Global sustainable food and agriculture: A philanthropic landscape assessment


Meena Nallainathan


The idea of food security is often misunderstood as a crisis of not enough food. In reality, our dominant food and agricultural systems are overproducing the wrong kind of food – resource-intensive, at a high cost to the planet, communities, and human health.

A new report shows how foundations are playing an important role in influencing shifts towards more sustainable food and agriculture systems. “Global Sustainable Food and Agriculture: A Philanthropic Landscape Assessment” tells us who is funding what and where, and what are the critical issues and priorities moving forward. Commissioned by the Global Alliance for the Future of Food (GA) and produced by the Meridian Institute, this 2015 report is a first attempt to gather baseline data on food and agriculture funding.

Collective annual funding across all donors interviewed for the Landscape Assessment came to $5.29 billion USD, with 12.5%, or approximately $663 million USD, related to food and agriculture. Among these donors, 83% are engaging in impact investing, applying a sustainability “lens” to their investment portfolio by divesting from certain sectors and/or proactively investing in sectors that are aligned with the foundation’s values.

Shaped by 24 donor profiles, the assessment asked, “What critical issues will we be facing and need to address urgently over the next 5–10 years related to sustainable food and agriculture systems?” As a start, a list of potential critical issues were identified, based on a literature scan of global reports that are thought to be influential within key global institutions.

Importantly, the literature scan revealed alignment and dis-alignment in the priorities found in the global literature reports vis-a-vis those identified by the donors: “While the global reports prioritized issues such as technology and population shifts, the donors gave preference to issues related to land tenure, seed systems, and food security.”

For example, out of the 10 reports reviewed, only 1 explored the topic of agroecology. Meanwhile, a vast majority of the donors see agroecology as a priority, as it “represents integrated and holistic approaches to addressing many or all of the other identified critical issues.”

In the case of nutrition and public health, “(they) were seen as a critical issue in
less than half of the 10 global reports … (whereas) many donors underscored the need to look more holistically at nutrition and public health as related to food systems, given the important interrelationships with other critical issues such as improving access to healthy and nutritious foods, supporting small producers and organic or agroecological farming practices, and reducing farm worker and public exposure to harmful chemicals.”

One of the most potent insights that emerged from the assessment is the need for systemic solutions. Many of the donors interviewed resisted any notion of ranking the critical issues because they saw all of the issues as part of an integrated system and therefore as equal priorities, and prioritization did not recognize the system’s absolute interconnectedness.

To delve further into holistic solutions, the report also includes five case studies on philanthropic support for more integrative approaches. For instance, TEEB for Agriculture and Food, funded by the GA, is a global multi-year $5.5 million series of studies to determine a comprehensive economic evaluation of the ‘eco-agri-food systems’ complex and demonstrate that the economic environment in which food and agriculture systems operate is distorted by significant externalities, both negative and positive. The underpinning rationale for the project “is to make the … externalities of economic production systems visible to a wide constituency of decision-makers, from individual small-scale farmers to global geo-political fora … to improve decision-making from a comprehensive economic standpoint.”

Moving forward, donors suggested that it would be valuable to increase tracking on food and agriculture funding given its connection to so many philanthropic priorities, to determine whether and how donor grantmaking evolves over time, and find ways to more easily discover and connect with potential donor partners in order to pursue joint projects.

While the challenges are many, there is increasing recognition that the future of food is one of the most pressing issues of our time, and there is growing interest and investment in meeting the challenge. Business as usual will not get us to the transformative change needed to secure sustainable food and agriculture systems for the future. Determining a better future of food requires us to celebrate all that we are doing well now, to strengthen effective practices and approaches, and to face boldly the critical issues confronting us as a global community with the courage and creativity to craft new solutions.

Meena Nallainathan is communications support at Global Alliance for the Future of Food.

Comments (1)

Sobo Abdul-Lateef Jabir

I am a small scale farmer in Ghana. How do I get support from your organisation to improve my framing and livestock rearing activities.

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