Food security: five key questions governments should ask themselves

#CHFoodFuture warmup – session 5

Burning questions on global food security will be addressed next week at the conference A Sustainable Future: production supply and consumption at Chatham House, London. The entire event is divided into five sessions and each could be a conference in itself. It’s important to warmup and enter the right mindset before the event begins next Monday 7th December 2015. To help do that, each day this week I will post an entry discussing each session. Click here to read session 4: Anyone with an interest in agricultural tech startups will find this session, golden.

Session 5 – Resilience of the Food System

The questions addressed are:

  1. Can the food system adapt globally to the changing geography of food surpluses and deficits? What infrastructure challenges does this percent?
  2. What are the main points of vulnerability for critical food infrastructure, e.g. storage, inland transport, ports and maritime corridors? How should the associated risks be shared and managed by the private and public sector?
  3. How well are the cascade effect of supply shocks understood, and how can this understanding be enhanced?
  4. How resilient is the food system, at global and regional level, to political disruption and protectionist trade policy, and how might these risks be better mitigated?
  5. What can be achieved at national levels to build resilience around food production and food security? What is the role of the insurance sector and other investors? Where is cooperative action needed at a regional or global level?

Although these questions are asked from a global perspective, answers will have to trickle into solutions implemented at a local scale. Here, the following phrase which I have heard the most from climate change scientists and activists comes to mind:

Think global, act local.

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Lisa Delgado Castillo, used with permission.

Climate change is caused internationally and suffered locally. Communities are affected by decisions made by people miles away. For example, extreme weather events, which are caused by climate change (e.g. typhoons, tropical cyclones, droughts), displace individuals and families with no single entity or figure to blame or to hold accountable. We can say the same for food security. For example, by 2030 crop and pasture yields are likely to decline as follows (source): in Northeast Brazil, maize is expected to decline 10%, rice is expected to decline 14% and wheat is expected to decline 14%. In Central America, wheat is expected to decline 9%, rice is expected to decline 10% and bean is expected to decline 4%. In East Africa, maize is expected to decline 3% and bean is expected to decline 1.5%. Who is going to supply that calorie loss to communities at risk? Where/who are the communities at risk? What can they do about this today? Do they have enough resources (e.g. education, tools, infrastructure, information) for action?

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Lisa Delgado Castillo, used with permission

This tension between the macro and the micro is fundamental: how can we translate international challenges into public policy that can be executed with the resources and capabilities available at, for example, neighbourhood level? Decentralised action that follows one international agenda: the Sustainable Development Goals.

Chair:

Dr Christian Häberli, Senior Research Fellow, World Trade Institute

Speakers:

Anyone with an interest in agricultural tech startups will find this session, golden

#CHFoodFuture warmup – session 4

Burning questions on global food security will be addressed next week at the conference A Sustainable Future: production supply and consumption at Chatham House, London. The entire event is divided into five sessions and each could be a conference in itself. It’s important to warmup and enter the right mindset before the event begins next Monday 7th December 2015. To help do that, each day this week I will post an entry discussing each session. Click here to read session 3: Should there be more agricultural scientists and less food marketers?

Session 4 – Mobilizing Food Research, Development and Finance

The five questions discussed in the session are:

  1. What can be done to support technological developments with the potential to revolutionize global food systems?
  2. What are the barriers to scaling up to existing technologies? How might these areas be overcome within Europe as well as in developing countries?
  3. How can the private sector be incentivised to invest in the development of other agribusiness?
  4. How can international cooperation be encouraged to increase investment in the food system including in technological advancements?
  5. To what extent can unconventional protein sources (including plant-based protein, algae and lab-grown meat) and genetically modified crops and animal products contribute to more sustainable, more nutritious and fairer consumption patterns?
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Used with permission from Lisa Delgado Castillo

Sensors, precision harvesters and mowers, drones, herbicides and weeding compositions, GMO seeds, polymeric compositions, planting methods for vegetables and fruits, aquaponics, hydroponics, corn varieties and hybrids, are just a few of the agriculture patents registered worldwide between 2010 and 2014 according to the Crop Farming 2030 report by The Boston Consulting Group (BCG). According to the BCG report,in the last five years patents were registered as follows:

  • Crop protection: 6,815
  • Precision and conventional equipment: 5,337 patents
  • Seeds: 2,407
  • Fertilizers: 987

Amongst those categories, patent distribution per category amongst regions was:

  • Crop protection: Europe (35%), North America (35%), China (23%), and elsewhere (7%)
  • Precision and conventional equipment: North America (70%), Europe (15%), China (8%), and elsewhere (7%)
  • Seeds: North America (78%), Europe (19%), China (2%), and elsewhere (1%)
  • Fertilisers: North America (28%), Europe (4%), China (53%), and elsewhere (15%)

Immediately, several questions come to mind: why are seed patents overwhelmingly recorded in North America? What are the implications for the rest of the world, in particular, for smallholder farmers who constitute 98% of global farms? Overall, Africa and Latin America have a small role in patent registration. These two regions also have high rates of family farming: 97% in Africa and 82% in South America (source). Does this matter? What can we say about low patent registration in countries with very high percentages of family farming?

