By Cristina Eghenter
To what extent do we realize the severity of the impact of our current food system on nature? And not only on nature. The expanding global demand for food makes the agricultural sector a significant cause of environmental degradation and biodiversity loss globally, including in Indonesia. In pursuit of higher crop yields, we are eating up our nature and biodiversity. At the same time, we place economic burdens on small-scale farmers, contribute to the weakening of local food systems and the erosion of local wisdom. We perpetuate food inequity with high waste and overconsumption on the one hand, and poor nutrition and food vulnerability on the other.
The official UN theme for this year World Food Day is “Healthy diets for zero hunger world”. Beyond food security and good nutrition, healthy diets can also help lower the carbon footprint of the current food system and conserve biodiversity. Equally important, they can benefit the livelihoods of rural communities and farmers, men and women. Sustainability and equity are at the core of reshaping food system in order to factor in the enormous environmental and social costs of current food production.
Producers and consumers, as well as regulators, at all level, need to act. If we change our eating habits and food production systems now, we might still be on time to reset us on the right path to ensure a viable food system for the future and achieve SDG #2. Everyone must have access to safe, nutritious and culturally appropriate food in quantity and quality adequate to sustain a healthy life with full human dignity.
According to the report of the EAT-Lancet Commission (2019), global food production threatens climate stability and ecosystem resilience, and constitutes the single largest driver of environmental degradation. The landmark Global Assessment Report on the state of nature by the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES, 2019) similarly points out the severe negative impact of agriculture and food consumption patterns on nature. Moreover, it is an impoverished food system. Nowadays, 75% of the world’s food is generated from only 12 plants and 5 animal species. The reduced diversity of food crops results in the loss of resilience of agricultural ecosystems. We also lose nutritional quality and benefits for human health and risk the disappearing of local wisdom and traditional knowledge linked to agricultural and food practices of local and Indigenous communities.
The current food system relies on large operations that translate into massive land-use intensification, monocropping and land conversion. These operations usually require high volume of chemical inputs that cause pollution to land and water and diminish soil fertility. A handful of companies control a large part of seed production. Yet a system with such high concentration of power exposes systemic fragility.
Long-term sustainability for people and nature demands a shift away from the current system. New models of both production and consumption are needed to form a resilient food system that is local, sustainable, fair and healthy for all.
We can learn, for example, from traditional food systems and agricultural practices of local and Indigenous communities. These systems have overall proven efficient, sustainable, embedded in the surrounding ecosystem and with a high degree of agrobiodiversity. Local knowledge, institutions and practices are vitally important to allow communities to adaptively and sustainably manage their farming systems and natural resources, be food secure and less vulnerable to climate change and other weather events. Traditional diets have also been healthier and rich in plant-based foods. In many rural areas, daily food does not only come from the cultivated fields and home gardens, it is also available in the forest and other ‘wild’ areas. Promoting agro-ecological practices and reintegrating modern agriculture within the ecosystems upon which it relies can help stabilize yields, secure livelihoods, and provide diverse and nutrient food. New models of food production can use innovation and research to build on and with local traditions and wisdom rather than destroy and replace them.
Local and traditional food systems are not only good for the environment and human health, they also partake in cultural identity. In the Krayan Highlands, farmers have chosen to preserve their agricultural traditions. In 2016, they have declared their cultivated land an area for organic and traditional agriculture. The district government has recently issued a decree to protect the agricultural practices of the Highlands. This is one of several examples of resilience in Indonesia, a country extremely rich in bio-cultural diversity and traditions. Long-term sustainability for people and nature also demands a radical change in consumption. Food choices and lifestyles can highly influence agricultural production. Consumers need to be encouraged to make better food choices, rediscover culinary traditions with local and distinct products, and rely on a more diverse diet. Much of this drive will also depend on continuing to raise the awareness and knowledge of consumers about the deep linkages between food and nature. Food products need to tell a story: where is the food coming from? How is it produced or collected, and distributed? And by whom? Labels can help communicate this information and certification schemes need to guarantee that the information is correct and can be trusted. Green and ethical food initiatives are already emerging. Yet they need to be strengthened to help transform the current food system to safeguard nature for the future while boosting local economies and food security, and protecting the cultural identity of food.
Cristina Eghenter is an anthropologist and works with WWF Indonesia on local food systems and Indigenous People