Inspiration and Hope for Food System Transformation
By: José Luis Chicoma, Braulio Torres and Ana Paula Sandoval
Our food systems are broken. If we don’t work to fix them immediately, there will be severe consequences for humanity and for the planet.
At Ethos Public Policy Lab and Proyecto La Guajolota, we believe it is possible to positively transform our food systems. However, this transformation requires a coordinated effort that is unprecedented in human history, including fundamental changes to public policy, investment approaches, industry, entrepreneurs, farming, civil society, media, and consumers in general. Transforming our Food Systems presents 23 inspirational organizations that are already working to provide solutions that improve the way humanity produces what it consumes, as well as a series of proposals on how to achieve this transition through public policy, investment, consumption patterns, and more.
It is worth reflecting on how humanity arrived at this point.
These days, the population has exploded, humans are living longer than ever, and we’re more interconnected than ever before. Over the past 100 years, the global population has multiplied and life expectancy has increased substantially, while globalization has contributed to the standardization and scaling up of universal solutions. All these changes represent a radical shift in the way we produce, commercialize, and consume food.
In the mid-20th century, the “Green Revolution” promised to drastically increase agricultural production and yields worldwide. The need to feed an ever-increasing global population required development and technology transfer initiatives to increase the efficiency of food systems. These new technologies and other production practices resulted in record levels of agricultural intensification and the industrialization of the production and transformation of our food.
Although this so-called “revolution” successfully achieved rapid advances in terms of the quantity of food produced, it is now clear that the myopic focus on feeding a growing population resulted in harmful long-term impacts and negative externalities.
Humanity’s dependence on cereals and grains—including corn, wheat, and soy—led to huge swaths of land being used to cultivate these monocultures, decimating agrobiodiversity around the world. The urgent need to produce more and more led to the excessive use of agrochemicals, including fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, without any consideration of the negative impacts, including soil erosion, water pollution, and health issues for farmers and consumers. New biotechnologies, such as hybrid and genetically modified seeds, were also introduced without an understanding of the impact these new technologies would have, which further exacerbated biodiversity loss, the use of chemicals, soil degradation, water pollution, and public health issues.
That’s not all. The market for seeds and agricultural inputs has been concentrated, the value chain has been concentrated, and the commercialization of food crops has been concentrated, all while farmers continue to assume the majority of the risk. This has led to a mass abandonment of farming and farmland, which has resulted in waves of internal and external migration and a new generation that is uninterested in taking up the trade.
And what happens to the food crops produced by these systems? The majority are transformed into ultra-processed foods and junk food. Grains, chemicals, fats, and high levels of sugar and salt are combined to create high-calorie products with practically no nutritional value, which are a major contributing factor to the growing epidemic of noncommunicable diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, and obesity.
Humanity seems to be on a one-way path towards destruction. Ongoing deforestation and the use of fossil fuels by industrial food systems are contributing to the irreversible warming of the planet, while humanity’s excessive demand for meat has created one of the most significant sources of greenhouse gas emissions.
It is urgently important to identify inspirational examples that show that change is possible, as well as documenting and sharing potential solutions. It is a race against the clock, but we believe that there is still time to transform our food systems. With this in mind, we have identified six of the primary challenges of this complex system:
Challenge 1: Eating without making ourselves sick
Challenge 2: Producing enough food without destroying the planet’s biodiversity, which is fundamentally important for the ongoing health of humanity, the soil, and the environment
Challenge 3: Producing enough food today without compromising the planet’s ability to produce food in the future
Challenge 4: Reducing the consumption of meat while contributing to soil regeneration by returning livestock to the fields
Challenge 5: Democratizing food systems and making them more just
Challenge 6: Raising awareness among consumers regarding the origin, destination, and distribution of food
We’ve identified 23 Mexican entrepreneurs that are working to directly or indirectly address at least one of these challenges and transform our food systems through their innovative and inspiring initiatives, projects, and companies.
Maizajo, Tamoa, and Cheelzi work to protect biodiversity using native seeds, from criollo corn to cacao. Yolcán, Rancho La Inmaculada, and Villa de Patos are committed to land restoration and organic farming practices.
Ekologi, Biobolsa, and Tierra de Monte offer clear examples that “yes, we can!” substitute agrochemicals with sustainable alternatives.
Murlota, Milpa Criolla, and Ganadería Regenerativa show that it is possible to empty out the feedlots and return livestock and poultry to the fields where they belong, raising free-range, antibiotic-free animals that are fed correctly and don’t pollute the soil or the water.
Within a system that generally ignores the people that produce our food, Extensio, Grupo Paisano, Smartfish, and Mopampa work to strengthen the capacities of small-scale and smallholder farmers, fishermen, and agricultural producers to ensure that they are paid fairly. Botánica Granel and Muul Meyaj highlight the origin, destination, and distribution of the products produced by small-scale farmers.
Innovation and creativity help create solutions that improve the quality of food and beverages. This can be seen in the innovative products offered by Griyum, Xilinat, and Bichi: grasshopper flour, natural sweeteners made from harvest waste, and the first Mexican natural wine, respectively.
Change and innovation serve to strengthen Mexican culinary traditions and push them forward. Mili produces traditional products and hires young people that have recently returned from the United States, while Pixza makes “pizzas” using a blue corn dough.
These examples represent just a small selection of the thousands of organizations and individuals that are engaging with the issue from multiple different approaches, working tirelessly and creatively to change food systems in Mexico.
Transforming our Food Systems also features the perspectives of important guest contributors and their proposals on how to build better food systems.
Ricardo Salvador from the Union of Concerned Scientists shares his perspective on the crucial role that politicians and government play in the urgently needed transformation of our current food systems. Adelita San Vicente from Semillas de Vida focuses on the importance of “converting nutrition into the first political act” and the need to transform the current system. Laura Ortiz from SVX proposes a new model of “transformative finances” that includes farm workers in their growth and profitability.
Rafael Mier from Fundación Tortilla takes a look at innovative startups as a way to support small-scale farmers and avoid the concentration of power and wealth in large companies. Emilie Abrams from Endeavor shares her perspective on the challenges of democratizing healthy, local, and seasonal organic food and making it both accessible and affordable. Armando Laborde from New Ventures, an accelerator for companies with social and environmental impact, highlights the need to transform food systems by funding entrepreneurs.
These ideas have emerged from different contexts and environments, including civil society, social activism, impact investing, research and development, and academia. This diversity of perspectives helps support a holistic understanding of the challenges and the solutions that are part of food system transformation.
This publication is the result of a multidisciplinary process that brought together journalists, researchers, communications professionals, designers, and food system activists. We’ve done our best to capture the enthusiasm and passion of the many Mexican entrepreneurs that are working to change the world and offer the reader a diversity of structural and practical solutions proposed by local experts.
These entrepreneurs and thought leaders have inspired us and given us hope that fundamental change is possible. We are happy to share this publication with you, and we hope that it will inspire you to join the fight for sustainable, healthy, affordable, and just food systems.