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Questions every one avoids answering

Fantahun Wakie Birhanu | 15 January 2013

Fantahun Wakie Birhanu observes that food security is locked into the function of global trade and profit-making. The solution is de-commoditized food to achieve truly sustainable food security at global level.

I am very much challenged to find scientifically supported evidence that any development intervention that has been aiming at achieving food security in my country Ethiopia has shown a result that is sustainable, has empowered communities and the nation, and reduced dependency on foreign technological, market and inputs. A lot of statistical data, success stories and field reports from four decades of food aid, food security and safety-net projects and programmes cannot stand up to critical inquiry, such as:

  1. How sustainable and self-replicating are the reported achievements?
  2. How empowering were the interventions to national governments in poor countries to enable them to handle their own development and achieve balanced interdependences with the developed nations?
  3. Do the interventions improve the natural environment, protect crop biodiversity, improve on localized seed systems and make food systems-related technologies accessible to all?
  4. Did development interventions enhance community social capital and contribute to lesser dependency?
  5. Is national food sovereignty enhanced because of the interventions? Does achieving food security without minimum food sovereignty at national level regarding core food crops make real sense?
  6. How does the ongoing African land and water grab and putting the so-called economic theory of comparative advantage into practice affect food security and sovereignty?

The current approach to food security,  – where the solution is proposed to be income and employment, not more – is too simplistic.  Such a solution is relevant for industrialized countries, where a few farmers can feed a large number of urban industry workers. However, in Africa the solution should aim to achieve gainful self-employment with some level of sovereignty within a community and national boundaries. I know that this proposition does not make profit-seekers and market fundamentalists very happy.

Field reports about the effect and impact of development interventions in general and of food security interventions in particular are dauntingly tainted with political interest and NGO-ism.  Politicians are often tempted to distort field reports to persuade their citizens that the development approaches and programmes of the incumbent political parties or the guiding ideologies are the best for the country. NGOs on the other hands give more attention to satisfying their donors by adjusting their analysis and reporting on the outcome of their interventions to suit. Private sector  actors try to assert that their role in poverty reduction is irreplaceable and therefore advocate for public sector  withdrawal from many development activities.  

These misanalyses and misreporting of different interest groups in poor countries about the outcomes of their development interventions become more accentuated when independent media, CSO voice, research capabilities and political opposition parties are non-existent or very weak. Misanalysis and misreporting go unchallenged by alternative solutions and reality checks with independent research or interpretations of reality on the ground. 

The global level development reports of many international agencies are also biased because of these local reporting and progress analyses. In addition, global level analysis is too general to tell a precise story about the poor.   Quantitative income and food security data from China is lumped together with that of Sub-Saharan African countries showing the great success achieved over last two decades in lowering poverty. Such lumped-together  reporting  for an African person is equivalent to saying that ‘a food-filled plate on the table of a Chinese family is filling the empty belly of a poor family in Sub-Saharan Africa’ or ‘an increase in GDP or  amount of production that is annually published in international development statistical reports is equivalent to an increase in food stocks or income for every rural and urban poor household in Africa’. Disaggregated data would show a different story for a Sub-Saharan African rural family.    

National and international reports on the development and food security situation show that there is an improvement over past decades. On the other hand, my close local observation shows that the dependency of rural communities on the private and international aid industry is increasing, the food sovereignty status is worsening, the erosion of local core food crop seed diversity  is speeding up and  the local capacity of communities and the national institutional system to  innovate local solutions  is hardly improving. Eventually, smallholder farmers in poor countries are becoming more dependent on privately controlled crop seed genetic material, and chemical-based soil fertilization and pest control, while natural soil fertilization, indigenous genetic resources selection, conservation and free sharing practices are disappearing rapidly.    

I would find it very difficult to contribute to the food security debate if I limited my thinking to the current globally dominant thinking framework, where major global food security players try to sell the idea that market can solve every problem the poor have ever had. But this notion does not answer the most important questions regarding how food security can really be a ‘security’ to societies when the seeds and inputs are controlled by a few private actors and biodiversity and gene stocks are no longer common goods? Does food security make sense without decentralized food sovereignty? How sustainable and secure are centralized and market driven food system arrangements?  

To find reasonable answers to these questions, any level of dialogue about food security or any subject related to human survival, should not be reduced to a simple narrative like the argument of income poverty vis-à-vis food insecurity. Such a narrow analysis brings us only to the common and wrong deduction of equating food insecurity with low income and poverty. This in turn further leads to the prescription of wrong solutions that prove to be unsuccessful have been deepening the structural dependencies of communities and nations, and undermining the natural environment and the potential local indigenous solutions.      

I have witnessed the failure of interventions based on such a narrow cause and effect analysis to achieve truly sustainable food security after four decades of struggle. Many food security related efforts have resulted in deepening community and national dependency on foreign food systems, eroded local social-capital and thereby destroyed emergency coping strategies at all levels. For example, in Ethiopia, community seed systems (selection, conservation and free sharing) have long collapsed and crop biodiversity has been considerably constricted. Now multilateral organizations(for example see The New York Times blog: http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/05/13/in-africa-climate-resilience-through-insurance/?pagewanted=print )  are trying to create crop failure insurance to prevent hunger. However, there is no clear road-map regarding how this arrangement, which is dependent on foreign financial profit-making companies, will be replaced by a farmer-led local and national mechanism in Ethiopia.  

At this stage, we have no clear answer as to how this solution to climate change through insurance would mean that Ethiopian farmers regain their independency and food self-reliance over time.   

