Opening statement on food security

Food Security16 Jan 2013Evert-jan Quak

This consultation on food security should shed light on who are the key and new actors in the global food security debate and how can they be better included? Does existing knowledge exchange increase innovative capacity?

Food security is a global public good. Thus the challenge of securing food supplies at local, national and international levels is a global commons problem that requires a joint strategy. And the task of securing food and nutrition worldwide in particular is multidisciplinary. Access to food, food distribution and food production are all important, and cannot succeed independently. They have to be related to other developments, like socio-cultural influences (religion, gender, family), environmental challenges (land, water, climate, biodiversity), economic issues (value chains, prices, profits, finance capital), and political forces (regulations, subsidies, policy guidelines).

In other words, the food system as a whole – from the inputs, primary production, processing and manufacturing of food, to distribution, logistics, retail and domestic food preparation – has to be placed in context and studied along with its external influences and outcomes.

Agriculture and food are related. Our food comes from agriculture, so higher productivity through technological improvements, better seeds and production methods can result in higher yields for the growing population. This was the main cornerstone of the food security approach from the 1950s till the 1980s and it remains an important pillar in securing food and nutrition. Extension workers are working with local communities to implement and disseminate information to farmers.

Yet debating agriculture alone does not do full justice to food security. The demand for land, water and energy are all interrelated, as are ‘food’ and conflicts. An example is the debate on biofuels, where agricultural resources are used for non-food production, and the surge for clean energy sparked forms of land grabbing and the interest of financial markets to increase speculation on commodities. Policies aiming to combat climate change – for example those that advocate the use of biofuels and reforestation – can have a tremendous impact on food prices. On the other hand agriculture itself, if developed in the right way, can help solve climate-related problems.

Food prices are now becoming more important in the debate on food security. Nowadays, free-market principles and trade liberalization dominate food markets. The idea is that markets, rather than governments, can make the food system work effectively by producing more food for less money. In the past two decades much effort has gone into making food markets work better in a liberalized context. But the idea that our food is becoming cheaper because of higher productivity and through market mechanisms has proven too simplistic. Food is becoming more expensive nowadays rather than cheaper. Nor has a liberalized market been able to solve unequal access to food. Given the complexity of food security mentioned above, this is no surprise; the food system needs not only good working markets, but also food policies that dare to address the multiple challenges the world is currently facing (including increasing inequality – see The Broker Dossier on Inequality. A more sensible food policy cannot simply emerge in isolation.

An important turning point, which put not only agriculture but also food security back on the political agenda, was the World Bank’s 2008 World Development Report ‘Agriculture for Development’. That same year, food prices and the number of malnourished people peaked. Food security became broader than agriculture and food markets alone. The debate on climate change and environmental concerns became linked with food security policies and rural development was back as strategy for poverty reduction.

But the debate on food security is also a debate of different islands of knowledge that in recent years try to find each other. Therefore this consultation’s aim is to explore comprehensive food security strategies that ensure a secure supply of affordable food using less land and water, produce less waste and fewer emissions, and alleviate worldwide poverty. Such strategies will reshape food security policies by integrating them with other policies and linking them within a broader context. Policies and solutions in, for example, technology and innovation, trade, new agricultural models, access to natural resources, and supply chain management cannot be developed independently. Knowledge sharing and research is crucial in that respect. It is about linking all the dots and finding sustainable solutions. There is no consent on solutions, as there are many interests at stake. Controversial issues pertaining to the food security debate include smallholders versus large-scale agriculture, biofuels, the use of chemical fertilizers, genetically modified foods, and free trade versus regulation and export restrictions. Agreement has to be reached on how innovative ideas can be implemented and how to reconcile conflicting interests.

This online debate raises the question of how experience and knowledge on food security are used and shared effectively. Other questions the debate will be seeking to answer include: What are the most urgent issues in international food insecurity that may not be included in most current food security policies? Who are the key and new actors in the global food security debate and how can they be better included? For example, social entrepreneurs are investing in new tools and food products, and with ICTs becoming increasingly important, software and application developers are now involved. What is the future of food production in an urbanized world? Does existing knowledge exchange increase innovative capacity in the South? And, are public-private partnerships successfully sharing knowledge and who is benefitting from it and who is not?

The experts’ contributions to the debate will generate valuable information for the Food and Business Knowledge Forum, an initiative of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to use in shaping its initiatives and policy. The Forum’s focus is on determining whether the Dutch government’s analysis of food security, which forms the basis of its policies on food security and nutrition, is accurate, and on understanding better the impact of its policies on developing countries.