Used with permission by Lisa Delgado Castillo

Chair:

Sir Gordon Conway, Professor of International Development, Imperial College London and Chair, Montpellier Panel

Speakers:

  • Phil Hogan, Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development, European Commission
  • George Eustice MP, Minister of State for Farming, Food and the Marine Environment, UK
  • Frank Rijsberman, Chief Executive Officer, CGIAR Consortium
  • Rob Bertram, Chief Scientist, USAID Bureau for Food Security
  • Nick von Westenholz, CEO, Crop Protection Association

Should there be more agricultural scientists and less food marketers?

#CHFoodFuture warmup – session 3

Burning questions on global food security will be addressed next week at the conference A Sustainable Future: production supply and consumption at Chatham House, London. The entire event is divided into five sessions and each could be a conference in itself. It’s important to warmup and enter the right mindset before the event begins next Monday 7th December 2015. To help do that, each day this week I will post an entry discussing each session. Click here to read session 2: Sustainable Production and Consumption: who cares and who is going to pay for it anyway?

Session 3 – Food Value Chain and Sustainability and Efficiency

The five questions that the segment tries to answer are:

  • How can vital resources, including water and land, be costed in food production and trade, and what might be the incentives for doing so?
  • What policy or regulatory options are available to governments seeking to promote less resource-intensive production?
  • How can the business case for developing sustainability across the food value chain be strengthened, is sufficient understanding of food security issues within industry and what can be done to ensure food businesses play their role?
  • How can responsible ingredient sourcing be demonstrated by industry and is there a role for collaboration in supporting this?
  • How might businesses reduce food waste along the supply chain, from harvest to consumer, to bring both environmental and cost benefits?

 

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A food market in Bangkok. Photo credit: Lisa Delgado Castillo, used with permission.

This section is so essential. A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to attend Food Matters Live. Before I continue, I have to acknowledge that this is commercial event primarily that attempts to integrate academics, government and NGOs; this is extremely valuable, however, the nature of the event must not be forgotten. I had the opportunity to attend talks with promising speakers, nonetheless, I was disappointed about the lack of preoccupation with the source of our food. It seemed that few cared about where crops come from. Dear food businesses and retailers, where does the raw material for those gluten-free snacks come from? Where does the chocolate for your premium bars come from? There were themes focused on packaging, social media marketing, health and safety, the free-from trend, and even know there was some focus on sustainable food businesses, it lacked the rigour and preoccupation with the actual production of food. Throughout the event, with few exceptions, there was a general neglect towards acknowledging where raw materials are sourced from, the implications and the current issues in the context of climate change. The last session I attended, coincidentally, included a speaker that will also be present in session 3 of the A Sustainable Future event. His name is Dan Crossley, Executive Director of the Food Ethics Council. During his session at Food Matters Live, I made a question directed to one of the speakers that was concerned with the creation of more food outlets that supplied plant-based foods. My issue was not with her focus on calling for more plant-based businesses, restaurants and markets, but with the apparent neglect towards mentioning anything regarding to crop production: where are these plants sourced from? Is it sustainable? I am deeply concerned with the omission of actual food production.

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Photo credit: Lisa Delgado Castillo, used with permission.

This is why this session is perhaps my favourite: who holds the responsibility for guaranteeing global food production? Shouldn’t businesses pay a tax to go to research, scientists, academics, who are expanding knowledge around fertilisers, crop resistance, improved techniques for cultivation in the context of climate change? Who pays for this development?

Based on Food Matters Live, it seems to me that the answer to question three: is there sufficient understanding of food security issues within industry? is no.

There isn’t (with some exceptions). Not enough preoccupation exists on crop growth, with improving agricultural production, with the actual job of being the field managing fertilisers, understanding irrigation and minimising post-harvest loss. And yes, what can be done to ensure food businesses played a role? How can we create a pool of funds that food businesses contribute to that will be dedicated to research, development and communication of knowledge that advances and benefits the entire industry. Some agricultural knowledge is a public good provided by organisations like FAO. There is also private knowledge developed and not shared. What is fair? Can farmers who use only public knowledge compete with the private sector? Is it ethical for businesses to fund public research? Will it be skewed? And yes, what can be done to ensure food businesses played a role? How can we create a pool of funds that food businesses contribute to that will be dedicated to research, development and communication of knowledge that advances and benefits the entire industry? Some agricultural knowledge is a public provided by organisations like FAO. There is also private knowledge developed and not shared. What is fair? Can farmers who only use public knowledge compete with the private sector? Is it ethical for businesses to fund public research? Will it be skewed?

I expect the fourth question to address these concerns: how can responsible ingredient sourcing be demonstrated by industry and is there a role for collaboration in supporting this?

Industry should indeed substantiate ingredient sourcing – responsible ingredient sourcing. Consumers in developed countries usually pay a premium but they remain blind to what it actually took to the deliver that superfood-paleo-beautifully-packaged cereal bar at Waitrose. This must change if sustainable global food systems are to be established.

