Subsidy of the Global Food System Must Change

September 2021

Without significant changes in our food systems, it will be impossible to feed the world's population sustainably. To meet the rising food demand and address impacts of climate change, we need a shift towards sustainable land use that protects the climate. Ertharin Cousin talks about how to achieve this change.

Food System Ertharin Cousin
Foto: Chanel Mason

Gerrit Hansen: Ertharin, your fellowship focuses on the question of how to achieve a just transformation to a climate-neutral and food-secure world. How important are food and agriculture for the climate agenda?

Ertharin Cousin: The food system transformation is essential to achieving net-zero goals, but also to address other key challenges, particularly in health nutrition and equitable economic opportunity, which are externalities connected to climate change. These are all interrelated issues. So far, we've all worked in our silos, which has been part of the reason why we've been unable to make significant changes. The climate people work on climate, the water people work on water, the food and agriculture people work on food and hunger. I’m very excited that as a community we are now starting to make progress on working together.

You are part of the leadership team for this years’ UN Food System Summit. The UN FSS was conceived as a “people’s summit” with many food system dialogues feeding into different work streams, and a wealth of opportunities to engage and submit input. Did this approach pan out?

Yes, in the lead up to the summit, more than 50,000 people have participated in food system dialogues, including approximately 145 national dialogues, with one convened here in Germany. The organizations involved represent over 100 million producers from countries all over the world. The purpose for convening this extraordinary broad-based participation was to ensure we create a true people’s summit inside the UN multilateral system. A representative system not built for including the voices of the people.

Admittedly, we've got a long way to go, the process for inclusion is far from perfect and I'm not naive about or deaf to the persistent criticism. Many inside and outside the system believe because the UN is a Member State body, there should be no or a very limited role for a multi-sectoral summit. A vocal civil society coalition suggests international businesses should have no voice in the summit’s outcome. Fervently arguing private business creates much of the problems plaguing the food system today.  I have never participated in or encountered through my studies any political action, if truly broad-based and democratic, without critics. Making progress will require accepting and where reasonably possible addressing the criticism while working to include all voices and legitimate concerns into the conversation.

You have been in Germany a couple of months, observing the political landscape in the run-up to the September general election. What's your take-home message?

I haven’t yet developed one key take home message. I did accumulate some interesting learnings. The first lesson, Covid-19 did not negatively impact the commitment that any of the actors in Germany – private sector, government, NGO community – made toward climate sustainability, food, and agriculture. On the contrary, the pandemic underscored the importance of addressing issues in a multi-sectoral and global fashion.

I also learned, unlike in the United States, there is more recognition among the German population of the increasing detrimental impact of climate change. This recognition enables a different conversation about the need to do more. But how exactly does issue acknowledgement translate into policy? I don't think we will fully understand Germany’s way forward until after the elections. Also, despite the German population’s high level of awareness and commitment, this desire to do more; based on polling and my own anecdotal data, does not yet seemingly translate into how many German people live their lives and spend their money, particularly when food is concerned. So, I wonder, how will this contradiction between thoughts and action affect the will of elected officials to make the necessary broad-based draconian regulatory changes?

One way to make those changes more viable is by reforming public spending and the tax system. For example, you can redistribute the income from carbon pricing in a way that favors lower-income households.

Correct. And when we make distinctions between those who have financial means and those who may need support, there is also often an element of urban versus rural. Germany, as in most parts of the world, suffers from an urban-rural income divide with poorer populations residing in rural communities. Supporting financial penalties and incentives to increase public transportation use may work effectively in urban areas but not rural areas. In rural areas the limited availability of public transport creates mobility issues historically solved through individual automobile ownership. A Carbon pricing scheme which increases taxes and penalties for automobile ownership and use then redistributes this new income to those in lower-income households could perversely reward low income urban dwellers to the detriment of poorer rural drivers.  

In addition, other suggested carbon reduction regulations including costly changes in agriculture production and reductions in housing energy demands would also potentially disproportionately impact those who live and work in rural areas. My interviews and research suggest, these issues represent the kinds of blind spots and tough challenges with which many in German political leadership have not yet begun to grapple.

Globally, the current food system is being subsidized with around $600 to 700 billion annually. Would it be possible to repurpose and redistribute these subsidies in order to achieve the common goals that we've all agreed on?

How we subsidize the food system must change. History, data and politics suggest we should not expect revolutionary change but rather evolutionary change. If you explore and analyze the subsidy systems across the globe, you will find the greatest financial subsidies today directly benefit those with power-large scale conventional farmers and landowners. Thus, expecting significant shift in those in the short term, I would say, is naive.

After my interviews over these past months, I remain steadfast but not naive in my belief in the possibility for changing subsidies through persistent advocacy and education. Legislators across the globe are listening to the cornucopia of interested parties, including farmers as well as environmentalist, consumers, and health advocates now discussing and recognizing the role that subsidies play in today’s food system and the possibility for food system transformation. My work found no consensus amongst these diverse advocacy actors regarding a specific regulatory way forward. However, in many countries including Germany governments are seeking to overcome incongruent subsidy policies by shifting more financial support to different types of agricultural practices-particularly organic and regenerative practices.  

What role can big agricultural companies play on a path toward a more just, environmentally friendly, and healthy food system? Do you see a real shift in thinking in the corporate world?

I believe that we need a diversity of solutions. Big agriculture and global food companies are part of the solution. Today, if you read their websites and annual reports every Big Ag company recognizes and embraces commitments to sustainability for both environment and health. Each of these companies recognize their future financial productivity is directly related to their ability to support both the food system transformation and the climate goals. I am not one of those who would suggest that large corporations are the enemy. They are not. Delivering shareholder value is a predominant responsibility of any public company. Yet, decision-makers and operators inside Big Ag and food companies are also themselves global citizens as well as parents and even grandparents. Those operating these organizations recognize the peril of environmental failure, no less than those of us who advocate for a more just transition of the food system. Including private sector food system actors in the conversation and implementation action is quite critical to developing solutions that are sustainable and durable.

You are also doing work in Rwanda. Sub-Saharan Africa is in a particularly challenging situation concerning food security, with a growing population, low yields, and increasing climate change impacts.

When we analyze and discuss agriculture activities across Africa, first of all, we must understand that there are 52 countries on the continent and they are not all the same-not politically, economically or in the agricultural and food system practices. Every African government leader recognizes the importance of robust national and regional plans for agricultural development. Agriculture development plans supporting optimal production in a climate change affected Africa must spur a food system transformation which produces minimal environmental impact and increases diet related health support, as well as offering an opportunity for economic growth. A tall order, requiring not just political will but financial investment of domestic as well as international capital.

As part of the Paris climate accord the global community agreed (recently reaffirmed by G-7) to invest in adaptation and resilience in countries that are not responsible for the climate challenge that we have today. Yet, few of the richer signature countries have lived up to the financial commitments that they made. Climate change requires a just transformation of the food system including not just investment in humanitarian assistance, or traditional development program activities. Achieving this requisite food system transformation requires creation of agricultural and food system driven economic business opportunities for rural communities across the African continent; including investing in and scaling up the market-based business development across Africa’s diverse rural communities. If we can achieve these seemingly audacious but really pragmatic objectives, then we're moving forward.

Ertharin Cousin rund grau

Ertharin Cousin is former Executive Director of the United Nation’s World Food Programme (2012-2017), Distinguished Fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy.

Gerrit Hansen rund grau


Gerrit Hansen is Program Director for Climate Change at the Robert Bosch Stiftung.

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