In my view and from what I am observing, ‘food security’ or ‘insecurity’ is locked into the function of global trade and making a profit from anything possible, even at the cost of human survival. This is expressed in the policies and practices of international financial institutions, global economic regulating bodies and the aid architecture. Therefore, the solution to food insecurity through more income improvement, commercialization of every food commodity under the dominance of private agro-business companies which control seeds, input and agri-technologies remains a temporary and highly dangerous game.

The usual analysis of cause–effect and solutions to food insecurity does not seem to reverse the ongoing costs that people in poor countries are bearing in terms of losing their sustainable development, which hinges on biodiversity, land ownership, food sovereignty, and localized seed system control. The poor productivity of smallholder farm land in the Ethiopian highland, for example, cannot be reduced to a solution of improving income through a farmers market –linkage approach on important core food crops such as maize, sorghum, teff, barley, wheat, potatoes, non-timber forest food products, etc. Rather, the problem analysis and intervention should take the following dimensions of food insecurity into account: 

- the complex water shade dynamics, the technical capability of the public extension system, rainfall patterns, conservation technologies;
land tenure and ownership policies, the conduciveness of the environment for decentralized community-owned credit and input suppliers, subsidy policies for market-driven commodities that are produced for the international market, overarching agricultural development strategies and national policies;
- international trade policies and agreements, interests that drive land-use priority setting, the principle of international cooperation within the framework of achieving sustainable food security and sovereignty,
 - the direct and indirect stake of transnational companies in the daily decision-making process of smallholder producers, households and communities. 

The choices of policy, technologies and approach to achieve sustainable food security become more complex when local and global environmental dimensions and the geopolitical interest of powerful nations are factored into the food security equation. Food then becomes a weapon to achieve a given goal and, rather than being a pure development goal, achieving human food security seems to become a means to turn every poor producer into a profit-generating opportunity for agro-chemical concerns that systematically control and produce sterilized seeds and chemical-dependent farm inputs.

Environmental and other trade related considerations challenge the current food security priority solutions. These are:

- climate-change mitigation remedies where some societies hold the right to pollute and others are asked to become carbon sinks at the expense of their development;
 - land allocated to bio-fuel production at the expense of organic food production in poor countries, which are advised to replace their food with imported crops produced using high-tech and chemical-intensive methods;
 - introduction of high yield varieties and animal species including GMO while losing indigenous and communally owned genetic resource to private companies and being forced to eat food whose health effects have never been guaranteed by independent and free researchers;
 - food for peace approaches to serve a country or number of countries’ geopolitical interests.

However, all of these measures have miserably failed to achieve food security in any community or ,nation in the South, or global food security.

I believe therefore that delinking human survival from sheer market fundamentalism can give hope for global food security. In the context of bilateral cooperation between countries to achieve food security, both cooperating parties need to work out the respective short and long-term results they want to achieve for themselves and jointly. From what we experience, the poor country often gives priority to short-term interests depending on the severity of the problem they face and the level of capacity to respond with no or minimum support from foreign countries. On the other hand, the developed country sees mutually beneficial long-term goals while the short-term benefit of the receiving party is only an entry point to cooperation. Both could also negotiate short and long-term mutual economic, environmental and technological goals around food-security themes.

The fundamental guiding principle for the dialogue and cooperation between countries, I believe, should be identified by the cooperating parties through an effort to find the right approach to achiev a food secured community, food sovereign nation or region, and finally equal interdependence among nations to achieve global food security.

As well as the interconnected multi-level interest of human organizations and our common interest in environmental dynamics at global level, the practicality of my suggestion hinges on another critical suggestion: delinking basic human food production and sharing from the market trap and the drive to make profits from everything possible. In other words, to achieve truly sustainable food security at global level and sovereignty at a national level, core food crop production has to be de-commoditized.

Food security without achieving minimum food sovereignty at national level regarding core food crops does not make sense at practical level. Therefore, the intentions and polices of bilateral and multilateral cooperation should aim to achieve:

(1)     decentralized national and community level food systems where dependency on international food supply and community dependency of national state centralized food dependency is reduced to a defined minimum level,

(2)     a de-commoditized seed system and preservation of traditional seed conservation and sharing practices for a number of selected staple foods and animal genetic resources,

(3)     innovative methods in which agricultural biodiversity (crops and livestock) are protected while their productivity is increased through selection and not only by adapting a limited number of hybrid materials and GMO, 

(4)     decentralized small holder seed selection and external sharing to recognize and protect community knowledge and land races,

(5)     depoliticization of international food aid and emergencies and demarketization of basic food commodities (for example the so called ‘food for peace’ policy introduced by the USA in 1958 and other politicized food-related policies need to be revisited because mixing human food security with other socio-economic, national security and trade interests in designing bilateral and multilateral policies did not serve the purpose),

(6)     competent national innovation and research capacity to become an empowered player making a unique and independent contribution to global food security within a given social and ecological context,

(7)     clear terms that hold the common paradoxical tension that arises in bilateral relations between stronger parties who want to empower the weaker but are not sure  how this will turn-out, perhaps leading to disempowerment of the powerful,

(8)     the inclusion of biodiversity and the legalization and protection of ownership of indigenous communities and national states over their genetic resources, including core food crops and curative plants, in good governance indicators, and the imposition of limits to the commoditisation of human basic foods at global level as part of good governance.

The above-mentioned suggestions imply that cooperating countries need to compartmentalize trade from basic food security. This further suggests that the approach to agricultural trade, land-use priorities and market commoditization should be redefined.   

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The content of this contribution is fully personal and  does not reflect the development theory or policy of any organization that I am in any form affiliated with. Neither is it a reflection or expression of the popular conception of development practitioners and academics in my country.  

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