Fixing a broken food system: why food is not the problem

While the issue of food and hunger has long been on the development agenda, the session ‘Can we fix a broken food system?’, chaired by Paul Vallely, leading writer on development and associate editor of The Independent, is timely. This year the issue has received particular attention through the recent horse meat scandal and the launch of the The Enough Food For Everyone IF campaign. However, panelist Paul McMahon, author and advisor on sustainable food systems, highlighted that media coverage has been “full of myths, half truths and some dodgy statistics about our global food system”. The evening’s rich discussion picked apart the problems at the core of the issue and highlighted key solutions.

The first myth to unravel was the connection between food crisis and a growing population:

“The simple answer to ‘can we feed 9 billion people in 2050’ is yes. We could do that now, there is enough food. It is a question of how it is shared and how it is priced, so it is a socio-economic problem more than a bio-physical problem.” McMahon explained.

Bull and McMahon were joined on the panel by Mike Lewis, ActionAid UK’s lead for policy work on tax in the developing world and Mary Creagh, Labour MP for Wakefield and Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. There was broad consensus on the panel about what was at the heart of the problem:

“When we look at food systems there are two basic problems”, Creagh argued. “The first is inequality and the second is poverty”.

Creagh also highlighted the importance of including both the social inequality of women and inequality embedded in our food supply chain within our framing of the problem.

Some direct solutions came from Lewis:

“In terms of the IF campaign, if we are realistic about being able to pay for the publicly funded parts of what we want then we have to do two things. Firstly, we have to make sure that developing countries are raising their own revenues for public investment, and that tax has to be raised equitably. Secondly, we must make sure that those revenues are spent transparently, and that is about budget transparency as much as it is about corporate transparency.”

McMahon was similarly prescriptive about the centrality of national governments in developing countries:

“I think it all comes down to national governance in developing countries, particularly in Africa. Those governments need to take the actions to put in place integrated rural development plans. That involves advancing infrastructure, investing in research, investing in markets, and supporting smallholders and farmers to grow more food.”

The evening finished on a powerful note of optimism from Bull for the year ahead:

“This year change is possible. We can help to increase aid flows, we can get commitments of aid to helping small farmers and to address the issue of stunting, we could get that commitment to that 10 billion a year and we could end chronic under nutrition of children. This is why the IF campaign is so important…we could be the generation that ends chronic under nutrition of children.”