Chapter 2

Key Inputs from Summit Workstreams


Equitable, sustainable and healthy global food systems are essential to a functioning society, and yet evidence confirms that food systems are broken and in dire need of transformation. In 2020, 155 million people faced acute food insecurity (UN News, 2021), and in 2021, an estimated 272 million people are at risk of becoming severely food insecure worldwide (World Bank, 2021); 41 million people in 43 countries are on the brink of famine (UN News, 2021). Beyond these numbers, three billion people globally cannot afford even the cheapest form of a healthy diet (FAO, 2020). While as many as 149 million children under five are stunted and over 49 million are wasted, more than 40 million children under five are overweight and at higher risk of non-communicable diseases.

The effects of COVID-19 have exacerbated these trends and further exposed the already existing flaws in food systems. The pandemic has proven that many of the world’s food systems are fragile, neglected and vulnerable to collapse — and can collapse again. With mass urbanization, globalization, climate change, biodiversity loss —and increased contact between humans and animals — pandemics will likely become increasingly common. Without just and equitable food systems transformation, future pandemics will cause only further harm. And those who are already poor or marginalized are always the most vulnerable. When our food systems fail, it is not only global nutrition that is threatened, but education, health, livelihoods, human rights, natural ecosystems, peace, and security, and even the stability of our climate.

These figures change each year. The underlying narrative, however, remains the same: Food systems are inherently and deeply inequitable. Over the last few decades, the issue of equity has become a focus among the international development community, culminating in targeted efforts to establish fair and just access to opportunities, resources, and distribution of benefits under the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals. This effort is consistent with the long-standing recognition that development is a human right (UN OHCHR, 1986), one which is individually owed to every human person and one in which all peoples are collectively entitled to participate, contribute to, and enjoy. First set forth in the Declaration on the Right to Development, adopted in 1986 (54 State Parties) and since reiterated in international human rights instruments (e.g. UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UN, 2007), UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas) (UN, 2018), the right to development includes “equity” as an essential element. It is also inextricably linked to all other human rights, including the right to health (UN OHCHR, WHO, 2008) and the right to adequate food (UN OHCHR, 2008) — which are currently unrealized for far too many.

Despite efforts to adapt food systems and development goals to address the needs of those most marginalized first, rather than solely efforts to reach the greatest number of people, certain groups are continuously being left out and left behind. Women, smallholder farmers, peasants, fisher folk, indigenous peoples, and racial and ethnic minorities continue to face disproportionately high rates of hunger and malnutrition and associated health complications. Food insecurity and malnutrition are not randomized conditions, but rather are the results of social and economic systemic inequalities from local to global levels. Unequal relationships and power dynamics in markets, in households, and in policy processes, determine who has access to resources and who does not, shaping who is hungry and malnourished and who is not.

Transforming food systems therefore requires addressing these underlying inequalities and restoring fair, or equitable, access to resources, including water, land, and seeds, as well as access to information, technology, and justice. Adopting a human rights-based approach to this transformation will help to reveal the inequalities, discriminatory practices, and unjust power relations that are often undermining sustainable development efforts. Mainstreaming human rights will further reinforce that all food system actors are entitled to decent work, livelihoods, and safe and adequate food.

Broken food systems and the subsequent high levels of food insecurity are not only results of food scarcity, but of unequal access to food and resources. And this unequal access to food is rooted in inequalities of income, inequalities of political and economic power, and gender and social inequalities – leading to inequitable distribution of outcomes. The inequities in our food system can be classified along vertical and horizontal lines (UNSCN, 2018). Vertical inequalities are based on measured outcomes at household level (such as income), while horizontal inequalities affect certain groups of people, who are marginalized due to social exclusion. Often individuals and groups face an intersection of multiple disadvantages which can result in some of the most extreme forms of marginalization. A person’s gender, ethnic identity, and spatial location can all intersect in a manner that excludes them from a country’s economy, political system, and food system. And these intersecting inequalities exist not only in low-income and developing countries, but in wealthy, developed ones as well.

Gender Equity

Gender-based discrimination is one of biggest sources of inequity in food systems, affecting over 50% of the world’s population. Gender inequity also overlaps with almost all other forms of inequality, compounding already existing negative outcomes and perpetuating the cycle of inequality in food systems.