Speakers:

Sustainable Production and Consumption: who cares and who is going to pay for it anyway?

#CHFoodFuture warmup – session 2

Burning questions on global food security will be addressed next week at the conference A Sustainable Future: production supply and consumption at Chatham House, London. The entire event is divided into five sessions and each could be a conference in itself. It’s important to warmup and enter the right mindset before the event begins next Monday 7th December 2015. To help do that, each day this week I will post an entry discussing each session. Click here to read session 1: How are the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) related to global food systems?

Session 2 – Sustainable Production and Consumption

The questions that will be addressed are:

  1. What patterns of food production and consumption need to be developed to ensure a sustainable global food system? What are the roles of technology, education and government policy within this framework?
  2. How can the cultural productivity of small-scale farmers be improved? In achieving this, what is the role of access to land and resources, education, market and financial services?
  3. What impact will changes in food demand in developing and emerging economies have on global food production?
  4. Where and how might other policy agendas, in particular health, be leveraged to encourage more sustainable consumption patterns in developed and developing countries?
  5. How might public attitudes and awareness around the environmental impact of diet be influenced, and to what extent is this necessary to shift consumption patterns?

Oh my. Where should we begin? These are tough, complex, systemic questions.

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Photo credit: Lisa Delgado Castillo, used with permission.

1. What patterns of food production and consumption need to be developed to ensure a sustainable global food system? What are the roles of technology, education and government policy within this framework?

Let’s look at the first one focusing on the consumption part: “what patterns of consumption need to be developed to have a sustainable global food system?”. The scope of the question is tremendous. We are talking about the consumption patterns of populations, cultures, entire demographics. And yes, what are the roles of technology, education and government policy within this framework!? Will education change people’s diets? Will government policy change people’s diets? This brings to mind the recent document published by public health UK. The publication suggests action on reducing sugar consumption by introducing a levy aiming to reduce sales through increased prices on sugary foods. Will British consumers react to this sugar tax in the same way the recent 5P charge on plastic bags or will they take to the streets filled with outrage? So interesting.

2. How can the cultural productivity of small-scale farmers be improved? In achieving this, what is the role of access to land and resources, education, market and financial services?

Now, the second question is fundamental. Small-scale farmers suffer from the problems mentioned in the question: access to land and resources, education, market and financial services.

Further questions arise: do small-scale farmers own the land or do they live on it and pay rent to their landlords through their work or do they live elsewhere? If so, what are the implications of both options. On resources, what kind are we referring to and how do we prioritise them? Fertilizers? Technology? ICTs? Furthermore, what is meant by education? Are we referring to specific agricultural education (i.e. identification and treatment of pest and pathogens) or are we contemplating a more holistic education, perhaps training farmers to add value to their production to set up their own sustainable food enterprises?

In terms of access to markets, infrastructure plays a huge role here, especially in developing countries where food waste occurs in the transportation from the farm to the market, vegetables and fruits on many occasions require their temperatures to be lowered to prevent their degradation and toxicity. To sustain a cold chain from farm to market, infrastructure is vital, good roads, contribution to timeliness efficiency reduce cost. That is just one example. Finally, financial services what is meant by financial services and how can smallholders benefit from financial services and what models need to be set up? Does any of this matter in the context of climate change and poor infrastructure?

3. What impact will changes in food demand in developing and emerging economies have on global food production?

The third question is still widely debated but the main premise behind it seems to be that changing diets in emerging economies are having consequences on the demand of animal-derived foods. Meat and dairy are very water intensive agricultural activities and most of the global population belongs to emerging markets. What are the consequences on water supply with their changing preferences towards meat and dairy? Is it sustainable? Or should we try to deter their demand? Can we? Should we? Who is we?

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Thai population is a good example of emerging markets. Photo credit: used with permission from Lisa Delgado Castillo.

That line of questioning, exactly, brings us into the fourth and fifth questions:

4. Where and how might other policy agendas, in particular health, be leveraged to encourage more sustainable consumption patterns in developed and developing countries?

5. How might public attitudes and awareness around the environmental impact of diet be influenced, and to what extent is this necessary to shift consumption patterns?

I am a vegetarian and my dairy consumption is low. What has led me to adopt this diet? The change has been progressive, over the course of the last decade. It started in my teens and why? What was I exposed to? Did my upbringing have any impact? I come from a country where it is believed that meals are not complete without a source of animal protein or that meat is expensive and its consumption is a signal of social status.

In the United Kingdom, dairies play an important role – the popular diet is rich in cheese and milk. Tea and cream comes to mind, it is strongly ingrained in culture. Is the pretension of modifying diets by informing the public realistic? How do we reach the public? What media and platforms are most effective for doing so? Who cares and who is going to pay for it anyway? Who actually has the public’s best interest in mind?

The chair of section is Gerda Verbur, the permanent representative of the Netherlands to FAO, IFAD and WFP, and Chair, Comimitee on World Food Security (2013-2015).

Speakers: