21 organisations transforming food systems

Danielle Nierenberg
It’s hard to be hopeful around food and agriculture—the climate crisis, social and racial injustice, lack of opportunity for youth, political chaos, conflict, famine, hunger, and poverty can make it seem like there aren’t solutions.

Food Tank – Beacons of Hope

But thankfully, organizations and individuals around the globe are working to make bring stories of hope and success in the food system to the forefront—so that they can inspire, activate change, and make us all feel hopeful about the future of food.
To highlight these stories of success in the food system, the Biovision Foundation for Ecological Development and the Global Alliance for the Future of Food released a new report that showcases 21 Beacons of Hope that employ solutions around the globe toward achieving sustainable, equitable, and secure food systems.
Each of the Beacons of Hope is contributing to the global food system in their own way, supporting farmer livelihoods, securing peoples’ health, supporting Indigenous culture, and regenerating land. Fed up with the failures of the old food system, these Beacons of Hope show that even though past agricultural interventions may have inflicted bad unintended consequences, initiatives are embracing new possibilities for a better future.
The 21 organizations challenging deep structures like established practices and systemic injustices include the Community Markets for Conservation in Zambia which trains farmers in agroecological practices and diversification to offer communities an alternative to illegal hunting for food. Another Beacon of Hope, Climate Resilient Zero Budget Natural Farming in India, promotes food resilience by engaging farmers in chemical-free, traditional farming methods that boost crop resilience and farmer safety. Together, these Beacons of Hope form part of the momentum the food system needs to push the food system toward transformation.
Hot on the heels of last week’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Special Report on Land, the new report “Beacons of Hope: Accelerating Transformations to Sustainable Food Systems” showcases 21 initiatives that are working in diverse ways to achieve sustainable, equitable, and secure food systems.
Though food has been a life force for families, cultures, and societies for millennia, there’s no getting away from the fact that profound changes in the way food is grown, processed, consumed, and wasted over the last several decades has put the food future in jeopardy. When coupled with climate change, shifting global economics, politics, and demographics, it would be fair to say that we’re heading into a dark time.
Fortunately, this situation has also led to a growing consensus that we need a global transformation—and that it’s already happening. Today, people and organizations around the world are disrupting the status quo and working toward sustainable food systems.
Co-authored with Biovision Foundation for Ecological Development, each Beacon of Hope detailed in this new report contributes inspiring solutions to the urgent global issues we face—from climate emergency and migration to urbanization and the need for healthier and more sustainable diets. They are evidence that transformation is possible and point clearly to the nature– and people–based solutions available to us.
What’s in the Report
The Beacons of Hope initiative aims to amplify the power of transforming food systems to address critical global issues such as climate change, biodiversity, equity, and health. Each of the Beacons of Hope profiled in this report is, in their own way, regenerating landscapes, enhancing livelihoods, restoring people’s health and wellbeing, reconnecting with Indigenous and cultural knowledge—all in an effort to achieve a resilient, sustainable food future.
One of the most pioneering initiatives included in the report is the Climate Resilient Zero Budget Natural Farming in Andhra Pradesh, India. This government-backed, chemical-free program promotes food resilience through traditional farming and agroecological processes. It currently engages 180,000 farmers and plans to scale to 6 million farmers by 2024, with growing evidence that it is contributing to multiple positive benefits. Not only do the farmers now enjoy direct economic benefits but they also get resilient crops and improved health due to safe agriculture practices. During our research, a farmer involved in the program also told us that now, thanks to the program, he believes that farmers can relax in this environment and enjoy their life. He likes to visit his fields at 4 o’clock in the morning just to hear the birds singing and see the biodiversity that surrounds him.
Another inspiring “Beacon” is the Community Markets for Conservation (COMACO) social enterprise in Zambia. The program trains participants to be farmers, purposely training them in agroecological approaches and diversification in order to create an alternative livelihood to the hunting of wildlife.
In an interview with Dale Lewis, the president and founder of COMACO, he shared a story about how the initiative was created, in part, to help stop illegal elephant hunting. Poor and hungry villagers were hunting the animals for food. Now, with this initiative, they are able to grow their own food and create a livelihood outside of elephant hunting, which benefits the environment as well as the health of the smallholder farmers. In an area where a cotton company had cleared forest, a chief was asked, “if a kudu (antelope) would come out and walk through the village, what would you do?” The chief answered, “I would shoot it, unless I had enough food. Then I would admire it.” This illustrates how hunger can undermine people’s relationship with nature.
The report also features a specially designed toolkit and presents 10 key messages to summarize both the main findings of the research and point to next steps. One key takeaway is that power dynamics play a fundamental role in shaping the transformation process. A defining characteristic of each of the Beacons is that they are challenging and transforming “deep structures.” Established practices, dominant business models, regulations, and even culturally or social norms can hinder progress and reinforce the status quo. By consequence, truly transformative initiatives or innovations disrupt societal rules, behaviors, and established practices in order to progress and realize equity, diversity, and other pillars of a sustainable future of food.
A good example of this is MASIPAG, a farmer-led network of civil society organizations, NGOs, and scientists in the Philippines. It was created to break the control of local and multinational fertilizer and pesticide companies and agricultural cartels. Today, it is successfully and sustainably managing biodiversity through farmer-bred rice production and controlled seeds and biological resources. This has had a notable impact locally. For example, a few years ago during the wet season, there was a typhoon which hit a community in Nueva Ecija, a province north of Manila. It destroyed all the rice crops in that community except for a farmer’s own variety of rice—that farmer had been an organic farmer for more than 10 years. Other organic farmers that embraced agroecology practices experienced the same thing: the crops of neighboring farms were destroyed, but organic farms still had good harvests.
Ultimately, the Beacons of Hope enable us to shine a light on the failures of the old food system, while inspiring us to seize this moment and embrace the possibilities of the new. Moreover, they highlight that single-focused interventions looking only at increased yields or adequate nutrition are insufficient and are bound to have unintended consequences.
Transformative change is required, it is happening, and it can and must be accelerated. The upcoming 2020 reviews of the Sustainable Development Goals, Paris Agreement, and Convention on Biological Diversity, as well as UN’s 2016-2025 Decade of Action on Nutrition, all represent important opportunities to catalyze food systems transformation. But, we must act. We know from the transition literature that a range of interventions is needed in order to create momentum, develop critical mass, and finally reach a tipping point of transformation—delivering a future of food that is safe, resilient, and fair.
(Danielle Nierenberg is President of Food Tank and an expert on sustainable agriculture and food issues. She has written extensively on gender and population, the spread of factory farming in the developing world and innovations in sustainable agriculture.)