By Joyce Chimbi

The true cost of the global food systems was laid bare in the 2023 United Nations (UN) Food and Agriculture Organisation’s groundbreaking assessment which revealed that the cost surpasses $12 trillion annually. Within this context, the Global Alliance for the Future of Food and their partners including farmers’ networks and associations explored what it would take to accelerate and scale food production approaches.

In this regard, the ‘Cultivating Change Gathering June 2024’ provided a platform to establish a collaborative pathway towards accelerating and scaling regenerative and agroecological food system transitions. The gathering sought to address threats and barriers to sustainable agriculture, finance and funding, market development, policy and implementation and, ecological coordination.

“The best way to invest in the planet and people is through the food system as it clearly actualizes the impact of climate on food and people. There is no way to talk about the planet and people without talking about the food system. This is a natural place for us to put our resources towards sustainable food systems, supporting livelihoods and healthy lifestyle,” said Michael Kwame Nkonu from IKEA Foundation.

He stressed that amidst unprecedented global challenges to current food systems due to multiple and complex crises such as war, the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change, IKEA Foundation remains committed to helping families living in poverty and people who have been forced to flee their homes to build sustainable livelihoods. The projection is that by 2050, there will be about 9 billion people on the planet.

“This means more mouths to feed and people to take care of and yet the planet is not expanding. The question is how to feed more people with the same planet – sustainably, efficiently and without destroying the biodiversity and water resources that are important for our survival. Food production needs to increase to feed a growing population. How will we meet this need?” Nkonu asked.

Industrial, fossil-fuel based food production is driving 90 percent of deforestation, 60 percent of biodiversity loss, accounts for 70 percent of the world’s fresh water use, and contributes over one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions. These systems are also a major driver of poor health and of inequity – over 900 million people are food insecure globally, and over 3 billion people cannot afford a healthy diet.

Smallholders are small-scale farmers, pastoralists, forest keepers, fishers who manage areas varying from less than one hectare to 10 hectares. Photo Joyce Chimbi

Nancy Mugimba, the National Coordinator at Eastern and Southern Africa Small Scale Farmers’ Forum Uganda (ESAFF-Uganda) spoke about the critical role agroecology is playing towards food and nutrition security and, the need to accelerate and scale agroecological practices, saying that this is particularly urgent in light of climate change, biodiversity loss and the overall state of human, animal and planet health.

Mugimba said “the transition is urgent and critical amidst multiple threats and barriers. In Uganda for instance, we are witnessing a great push for a law in support of genetically modified organisms. What will such a bill mean for our agricultural seeds, other farm inputs and products and how do we mitigate a negative impact?”

Regenerative and agroecological approaches are considered renewable, resilient, interconnected, healthy, equitable and inclusive vital pathways to foster greater climate stability, planetary health, and biodiversity.

“It is for this reason that we must transition to these approaches quickly and efficiently bearing in mind that this is about our healthy food and nutrition. If we do not act now, there will be nothing for our children and their children to look up to and learn from. In the absence of healthy and sustainable food systems and as the years go by, people’s lives will be continually endangered,” she emphasised.

Nancy Mugimba at the Cultivating change gathering
Photo credits: Benson Eliamani

A global transition to agroecology and regenerative food systems will require $ 430 billion (1.1 trillion Tanzanian shillings or 56 billion Kenyan shillings) annually. While this may seem like a high price to pay, experts say it is only a fraction of the costs already being paid.

Stressing that the cost is dwarfed by the true toll of the current food system and that a tenfold increase in funding for regenerative and agroecological approaches could finance this transition and address urgent global environmental challenges.

Daniel Moss, the executive director of Agroecology Fund which is a multi-donor fund supporting agroecological practices and policies said there is a great interest in putting farmer organizations at the center of this equation about how to move forward the food systems transformation and, to accelerate and scale agroecology through grassroots networks.

“From a financing point of view, I see more and more interest from funders to fund that sort of basic community infrastructure where farmers can coalesce, come into associations and cooperatives to drive change. Without those empowered and resourced community networks, there is no way for the money to flow effectively for the change that we are seeking,” he observed.

Moss stressed that delivering financing where it is most needed is about creating a demand mechanism on the part of the farmer networks and organizations. Once they have more resources, “they can in turn successfully articulate their plans for what is most meaningful for them to run their local agroecology schools locally and develop local solutions to pest and soil problems, and even the commercialisation challenges they face.”

“They can also make demands on the public extension services as well as the Green Climate Fund and, ensure that mobilised funds are effectively deployed at the community level. This is what we all need – communities that are empowered and involved,” he emphasised.

According to Moss, the theory of change of the Agroecology Fund is that “if we empower these base-level networks and organizations, they can then drive finance into the communities. It is not effective for funding agencies to develop programs that are not attached or grounded in the aspirations of the communities and local level dynamics. Our job as funders is to listen and design programs that meet these aspirations.”

Overall, John Garcia Ulloa from the Biovision Foundation said that the gathering is particularly focused on coordination of actors to “facilitate effective mobilization of resources. And, for the actors here to determine what direction they would like to take collaboratively, the vision and the elements needed to actualise it.”

Ulloa stressed that the “issue of finance and investment is critical to actualise laid out strategies or transform the current food systems. Many factors come into play and they require finances such as markets creation, knowledge and capacity building and networks strengthening. The different group of donors present are essentially assessing and evaluating how to use their investments to make a difference.”

Throughout the Cultivating Change gathering that concluded on June 7, 2024, the Global Alliance for the Future of Food and their partners emphasised that policy, research, governance, funding, and financial flows need to shift from the most harmful practices: chemical-intensive monocrop agriculture, industrial meat and fish production, and producing and packaging ultra-processed foods. Instead, deep and structural change needs to be incentivized, with a focus on supporting the farmers, fishers, landscape leaders, and organizations driving the change.

Philanthropic partners supporting the regenerative and agroecological initiative align around a shared ambition to catalyse a transition to 50 percent regenerative and agroecological food production by 2040, and 100 percent by 2050. Towards this end, a rapid redirection of funds—philanthropic, private, and public—is required hence the urgent, immediate need to catalyse increased funding and action.