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What's In Your Manifesto for Disrupting Global Food Politics

Columns 2023-01-13, 11:12pm

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Danielle Nierenberg



Danielle Nierenberg

Lately, I’ve been thinking about what Oxford Professor of Philosophy William MacAskill says: "We are the ancients."

Let me explain what this means with some numbers that boggle my mind: 7 percent of everyone who’s ever depended on a farmer for food is alive right now. But 5,000 years from now, all our farming ancestors and us, combined, will have comprised only 10 percent of human history. (Thanks to Food Tank board member Dr. William Burke for explaining this!)

Humanity is still so young, and our future depends on our stewardship. In hundreds or even thousands of years, our descendants will look back at us—as the ancients. We need to start acting like our grandchildren's grandchildren are watching us, because they won’t exist if we keep taking sustainability for granted.

Onstage last week at the Oxford Farming Conference in the United Kingdom, I shared what I called a "manifesto for disrupting global food politics," which I also published on Forbes. I talked more about the conference on our podcast Food Talk with Dani Nierenberg, so I hope you’ll tune in HERE.

In true manifesto style, my list contains five items — not exactly demands, I suppose — but what I’ll call urgent calls to action that’ll help us all save the world.

Number 1: Invest in women in agriculture. Globally, women make up 43 percent of the agricultural labor force—yet they’re often not allowed access to the same resources and respect as their male counterparts. Across all regions where women are less likely than men to control or own land, the fruits, vegetables, and other nutritious foods are often of poorer quality.

Simply put: We ignore women at our own peril. If women farmers had the same access to resources as men, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, the number of hungry people in the world could be reduced by up to 150 million due to productivity gains.

I’ve seen this on the ground with groups like the Self Employed Women’s Association, the world’s largest labor union, which demonstrates day in and day out that, when you invest in women, you don’t only invest in an individual or a group—but an entire community.

Number 2: Respect and honor Indigenous Peoples and people of color in our food and agriculture systems. Keep this in mind: Despite the discrimination and genocides they face, Indigenous peoples comprise 5 percent of the global population yet are protecting 80 percent of the world’s remaining biodiversity. The traditional foods that make up the foundation of Indigenous nations’ well-being—crops that are resilient and healthful—should be the foods of the future for all of us.

In the city of Baltimore, where I live and where 65 percent of the population is Black, chefs Tonya and David Thomas are teaching eaters and young folks how to recognize and honor the black food narrative with their work. They are recognizing the foods that those who were formerly enslaved started growing in the United States and the environmental, economic, health, and cultural benefits they still provide.

Through this manifesto, I call for more spaces where the next generations of farmers and activists can learn to honor the earth. More than only investment, they need reparations. Their land was stolen, diminishing their abilities to feed themselves. They deserve more than an apology: Actual financial compensation, so that future generations can thrive.

Number 3: Recognize what youth bring to the table. Farmers around the world are aging: Their average age in the U.S. is about 58, and the same is true, for example, in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, too. For so long, formal spaces have excluded youth, and they’ve viewed farming through a lens of punishment rather than opportunity. But that’s changing—and we’re better for it.

Organizations like Slow Food International; Act4Food Act4Change; YPARD, an international movement by young professionals FOR young professionals for agricultural development; and more are indeed lifting up young people into positions of power—and credit must go to them. Now, it’s time for policymakers and the private sector to embrace collaboration with young folks, too, to make systemic change.

Number 4: Utilize true value and True Cost Accounting in our food and agriculture systems. Let me try to put this in perspective for all of us. The global population consumes about $9 trillion dollars’ worth of food each year. But, according to a report by the U.N. Food Systems Summit 2021 Scientific Group, the external cost of that food production is more than double that—nearly $20 trillion.

These external costs include biodiversity loss, pollution, healthcare costs and lost wages from diet-related diseases, worker abuse, poor animal welfare, and more. What if, instead of just filling people up, we placed economic value on crop and livestock systems that are actually healthy for people and the planet? Systems that provide delicious, nutrient-dense food, that protects workers and the environment, that is regenerative and gives back more than it takes? Systems that carefully account for externalities and make it more profitable to be sustainable?

And finally, Number 5: To policymakers who aren’t focusing on food, get your heads out of the sand! We need common-sense lawmaking around food and agriculture. We need more regular conversations in Capitols and Parliaments around the world, and laws that solve the problems that actually need solving—the problems that farmers, eaters, and businesses face every day.

Let’s all become citizen eaters and vote for the kind of food system we want. Vote with our dollars, yes, but we also have to vote with our votes! Elect candidates who’ll prioritize food and ag not just at the national level but in local school boards, credit unions, mayoral elections, and more, too. Or, run for office yourself!

These five things alone won’t save the world. My husband, who’s a mathematician, would say they’re necessary conditions but not sufficient. This manifesto is a starting place for action—and I hope it’ll inspire you to help save the future.

I’ve met plenty of folks in their 20s and 30s—in all careers and walks of life—who are choosing to become farmers or policymakers or food advocates. They’re the momentum of the food movement. They’re the next generation of leaders, and we can’t squander the world they’ll inherit.

What calls-to-action are on your personal manifesto?

(Danielle Nierenberg is the President of Food Tank and can be reached at danielle@foodtank.com)