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Home > Blogs > Anthony Harrington > The UN and FAO ponder food security

The UN and FAO ponder food security

The UN and FAO ponder food security Anthony Harrington

It is perhaps inevitable that when well-meaning bodies like the World Bank and the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN (UNFAO) get together to report on where we are going with agriculture, in the light of the world's ever expanding population, the brief they set for themselves will reflect not just on how to create food security for planet Earth, but also on how to achieve food security "sustainably". Skeptics might point out that you don't qualify an exit when you are trying to flee a burning building - any exit will do, sustainable or not.  This is the meaning of the old axiom "any port in a storm", after all.

The point is, it is by no means a done deal that we can solve the world's hunger problems with the full panoply of food production methodologies at our disposal - especially when you factor in the pressures on the world's hydro-static systems, not to mention some of the more chilling implications of climate change. So, adding strictures about sustainability seems a bit like handicapping a horse which is struggling to run anyway. And yet what choice is there? Bad agricultural practices do so much damage to watercourses and to the land itself, that food production per se cannot be the only criteria. Any planning system which is looking at ramping up food production has to look beyond the current year, and bad practices have to be addressed. Nevertheless, the brief to which the World Bank and the UNFAO worked in constructing their mammoth 2009 report reads like it was originated by a very large committee of the politically correct, after exhaustive debate - which is actually a fair description of the origination process.

The name of the report is short and simple: Agriculture at a Crossroads. The brief was anything but short and simple:

provide decision makers with the information they need to reduce hunger and

poverty, improve rural livelihoods, and facilitate equitable,

environmentally, socially and economically sustainable development

"... to provide decision makers with the information they need to reduce hunger and poverty, improve rural livelihoods, and facilitate equitable, environmentally, socially and economically sustainable development"

Yes, quite.

The goals are laudable, but there is, of course, a fundamental contradiction in a brief of this nature, which can only be resolved by betting heavily on the one magic ingredient in the formula, namely “technology” and whatever might come out of that catch-all rubric. Sustainability and population proliferation do not go hand in hand. Setting out on a mission to solve the problem of food security and depressed rural living standards with just two cards in one’s hand (namely “agricultural knowledge” and “technology”, which arguably collapse into one if you apply the formula rigorously) is doomed if you do not also address all the related issues, such as demographic pressures, the citification of agricultural lands, the impact of climate change (whether man made or not) etc.

And of course, if you do try to include recommendations about population control you are instantly setting yourself up for a world of hurt. Controlling population growth by issuing edicts, à la China’s famous “one couple one child” policy (which, apparently, the Party is on the cusp of throwing out), means infringing individual liberties in a way that Western cultures find abhorrent, and also lands you with the old outnumbering the young by at least two to one, with too few people in the vital 24-50 age group to sustain the nation’s economy. Since edicts don’t work, and more drastic forms of population control are absolutely out, what other card is there to play besides the technological card? Each acre of arable land must be made to yield vastly more – and to do so “sustainably”, a monster ask in anyone’s books.

Nevertheless, in August 2002 the World Bank and the UNFAO kicked off a global consultation process which basically set out to grasp this nettle. In true and splendid international body fashion, global consultations were held, eleven in all, each overseen by “an international multi-stakeholder steering committee”. The consultations comprised over 800 participants drawn from government and “civil society”. The outcome was a general agreement that a report, along the lines we have sketched out, was needed. Some 400 global experts were selected to work on the report, with a small army of additional experts and organizations recruited to peer review the process.

Everyone knew what the difficulties were. The mission, sustainable food for all, will have to contend with some severe headwinds, as the resulting report makes clear.  The context for the mission is:

"... a rapidly changing world of urbanization, growing inequalities, human migration, globalization, changing dietary preferences, climate change, environmental degradation, a trend towards bio fuels and an increasing population."

Not exactly auspicious, as we have seen. However, what the authors set out to do is actually more modest and more achievable than the lofty brief suggests. The report addresses issues which are critical to formulating policy (by politicians at the regional, national and pan-national levels) and provides information, a kind of briefing guide, for decision makers - knowing that those decision makers face:
“... conflicting views on contentious issues such as the environmental consequences of productivity increases, environmental and human health impacts of transgenic crops, the consequences of bio energy development on the environment and on the long-term availability and price of food, and the implications of climate change on agricultural production.”

If the resulting 600 page global report succeeds in educating policymakers, it will have done a fantastic job; the history of government intervention in agriculture to date has been an incredibly spotty one, to say the least. Huge damage has been done by poorly conceived irrigation schemes, which either drained “fossil” water reserves on frivolous and doomed projects, or left areas contaminated with salts. Still more damage has been and is being done by governments in some emerging markets, granting agricultural licenses for beef production and other such projects to cronies at the expense of humongous areas of natural forest being cleared. Getting the world to act in a coherent, sensible manner to address food production issues is going to be a Herculean task.

This report could be a stepping stone on the way, but I wouldn't hold my breath. Already, it seems to have taken its place on the “write-approve-then-file-and-forget” shelf. Hands up all the politicians who have read it?

Hmmm. OK.

Who has at least read the Executive Summary?


Further reading on sustainability

Tags: FAO , Food and Agriculture Organisation , food security , science , technology , UN , United Nations
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