Addressing inequality is essential to building a sustainable food system

Transformation of the global food system is urgently needed if we’re to prevent climate and environmental breakdown, end hunger and food insecurity, and create a better future for the hundreds of millions of people whose livelihoods depend on food production. Making the UN Food Systems Summit held in September a milestone event.

To build a sustainable food system, we need to address everything from production practices to consumption patterns. But we also, crucially, need to address the issue of inequality. 

What do we mean by a sustainable food system?

Our food system is made up of many interdependent components. In a sustainable food system, these elements operate in a state of balance, without causing damaging impacts to society, the environment or long-term food supplies.  

Today, many elements within our food system are under stress. Food production faces increasing risks from climate change. Habitat conversion and poor production practices are causing loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services. Soil erosion and loss of fertility undermine crop yields. Overfishing threatens fish stocks. Food is wasted across all stages of the value chain.  

All these issues threaten not just future food production, but also the prospects of the farmers, communities and workers whose livelihoods depend on the food system. Even today, farmers and communities all over the world face a constant struggle to make ends meet. 

We need to work towards a food system that delivers food security and nutrition for all without jeopardizing its ability to do so in the future. And instead of a food system that traps millions in poverty, we need one that empowers people to achieve a better standard of living.

How do we address inequality to build a more sustainable system?

Fostering more sustainable food systems requires us to look at the inequality and power imbalances that occur at all levels of a food chain. Lack of infrastructure and resources, economic pressures and the marginalization of vulnerable communities all limit opportunities for positive change.  

The UN Food Systems Summit brings to the foreground two fundamental principles which are needed to build a sustainable food system: accountability – meaning all actors within the food system take responsibility for their role in working together to improve the way food is produced and consumed; and inclusivity – meaning all actors within the system have a voice and an opportunity to participate to create positive and long-lasting changes.

We need to mobilise solutions and action across food systems that take into account these fundamental principles. But where do we start? What practical solutions are within reach? 

A living income approach to tackling poverty and inequality

One potentially transformative approach is the concept of a living income – ensuring that the income farmers receive is enough to provide for a decent standard of living for every member of the household.

Where tackling poverty or fixing the food system may seem impossibly broad, a living income provides a clear, measurable and consistent target. By looking at what constitutes a living income for smallholders in a particular region and at what they earn today, it’s possible to get a clearer idea of what action needs to be taken to address that gap. 

Understanding what a living income looks like can help determine what constitutes a fair price for a particular commodity. But achieving living incomes is about more than just what buyers pay. It’s also about enabling farmers to improve yields and profitability, offering access to financial services, developing additional sources of income, and providing basic services like water, healthcare and education. 

Inclusivity and accountability are at the heart of this. It’s vital that all voices are heard and considered in order to address the root causes of poverty more systemically, and to target interventions that meet the needs of different groups and types of farmers in different regions. And it’s vital that everyone plays their part – delivering living incomes for farmers is the responsibility of all. 

Join us as we discuss this and more topics on equitable distribution and working towards improved livelihoods in our upcoming Living Income workshop in October.

Sheila Senathirajah is Innovations Senior Manager at ISEAL and represents the Living Income Community of Practice.