Women, particularly in the Global South, feel the effects of the inequities within food systems the most. Women and women farmers are key actors in every aspect of food systems. They have extensive skills and capacities and their roles are critical to global food production, natural resource management , household and community resilience, and to the way families eat. They have been key architects of community solutions to the pandemic. However they are undervalued, unpaid or underpaid, and constrained by systemic limitations on their access to natural and productive resources and labor market opportunities. Women often eat last when food is scarce and can be exposed to violence through food deprivation or because of food insecurity.

Evidence shows that land tenure rights are strongly associated with higher levels of investment and productivity in agriculture (FAO, 2018) – and therefore with higher incomes and greater economic well-being. Land rights for women are often correlated with better outcomes for both them and their families, giving women greater bargaining power at household and community levels, improving child nutrition, and lowering levels of gender-based violence. Yet, while rural women produce up to 80 percent of food consumed in households in developing countries, they make up fewer than 15 percent of all smallholder landowners (FAO, 2018) and fewer than 5 percent in sub-Saharan Africa alone. Women struggle to not only secure land titles but also to obtain credit and insurance, purchase seeds and equipment, and access agricultural training. Women also comprise a large percentage of seasonal, part-time, and low-wage work, and are primarily employed in the informal sector, which often does not have the same protection and benefits as in the formal sector.

Women farmers are routinely paid less than men for their agricultural labor, carry a disproportionate share of household work, and are often excluded from agricultural decision-making. On a household level, women’s food security and nutritional needs are neglected in countries and regions where discriminatory cultural and social norms exist as a product of patriarchal systems. The culminating effect of all these barriers is a systemic gap between what women can contribute to food systems and what they are able to do today. This gap is only widening due to the pandemic, which is rolling back 50 years of progress in gender equality —both in the workforce and at home. Gaps in women's leadership and in supporting women's unpaid care burdens mean that the pandemic and the proposed solutions are furthering inequality.

These striking gender inequalities are both a cause of and an outcome of unjust and unsustainable food systems. And tackling gender injustice and empowering women is not only a critical protection of human rights, it is also fundamental for all, as gender inequity harms not only women and girls but entire households and societies. Countries where women lack land ownership rights have an average of 60% more malnourished children. Yet, when women are empowered, entire communities are lifted out of poverty. Research shows that if women had equal access to rights such as land rights, their yields would increase 20-30% and an additional 150 million people annually could be fed. Tackling gender inequities will help dismantle the barriers women face —boosting productivity, promoting good nutrition, and leading to better outcomes not only for women, but for everyone in the food system. Women must be given equitable opportunities, while also being recognized and remunerated for their contributions to their households, communities and to wider food systems already.

Racial and Ethnic Equity

Food insecurity does not discriminate, however it does disproportionately affect groups that already face marginalization in society — indigenous peoples, and racial and ethnic minorities. These groups usually have limited access to basic services, such as social protection, healthcare and education, have lower income, and are more exposed to harmful environmental conditions because of systemic discrimination. All these factors contribute to disparities in the prevalence of food insecurity between ethnic and racial groups. In a 2016 sample of 48 countries, children in most disadvantaged ethnic groups have on average, 2.8 times the rate of stunting and six times the rate of wasting of their peers (Save the Children, 2016).

This reality also exists in developed countries where in the United States, Black people, Latinos, and Native Americans experience food insecurity at rates 2-3 times higher than non-Hispanic whites (Feeding America, 2021). And in Canada, among the Inuit Indigenous population, over two in three Inuit children experience food insecurity, the highest rate amongst any Indigenous population living in an industrialized country (Canadian Feed the Children, 2020).

Income and Socioeconomic Equity

Income inequality is another significant cause of food insecurity within food systems. According to World Bank projections, 751.5 million people will be living on less than $1.90 USD a day in 2021, many of them small-scale farmers struggling to feed their families (World Bank, 2021). Income inequality between countries has long been significant with the average income of people living in North America 16 times higher than that of people in sub-Saharan Africa. However, income inequality within countries has also increased with 71% of the world’s population living in countries where inequality has grown (UN, 2020). This measurement of inequality is more significant to households, as these are the inequalities people feel the most each day and the ones which greatly affect households’ purchasing power of food.

At an individual level, the poor access to water, food and sanitation that comes with poverty undoubtedly contributes to inadequate diets and to disease (UNSCN, 2018). However, higher income does not always guarantee adequate nutrition alone. The distribution of income at the household level is a critical determinant of nutrition outcomes as well. Income in the hands of a woman is likely to have greater positive effects on the overall household (UNSCN, 2018) as women tend to be more empowered to make better choices for the family as a whole.

