here’s how we can change that

The pandemic – alongside the growing threats of climate change, widespread malnutrition, economic instability and geopolitical conflict – has compounded problems with how we produce, distribute and consume food. And it has highlighted the urgent need to make global food systems fairer.

An example of modern food injustice is that if you are poor or from an ethnic minority in the United States, you are less likely to have easy access to healthy food. This situation, aggravated by COVID-19, has been described as food apartheid. This is also often the case where companies, not local producers, control the food produced by communities: by taking money from them.

If this is to change, it is important to understand who wins in existing food systems and, more importantly, who loses by being sidelined and losing access to healthy food.

To do this, those who design food systems need to consider how different factors that determine whether someone is marginalized – such as gender, age, disability, ethnicity and religion – may combine or intersect, making some people more vulnerable.

For example, international development programs from governments and charities often focus on helping women because they are seen as vulnerable. But this risks overlooking different causes of poverty, including class and racial issues, and marginalizing other vulnerable groups.

In Tanzania, this type of oversimplification when deciding who receives resources has been shown to reinforce existing power hierarchies within communities, meaning that those who had little social power to begin with – such as the most poor – do not benefit from the resources provided. .

Including people in processes designed to help them is key to ensuring systems improve.
Wikimedia, CC BY

In contrast, research shows that development projects tend to be more successful when they take into account the norms of the local community. For example, in Bangladesh, men and women from Hindu and Muslim communities work in wetlands, but each group plays a different role. The researchers found that community-based wetland management projects were more successful when people worked in accordance with their traditional roles based on gender and religion.

An intersectional approach helps us move beyond simplistic categories like ‘vulnerable woman’, instead drawing attention to the unequal flows of power that shape access to resources. This should be embedded at the deepest level of food science to ensure marginalized and vulnerable people are at the forefront of change.

Power dynamics

It is also essential to understand how power dynamics structure decisions within food systems, whether within households or government institutions.

In tackling issues facing women and girls in Burundi, CARE International worked with a network of local male gender equality champions to analyze power systems, reflect on gender roles and encourage meaningful participation. equal and active participation of women in community decisions. Results included improvements in agricultural productivity as well as increased women’s empowerment and gender equality.

A person is dancing in green and white clothes
Exploring food and social justice through dance or other creative methods can help engage more people.
Piqsels, CC BY

Creating inclusive and safe spaces for marginalized voices is also essential. Creative approaches, such as theatre, dance and music, provide a powerful way to achieve this.

For example, Roktim: Nurture Incarnadine, an Ananya Dance Theater production, explores feminist food politics through dance. Their performance highlights issues of sustainability and justice in food systems and demonstrates the power of community action.


Historical injustice has a large role to play in the continued failure of food systems. For example, when it comes to global food systems, we need to understand how colonialism shaped food processes and how it continues to do so today.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, the colonial government of Zambia favored the production of maize over that of native crops like millet and sorghum. Today, maize production continues to receive substantial support, with almost 80% of the government’s annual agricultural budget going to maize production. Consequently, maize – which provides limited nutrients – dominates the Zambian diet, contributing to chronic food insecurity in the region.

A person is holding an ear of corn
Maize has a complex history that sheds light on how food systems can carry historical biases.
CimmyT/Flickr, CC BY

To understand how to better design food systems, researchers need to consider how colonization helped shape them in the first place. This allows us to recognize how colonial processes of exploitation and destruction, such as the transatlantic slave trade, are reflected in modern maize-dominated food systems across Africa.

Decolonizing research can also encourage us to identify and challenge power, privilege and inequality in research. For example, it is usually academics in developed countries, rather than their counterparts in developing countries, who set research agendas and determine how the money is spent.

And research from around the world is often only published in English, which limits the accessibility of this information within communities where English is not spoken.

Traditionally, science sees itself as a process of unbiased observation. Yet all research reflects cultural biases, and as researchers we are deeply influenced by our own values. Becoming aware of how our scientific knowledge is created is a key step in achieving justice.

From co-developing agricultural technologies to designing and launching food programs, researchers have a huge impact on what kind of science gets priority – and who benefits from it.

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