Approximately 805 million people, or one in nine of the entire world’s population, were chronically undernourished from 2012-2014, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.
While these numbers are going down, creating a sustainable food system around the world is key to combating this global issue.
Danielle Nierenberg, president of Food Tank, proposed four solutions to jumpstart food sustainability at Elon University’s McKinnon Hall on Monday night. Preserving soil, preventing food loss and waste, growing more food in cities and supporting female farmers all can help, according to the author and activist.
The United Nations declared 2015 the International Year of Soils. The overall objective is to develop a broader understanding of soil’s role in food security and a functioning ecosystem.
“Soil is more than just dirt, it’s really the foundation of a healthy food system,” Nierenberg said.
Because soil is a non-renewable resource, preserving this critical layer of topsoil is necessary to sustainable progress. Soil facilitates storing and filtering water, which improves a region’s ability to cope with droughts and floods, and helps combat negative repercussions of climate change.
Nierenberg suggested that farmers should begin to grow a diversity of crops, rather than relying on just one crop. This restores nutrients to the soil.
As a result, looking into perennial crops is crucial because they survive from season to season and are nutritious. Cover crops, crops like peas that significantly reduce soil erosion and preserve soil’s natural nutrients, are also important.
“These are crops that can be used for animals, and in some cases, human food, and they prevent erosion by keeping soil in the ground,” Nierenberg said.
Nierenberg said that cover crops help farmers save money because they are a natural fertilizer, not an artificial one.
Preventing food loss is another way to improve food sustainability. Nierenberg suggested to not purchase more food than one can consume and to store food properly. Additionally, she said to trust intuition rather than an expiration date to determine if food is still safe.
Manufacturers also play a role in this issue. Some are attempting to mark “ugly vegetables,” like misshapen carrots, so they don’t go to waste.
“These products, while they might not look perfect, taste really good,” Nierenberg said.
Farming in urban areas is also critical because populations are dramatically increasing in metropolitan regions.
“If we’re going to feed all of these growing populations, we’re going to need to make cities and towns centers of food production,” Nierenberg said.
In regions like Kenya, riots due to lack of food in urban areas can occur. Urban farmers play a critical role and help feed many during these chaotic outbreaks. Nierenberg said that this issue not only pertains to regional security, but national security as well.
Lastly, Nierenberg said women farmers should be supported. Women comprise more than half of the world’s population and nearly half of its farmers, yet their contributions are not recognized, Nierenberg said.
“This invisible sisterhood–they’re really a huge part of the food system,” she said.
Women farmers produce more crops for consumption than men, meaning most women farm fruits, vegetables and dairy while men tend to produce cash or commodity crops. Ultimately, women produce the food that is eaten.
“These women are not victims,” Nierenberg said. “They are businesswomen, they are stewards of the land. They actually tend to work a lot harder than a lot of the men.”
Some of the women Nierenberg has met around the world have started a communal garden of fruit trees. After starting the garden, they earned five times their previous annual salary. The men in these communities also noticed their efforts and began to respect the women more.
“These are the women who are really changing the food system and are really making it more sustainable,” Nierenberg said.
Nierenberg noted that change is percolating and awareness related to food security and sustainability is growing.
“Just by being here tonight, you’re really on the leading edge of the food system,” Nierenberg said. “Your generation is really thinking critically about food issues, in a way that mine didn’t, unfortunately.”