The economic effects of shocks to food systems, whether they be the result of climate change, conflict, or pandemics, are always the most unequal in the countries and communities where pre-existing income inequalities were already the greatest. When Covid-19 began, quarantines, distancing, and other lockdown measures disproportionately disrupted local and informal markets, while formal markets were largely unaffected. In developing economies, the vast majority of employment is in the informal sector and most people rely on these markets for both their income and their food supply. These localized disruptions restricted supplies, caused food prices to spike, and had a detrimental effect on food insecurity and income security across the globe. At the onset of the pandemic it was also predicted the average income loss for a single developing country would exceed $200 billion (UNDP, 2020) – only exacerbating global income inequality, which in turn affects food security. And women always feel the effects of economic downturn the most. Estimates showed women’s jobs were 1.8 times more vulnerable to the pandemic than men’s jobs. And consistently across any crisis, research shows women are the first to feel income losses. And income losses mean there is less food on the table for all.

Geographic, Spatial and Environmental Equity

Spatial and geographical inequalities in the food system are also growing with increased disparities between rural and urban areas, and between areas with access to resources, infrastructure, income, and education, and those without. A study found that children living in rural areas were more likely to be stunted than those living in urban areas in all but four of the 56 countries surveyed (Save the Children, 2016). Lack of infrastructure and government services, lack of livelihood opportunities, and regional conflict all contribute to geographic inequality as well, which in turn affects nutrition.

Spatial inequalities also contribute to malnutrition in the United States where ‘food deserts’ and ‘food apartheid’ are created when there is a lack of grocery stores or adequate nutritious food sources for low-income neighborhoods. And these spatial inequities often overlap with racial disparities, as these neighborhoods are primarily made up of racial minorities.

These inequities cannot be separated from environmental equity because the production systems upon which communities depend on are invariably based on the natural environment and ecosystem services. People rely on water, fertile soils, pasture and rangelands, forests and wetlands, mangroves and reefs – and other ecosystems and their services – to produce or forage food. Equity in the management of our environment is critical for our food systems and those within it. Indigenous peoples are the custodians of 80% of the world’s remaining biodiversity, yet their knowledge and sustainable practices have been underestimated and unsupported. These peoples and communities have experienced significant historical discrimination and the ecosystems upon which they depend have been subject to exploitation and degradation by external actors – often in the name of enhanced food production.

Conclusion and Next Steps

Making food systems more equitable is necessary for the sustainability of our food systems and for the wellbeing of people, particularly those most vulnerable. And transforming food systems under a changing climate and accelerating biodiversity loss– to ensure food and nutrition security for all – demands action from all actors. It also requires building agency and the capacities of the underrepresented; changing power relations – both in the formal and informal spheres –; and confronting harmful and discriminatory social norms and practices that are embedded in structures which systematically privilege some groups over others.

There must be a greater investment in development that is people-centered, consistent with a human rights-based approach; better and more democratic tools for monitoring and implementing policies on economic, social and cultural rights; increased implementation of social protection programs; promoting the right to collective bargaining, livable wages, and social protection measures offered by the private sector; strengthening the capacity and self-determination of marginalized communities to advocate for their needs and hold governments accountable; increased social and environmental safeguards and regulations; investments and protections of indigenous knowledge and traditional lands; better data; and localized solutions. Measures must also be taken to reduce the alarming rise of land inequality — in 2019, “the largest 1% of farms in the world operated more than 70% of the world’s farmland (FAO, 2019).” As the International Land Coalition notes, power relations must be transformed to address land inequality through measures such as “redistributive programmes, regulatory reforms, taxation, and accountability measures, not only in relation to land but across the agri-food sector, from inputs to retailing,” which help localize food systems and address the consolidation of land by large agribusinesses (International Land Coalition, 2020).

A significant part of the problem is that those already marginalized are often missing from decision making processes in food systems. Their leadership – and both the strengthening of their capacity and the removal of barriers inhibiting them to successfully do so – is central to ensuring that their needs are addressed and inequities are dismantled. Whether the inequities in our food system are due to gender, to ethnic identity , or to geographical location, inequities anywhere, make our food systems everywhere, less just. The UN Food Systems Summit and all actors involved at every level have the unique opportunity and responsibility to create more equitable food systems, with affordable, healthy, and nutritious food for all.