Why We Need to Fix Broken Global Food Systems

Learn about why fixing the global food system is critical to ensure sustainability and equality and discover how TechnoServe is applying human-centered regenerative business solutions to restore biodiversity and fight poverty around the world.

You open the refrigerator and look for something to eat. As you take out a meal or snack and sit at your kitchen table, or plop in front of the television, you may think that all you’re doing is satisfying your appetite. But whether you gobble up your food or decide to throw some of it in the trash, these small actions spurred by hunger are actually key steps of a much larger system.

A food system is defined as an interconnected web of activities, resources, and people that support human nourishment and sustain health. This includes food production, processing, packaging, distribution, marketing, consumption, and disposal. In other words, a food system is how your meal gets from the farm to your fork. Think of a food system as links in a chain that ensure food security, where farmers, food processors, micro retailers, and consumers are essential parts of the cycle. 

But while they are indispensable links in the food system chain, 500 million farmers worldwide earn a salary of less than $2 a day. Food processors struggle to access supplies and materials. Many micro-retailers are at risk of closing their enterprises permanently due to a lack of business skill or opportunity; and even farmers can’t always feed their own families, which results in poor nutrition

Global food systems are broken. And it’s why TechnoServe has prioritized making them more nutritious, inclusive, and sustainable in our Strategic Plan. But why are we at this point? Let’s look at the reasons why it’s so necessary to repair our food systems around the world. 

Global Food Systems are Environmentally Unsustainable 

Irrigation systems in a green vegetable garden.

There are several ways that food systems today are negatively impacting the world’s environmental sustainability. For one, food production is responsible for almost a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. In addition to elements of food production, such as when livestock – mainly cattle – produce methane through their digestive processes, or the direct emissions that result from the release of nitrous oxide from the application of fertilizers and manure, the transportation and handling of food generates significant carbon dioxide emissions. And when food ends up in landfills – as much as 30% of what is produced – it generates methane, an even more potent greenhouse gas. Greenhouse gasses have far-ranging environmental and health effects. By trapping heat and contributing to respiratory disease due to smog and air pollution, these effects can be lethal. Additionally, food systems are the primary driver of biodiversity loss

And the world’s population is expected to increase by nearly 2 billion people in the next 30 years. By 2050, the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations predicts that food production will have to increase by 70% in order to keep up with global population growth. 

“To meet the challenge of feeding a growing population without degrading natural resources, we must increase productivity while using fewer synthetic fertilizers and minimizing agricultural land expansion,” says TechnoServe’s Chief Transformation Officer, Kindra Halvorson. “While past advances in agricultural practices and technology sustained food production alongside population growth, many of these practices are now known to be unsustainable. Therefore, a new approach is required for the future to ensure we can continue to feed the world’s population.”

TechnoServe implements regenerative business solutions that prioritize human needs to combat poverty globally. Our approach aims to increase sustainable livelihoods, mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, decrease deforestation, and promote biodiversity conservation.

In Peru, for instance, TechnoServe’s work with coffee farmers resulted in an estimated 176,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide sequestered (i.e., captured and stored). The farmers themselves also achieved over $4 million in additional income from the project, encouraging them to continue these regenerative practices. And in Ethiopia, installing vetiver wetlands around coffee processing facilities cleans the resulting wastewater and enables local coffee farmers to improve the quality of their coffee through processing, without harming local water systems.

Around the world, the potential of regenerative business to improve lives and protect the planet is immense. Together with our partners, TechnoServe is helping millions of people implement regenerative business practices that allow them to sustainably increase their incomes.

Global Food Systems Can Perpetuate Inequalities 

Better farming techniques improve income for José
José García Martínez stands among rows of strawberries on his farm

The United Nations’ High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition of the Committee on World Food Security found that increasing risks to food security and nutrition can be linked to high levels of income inequality, market concentration in food trade, and transformation and distribution. They also found they were connected to uneven distribution of agricultural assets and access to natural resources. These inequities can result in lost opportunities in health, education, and jobs.

At TechnoServe, we see these inequities firsthand while working with farmers. Around the world, smallholder farms produce close to 30% of the world’s food supply, and close to 2 billion people depend on those farmers for food. But of the almost 700 million people who don’t get enough food, many of them are farmers. If farmers don’t have good market connections and skills, they can be locked into cycles of poverty by not receiving sufficient incomes from their crops.

José García Martínez is one of those farmers. A few years ago, he took a leap of faith. José began farming strawberries on his land – a crop with the potential for high profit margins. However, he was unsure of the best growing techniques, and he sold his crop to middlemen, who paid unreliable prices.

In 2019, he met staff from TechnoServe, who were helping neighboring farmers to improve their yields through the Madre Tierra program, an initiative to strengthen the strawberry value chain in Mexico. TechnoServe Mexico works together with Danone in the implementation of the company’s regenerative agriculture practices and provides on-the-ground business, agronomic and climate-smart training to support smallholder farmers to achieve high environmental, safety, and quality standards. The program aims to work with at least 140 farmers in Michoacán and Guanajuato to turn their strawberries into improved incomes – and find a path out of poverty. An all-Mexican TechnoServe team provides hands-on training for farmers on regenerative agriculture practices, environmental sustainability, food safety, traceability, and quality standards, and business and financial management. With these skills, farmers can improve the quality and yields of their crops – and sell to better buyers at better prices.

José has now completed the agronomy training. And despite a rocky year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he’s not looking back. With improved income from his crop, José made improvements to his family’s home. And he invested further in his strawberry farm, optimistic about the future.

Global Food Systems Aren’t Improving Food Security and Nutrition 

A selection of healthy food to boost the immune system.

We’ve talked about how today’s food systems and climate change are linked. But this connection also threatens food security worldwide and the nutrition of people across the globe. How? Climate change in the form of increased temperature, drought, rainfall variability, extreme weather, and ocean acidification leads to reduced food production, altered nutrient content of food, and high rates of food insecurity. 

A recent study suggests that nutritious foods being unaffordable is also to blame. Authors of the study found that nutrient-dense foods are often very expensive sources of calories relative to staple foods like rice, wheat, or maize (corn). That means that while fish is relatively affordable in West and Central Africa, throughout sub-Saharan Africa, eggs, fresh milk, and fortified infant cereals are prohibitively expensive for those with the greatest financial challenges. 

Although national programs supported by development partners have emerged across sub-Saharan Africa since 2002 to promote the fortification of staple foods, their struggle to meet compliance standards has limited their impact. The Strengthening African Processors of Fortified Foods (SAPFF) Project takes a holistic approach to addressing technical challenges and works to strengthen the enabling environment that promotes the competitive, healthy and effective production of fortified foods. By increasing compliance, the SAPFF Project will increase access to nutrients, and ensure the maximum impact of these activities by focusing on key food staples, such as wheat and maize flour, edible oils, sugar and salt. These fortified products have the scope and scale to make a large impact, especially for base-of-the-pyramid consumers, allowing them to leave the cycle of malnutrition and live healthy, productive lives.

Learn more about how TechnoServe is fixing broken food systems.