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Leon Kaye headshot

The Economist’s Food Sustainability Index Has a Huge Surprise

By Leon Kaye

This week, the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), a division of The Economist magazine, released its most recent assessment of food sustainability in 34 countries.

Issued for the first time last year, the EIU's Food Sustainability Index (FSI) looks at eight various categories bundled into three pillars: sustainable agriculture, nutritional challenges and food waste.

The highest-ranking country when it comes to sustainable food is France; that designation is not much of a surprise considering the country’s longstanding embrace of small farmers. The country also scores high when it comes to food waste policy. Last year, France’s government banned food waste and in turn, major supermarket chains started to sell “ugly” fruits and vegetables – a trend that soon filtered across the channel to the United Kingdom and across the pond to major U.S. chains.

The survey's real story, however, is that Ethiopia, the poorest country FSI researchers evaluated, came out as twelfth in the report. In fact, the eastern African country is perched higher than the U.S., U.K. and far above the wealthiest nation in the index, the United Arab Emirates (which ranked last). Glimpses into Ethiopia's farming revolution could give other lower-income countries clues on how to strengthen their domestic food supplies. In addition, companies and NGOs can find inspiration on how best to share resources and ideas about sustainable agriculture across their global supply chains.

So how did landlocked Ethiopia, one of the world’s poorest countries, score so well in this survey? After all, the FSI report found a correlation between rapid urbanization and food insecurity, and Ethiopia is enduring a rapid rate of citizens moving from the countryside to its cities. The FSI also found that wealthier nations naturally tend to fare better on the food security front. On the flip side, Ethiopia scored relatively well when it came to the FSI’s “nutritional challenges” metrics. For example, Ethiopians spend about the same time doing physical activity as they do watching TV or staring at their devices - as opposed to most individuals who spend more time sedentary than moving about.

And over the years, the adversity Ethiopians have confronted time and again has actually engendered the spread of sustainable agriculture practices. Some global companies have contributed to the effort, such as PepsiCo’s plan several years ago to boost production of chickpeas, the main ingredient in hummus.

Many improvements in farming practices, however, have occurred at the local level across Ethiopia. Most farms in the country are family-owned, with a size of five acres or less. As a Guardian report showcased a year ago, threats such as droughts and environmental degradation have nudged local officials and farmers to adopt tactics ranging from agro-forestry to the teaching of better soil management. Projects such as the Ethiopian Sustainable Food Project aim to not only teach ideas on how to raise new crops, but how to store them and help move smallholders beyond subsidence farming.

TechnoServe, a U.S.-based social enterprise, runs projects such as a program that teaches coffee farmers to rotate their plantings with other crops such as maize. 2Scale, a project funded by the Netherlands, also identifies crops that are suitable for crop rotation across this country of 102.4 million people. Each of these individual programs may appear small in impact at a first glance, but collectively they have helped bolster food security while poverty across the country has fallen this decade.

Such improvements in part have led to the Ethiopian government’s decision two years ago to increase exports of teff, the nutrient-rich grain that is the base of the country’s famous injera spongy flatbread. When 3p visited Ethiopia in 2015, locals repeatedly explained that exports of the grain were banned over food security fears. While hunger has not been eradicated in this country with a per capita income of $660, better farming techniques have convinced the government that some exports of teff could benefit some farmers without putting more people at risk of food insecurity.

The country’s goal to become a middle-income country and have a “green economy” by 2025 may not seem outlandish after all. Ethiopia has become a thriving laboratory full of projects sponsored by many organizations such as the World Bank, which has chosen to focus on soil management.

“Over 80 percent of Ethiopia’s labor force is engaged in the agriculture sector,” said the World Bank’s Andrew Goodland in a report the agency released last year. “By providing millions of farmers with the opportunity to make more climate-smart farming decisions, the project’s contribution to the Ethiopian government’s goal of becoming a green economy by 2025 could be significant.”

Image credit: Leon Kaye

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye