While much attention is paid to the role of corporate farming and large-scale food production, looking closely, the global food system relies heavily on smallholder and family-based farms, fisheries, pastoralism, and forest and wild food management. An article published in "Nature" by researchers at Indiana University’s College of Arts and Sciences, Ostrom Workshop, and School of Public Health, reveals how investment in rural sustainability could address issues ranging from rural poverty and social inequity to climate and biodiversity crises.
Sustainable Food Systems Science team publishes in “Nature”
Eduardo Brondizio, distinguished professor of Anthropology, along with Stacey Giroux (Department of Anthropology and Ostrom Workshop), Julia Valliant (Ostrom Workshop), Jordan Blekking (CASEL), Stephanie Dickinson, and Beate Henschel (School of Public Health) worked together to analyze trends in food production employment between 1991-2019 and then project future trends to 2030.
The authors are part of IU’s Sustainable Food Systems Science project (SFSS), a group that studies the social-ecological dimensions of food sustainability from local to global scales. This initiative networks IU’s accomplished food studies, nutrition, agro-ecological, decision sciences, and systems scholars and brings together their field, lab-based, and big data research.
Home to the most departments and centers across IU, the College is the single largest hub of research at IU. The interdisciplinarity of this team made it possible for Eduardo and his co-authors to ask big questions and contribute valuable knowledge from fields across the College and beyond.
“[SFSS] was a project developed within the context of the Emerging Areas of Research program at IU,” explained Eduardo. “A group of colleagues from different disciplines came together and started working on different questions regarding food systems and sustainability in food systems, with a strong focus in Indiana. During the past 4 years, the project has looked into food systems from the perspective of production, aggregation, and consumption.”
Eduardo and the team synthesized data from 180 countries on food production employment and demographic trends. Their analysis shows that 200 million jobs have been lost in food production, and they project that this trend is accelerating toward an additional loss of 120 million jobs by 2030. Most of these lost jobs will be in rural and indigenous areas of low- and middle-income economies. Because of these losses, young people are pressured to leave these areas to seek job opportunities in larger cities. This creates cascading effects: the smaller communities experiencing this exodus of young people see decline in support for community resources and their local economies while industrial-scale agricultural systems grow, creating more pollution as a product of their expansion.
To solve these problems, Eduardo and co-authors propose:
- Recognizing the social and economic value of employment in these food systems.
- Governments and non-governmental organizations should promote more resilient, regenerative production systems.
- New policies and initiatives should focus on adding value, like employment opportunities, closer to production areas in rural and urban centers.
“As a society, we largely accept and assume that these employment losses are inevitable – that small-scale food production will disappear in the face of industrial food production, that rural populations and industrial populations will eventually move to urban areas. We end up accepting that this is an inevitable part of development when in fact it’s a consequence of the policies, ideas, and incentives that we give to different food production sectors,” Eduardo emphasized. “This is not inevitable and food production that is sustainable and inclusive can help address the environmental degradation and climate problems that we have today.”
Something that Eduardo and his co-authors wanted to make clear throughout the article is that, everywhere they looked, there are successful examples of sustainable food production that are economically viable and that create respected job opportunities in local communities. But we need more of them. There are opportunities to recognize and support existing efforts that showcase alternatives to unsustainable industrial-scale food production, the creation of more pollution, and numerous other negative trends.
“What we tried to do with this paper was to show that the loss of food production employment is a global problem with enormous impact from local to international levels, which requires both structural and policy changes as well as support for place-based initiatives. On the ground, in Indiana and beyond, producers and consumers are acting and calling for more environmentally sustainable and socially just food systems...” said Eduardo.
Thanks to SFSS and the interdisciplinary nature the College embodies, impactful research produced right here at IU is pointing to new pathways for transforming the food system in ways that matter from local to global levels.
The authors are members of the Food and Agrarian Systems Program at the Ostrom Workshop.
About the College of Arts and Sciences at Indiana University Bloomington
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