both agricultural inputs (e.g., inorganic fertilisers) and grains (e.g., wheat). The conflict enormously affected those SSA countries that import the majority (up to 90%) of their wheat from Russia and Ukraine. The food and nutrition situation has worsened as, in addition to pandemics and conflicts, the agricultural sector is facing the impacts of climate change. In 2021, for instance, 1.14 million people needed emergency nutrition and food support because of the prolonged drought that disrupted agricultural activities in Madagascar. Likewise, in 2002, floods caused by cyclones Ana and Gombe threatened food and nutrition security in Malawi and Mozambique.
Addressing the complex food and nutrition challenges affecting developing regions like SSA demands more than what can be provided by the current food production system, which prioritises excessive use of inorganic inputs for maximising productivity and profits rather than fair distribution and consumption of food as well as environmental protection. Many, including multi-lateral organisations such as the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), agree that current food systems need to be sustainable if Homo sapiens are to survive the adversities facing the planet.
A sustainable food system can be defined as one that delivers food and nutrition security for all in such a way that the economic, social, and environmental bases to generate such security for future generations are not compromised. The above definition aligns with the 2015 United Nations’ (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which call for transformation in agriculture and food systems in order to end hunger, achieve food security, and improve nutrition by 2030. As much as this definition is more holistic, one wonders if the concept of “sustainable food systems” is another romanticised fantasy. What should a sustainable food system look like in rural communities in developing countries like Malawi? Can the globe, region, or a country such as Malawi have a single sustainable food system? Whose idea of a sustainable food system are scholars, practitioners, and advocates advancing?
The UN Food Systems Summit that was held in New York in 2021 brought together key stakeholders from around the world to discuss global food systems transformation. Prior to the summit, the FAO supported national-level dialogues, dubbed as a “powerful opportunity for people everywhere to have a seat at the table”. These dialogues were designed to help countries contribute to the milestone UN Summit. While the good intentions behind these dialogues are apparent, one must question whether these events managed to bring together diverse stakeholders, including voices that are seldom heard. Take for example, the televised and formal dialogue session that was held at a grand hotel in the capital city of Malawi, Lilongwe. The event was patronised by prominent politicians, high-level policy makers, and well-known academics and researchers in the country, flanked by influential development partners. In such an intimidating and formal environment, how could diverse categories of farmers operating in rural settings contribute their vision of a sustainable food system? The answer is: there was no chance of meaningful participation, apart from hand clapping.
Is it worth spending scarce resources just to engage diverse actors? I say an emphatic yes. I am currently working on a research project, funded under the FSNet-Africa programme, that is investigating how synergies and trade-offs affect the way multi-sectoral actors collaborate in interventions for supporting agri-food-systems transformation in Malawi. During my engagements with communities and subject-matter specialists (also referred to as technocrats) at district and national levels, I have learned that different actors in food systems hold different perspectives about what needs to be done to put food on the table – now and in the future. In one meeting, I noted that while both the technocrats and representatives of communities recognised the need for diverse food sources – including indigenous cereals, fruits, vegetables, and wild animals (e.g., insects and mice) – technocrats still emphasised mainstream crops such as maize and exotic vegetables (e.g., Chinese cabbage). Later, I overheard the community representatives advising each other to select crops preferred by technocrats in order to attract funding and new projects to their areas. At community level, men preferred food crops that fetch high market prices (e.g., soya beans), while women considered nutritional benefits from local vegetables such as amaranthus and roselle. The youths could not imagine eating food products made from millet and bambara nut (examples of neglected and underutilised crop species), while the elderly recognised such crops as highly nutritious and adapted to the local environment. Variations in preferred crops were apparent among local committees/groups that interacted with technocrats from different sectors. For example, nutrition groups preferred crops and animals that contribute to achieving adequate nutrition; farmers working with soil scientists preferred crops that improve soil properties; and natural resources committees highlighted fruit trees as important for the environment.
Clearly, the Malawi case demonstrates that operationalising a unified sustainable food system is a very challenging, if not impossible, task. Interests and preferences among diverse stakeholders operating at different levels tend to collide or diverge. Often, it is only the voices of influential and powerful actors that dominate. Therefore, designers, practitioners, evaluators, and advocates of sustainable food systems should make a concerted effort to create spaces for genuinely engaging diverse actors. One way to do this would be to facilitate dialogue sessions with women, men, youths, and representatives of farmer, nutrition, and environmental groups at community level. To achieve sustainable food systems, we must recognise and accommodate the multiple realities that co-exist within sustainable food systems while refraining from promoting one-size-fits all concepts and interventions.