In times of COVID-19 pandemic, nature and climate change crises, food security, economic recession and heightened inequality have come to the fore of global challenges in forceful ways. Today, as we mark World Food Day, some reflections on the future path of the economy and food production in particular seem appropriate.
A first thought is on measures aimed at increasing food production. If the measures do not respect nature and the way it works, and prioritize economic logic over ecological logic, they will fail to guarantee sustainability and establish more equity. The current global food system is not only a major driver of deforestation and environmental destruction, it is also inherently nature-poor.
According to the United Nations, less than sixty years of farming are left in the soil if we continue the current industrial farming model. Moreover, the greatly reduced diversity of food crops that we consume (e.g., less than 200 out of thousands of edible plants) diminishes the level of resilience of the agricultural ecosystems and deprives us of important nutritional quality and other benefits for human health.
This is in stark contrast with traditional agriculture and farming practices of rural and Indigenous People. There is a very different idea of food production at play, one that is nature-rich as wild foods and natural ecosystems are an integral part of the agricultural system. Many of these traditional systems, under good management, have been able to conserve key pillars of agriculture like soil fertility, diversity of seeds and cultivars, clean water.
The high biodiversity feature that these practices exhibit is also a clear indication that they are nature-rich. Just a trip to a forest community in the interior of Kalimantan or Papua, for example, will surprise visitors for the high number of varieties known, used, cultivated, semi-managed, and consumed by local people.
Securing food availability and quality nutrition for all needs a new governance and transformation of the food system through relocalization and the application of ecological principles. Biodiversity is essential to food and agriculture. Biodiversity is a way to reduce vulnerability of food systems to shocks and stresses by maintaining diverse and adaptive plants that can cope with climate and environmental crises.
The awareness that we are overstepping the biocapacity of our planet and undermining the security of the future generations has resulted in increasing loud calls for agroecology, conservation agriculture and aquaculture to change the way we produce food.
We can learn from indigenous and local food systems, especially how traditional knowledge has helped shape their diverse and adaptive food systems. Indigenous Peoples have nurtured agricultural biodiversity for millennia, both for food and medicines and for deeper spiritual, cultural and community values.
They have developed strong regulations and social sanctions against overharvesting and in support of sustainable use. Healthy nature and ecosystems go hand in hand with a vibrant cultural food heritage to preserve genetic diversity, support diverse diets and local livelihoods.
A just transition in the food system needs to retain more value at local level for equity. This is possible by addressing all aspects of a food system and creating shorter supply chains that keep ecological and cultural values to the advantage of both producers and consumers. Local food systems based on agroforestry and fishing constitute a large part of rural economies, including in Indonesia, which are hugely important for both their subsistence and market values.
Securing access to land and natural resources is crucial to the transition toward more equitable and resilient food security from local to national levels. More policy support and funding need to be mobilized to support small farmers’ and fishers’ initiatives, enterprises and networks, with a special attention to women.
This is already starting to happen in several districts in Indonesia where local regulations support a shift toward diversification and organic farming. This needs to be rooted in a vision for sustainable development that empowers local and indigenous communities, recognize and support women, strengthen and innovate local and sustainable economies that conserve biodiversity and maintain the cultural and social diversity of territories.
In this time of health, biodiversity and climate crises, acting faster and in culturally appropriate ways is important. Focus on local food systems enables more accurate mapping of food vulnerability events and facilitates rapid interventions that sometimes can be resolved locally.
Traditional practices that are based on use of wild foods and extensive knowledge of how to use and process local natural resources have proven more resilient. In the Krayan highlands, North Kalimantan, farmers, women and men, have ensured food security for their communities in times of restrictions and lockdown by actively maintaining food source diversity and intensifying the use of wild plants, produce sugar and salt locally following old traditions and techniques.
Relocalizing the food system and reconnecting it with nature is the way to secure sustainability and build much needed resilience to the current challenges nationally. The transformation will require changing the structure of relationships in the current system to adopt strong and shared values of safeguarding nature and culture, and ensuring a fair flow of economic benefits to food producers at local level.