The theme for this year’s World Food Day (16 October) is ‘leave no one behind’. However, the leave no one behind agenda as part of the Sustainable Development Goals focuses largely on addressing deprivation and not the broader inequities – injustices and power imbalances – that drive unequal outcomes, particularly with regard to food and nutrition. IDS researchers explain why we must focus on food equity to transform our food systems and ensure that everyone has access to healthy, sustainable and affordable food.
Despite massive gains in crop yields over the last half century, we’re now seeing rising levels of hunger and malnutrition across the world. Vulnerable and marginalised people in richer and poorer countries alike are struggling to access decent affordable food, largely due to the impacts of three ‘C’s – Covid-19, conflict and climate change – which are exacerbating pre-existing structural inequities related to the uneven distribution of power and resources.
Thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic we saw the largest year on year increase in global hunger in decades, and this is now combined with the war in Ukraine disrupting global food, fuel and fertiliser markets and driving food price inflation. Extreme weather events damaging crops and livestock, such as the floods in Pakistan and drought in northern Italy are also becoming more frequent due to the climate crisis.
Global pressures driving food insecurity
These global pressures are not only driving up food insecurity but will also push many more millions of people into poverty, exacerbating the cycle of inequity, hunger and malnutrition. Worryingly, we’re backsliding on progress made to date and moving further away from achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goal to end hunger by 2030.
According to Action Against Hunger, in June this year 49 million people in 46 countries were at risk of famine or a food crisis – an all-time high. Countries including Somalia and Yemen are already in need of urgent intervention. In parallel there is a growing malnutrition crisis, as more people have to rely on ultra-processed foods high in salt, sugar and fat. For example, in Brazil from 1987 to 2017, the percentage of calories consumed at home from ultra-processed foods increased from 10% to 24%. By 2030 it’s predicted that over one billion people will be living with obesity globally.
Livelihoods within our food systems can also be very precarious, and small rural farmers, fishermen and herders who produce the majority of food globally are themselves very vulnerable to food insecurity.
Inequities across food systems
The problem isn’t one of supply – we produce enough food on the planet to feed everyone on the planet. The problem relates to inequities across our food systems that are causing disproportionate disadvantage to those who are the most marginalised and excluded. These include (but are not limited to) indigenous peoples, small scale farmers, people with disabilities, ethnic minorities, religious inequalities, the oldest and youngest in society and women-led households. They are all at greatest risk of being left behind – as rightly highlighted for this year’s World Food Day campaign.
When we talk about food equity, we mean the extent to which certain groups are disadvantaged by an unfair and unjust food system, and the structural power imbalances that lead to such marginalisation. Whilst access to food and good nutrition is the most obvious challenge, there are other inequities – such as poor working conditions or fragile employment within the food or agriculture sector; or, ways in which people are denied access to land they rely on for producing food to consume and sell.
Research from across IDS has identified stark examples of food inequity and helped map the drivers conceptually. In Vietnam, research found a large disparity in nutrition outcomes between the Kinh ethnic majority and ethnic minority groups. A particular inequity concerned the ethnic minority mothers who struggled to feed their babies as the country’s maternity leave (aimed at support breastfeeding) didn’t apply to them because they were self-employed.
In upper-middle-income South Africa, we found that farm workers who produce food are highly vulnerable to food insecurity and seasonal hunger, due to lack of employment during the winter months and inadequate social protection for low-paid workers; and in comparative work across nine countries that included the UK, IDS and partners found that broader pro-poor development can be an important determinant of success in tackling nutritional inequalities.
In the Cerrado region of Brazil, peasant farmers and traditional peoples face attack by land grabbers and large agribusinesses, claiming land for intensive soybean and beef production and real estate speculation. The resulting deforestation, water depletion and habitat loss are all having severe impacts on people’s livelihoods, identity and sources of sustainable diets.
Indigenous peoples, such as Kohli fishers in Mumbai are no longer able to rely on catching fish in the city’s waterways for their livelihood and nutrition due to the influx of plastic pollution. Pastoralists who have sustainably lived off livestock for meat and milk across rangelands for generations are excluded from climate change and food policy ‘solutions’. As a consequence, pastoralists around the world are under threat from mass tree planting initiatives and negatively impacted by anti-livestock climate messages, based on evidence from industrial scale livestock farmers.
Measures to slow down the spread of Covid-19 have had profound effects on the food and nutrition security of poor and marginalised households and communities across many countries. Research from the IDS-convened CORE programme also found that Covid-19 is having a major impact on households’ production and access to quality, nutritious food, particularly on women migrant workers, waste-pickers, sex workers and street vendors. In Vietnam we found that government support designed to avoid food insecurity didn’t reach migrant workers because the policy was designed without them in mind.
Focus on food equity
To turn this around and make sure everyone has a fair chance to access healthy, affordable, sustainable food, we have to focus on food equity.
That is why at IDS we have a strategic priority to transform knowledge and action on global food equity and why we worked with key partners to establish the Food Equity Centre, which brings together researchers, activists and affected communities from the global North and South to learn from each other’s research and engagement practices.
Our goal is to produce knowledge and actionable solutions which contribute towards transformative change needed for fair, equitable food systems. We want to amplify the voices of the most marginalised, and challenge the vested interests and abuses of power which have resulted in deep rooted social injustices for far too long.
Find out more about our research relating to food equity via our web page and subscribe to IDS’ Health and Nutrition newsletter for updates on research including antimicrobial resistance, tackling epidemics, zoonotic diseases, food systems and malnutrition.