Paradoxes in food security: moving beyond self-interest

Food Security08 Sep 2014Gerda Verburg

In his 1963 speech to the United Nations General Assembly, the late US president John F. Kennedy expressed two ambitions for that decade: to commit to a manned moon mission and to end world poverty and hunger. On 21 July 1969, Apollo 11 landed on the moon. However, we still have not ended hunger.

What does this tell about the complexity of solving hunger?

It makes sense for us to take some distance and look at why solutions are not working well enough and what are the hidden forces working beneath the surface. The way forward can be effectively summarized by Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign slogan “it’s the economy, stupid!”.

Paradigm shift

In order to attain global food security for all, we need a paradigm shift. We can move beyond short-term economic self-interest and build trust in each other, so that we can jointly move ahead.

This requires three things:

  • First: inclusiveness. The views and interests of all stakeholders related to agriculture and food security need to be recognized and taken on board in designing and implementing policy.
  • Second: it is important that our policies and actions are evidence-based and that knowledge and information are shared among all stakeholders.
  • Third: each of us should take individual actions, with collective responsibility towards society in mind, so that together we can reach the common goal of sustainable global food security.

Some paradoxes stand in the way of food security for all. This can be explained by looking at different stakeholders in the field of agriculture and food security and how their interests might collide or collude.

  1. Farmers produce our food. Paradoxically however, the majority of the 842 million hungry people in the world are farmers! On top of this there is the ongoing trend towards urbanization. And one third of the food that farmers produce globally is lost between harvest and consumption.
  2. Consumers are an important stakeholder, as a huge and increasingly affluent middle class is arising in newly developed countries. If these people were to copy the consumption patterns of their peers in Europe and North America, we would need additional planets to keep up with the demand. At the same time we should strive to preserve enough renewable natural resources for future generations.
  3. Governments and international organizations should commit to putting food security at the top of the development agenda. But how many countries are really devoting proper attention to the organization of their food systems? And, among international organizations, there is a risk of hidden competition.
  4. Civil society organizations are important partners as they have the responsibility to represent people that would otherwise not be heard. Irrespective of this crucial role, they, like other stakeholders, need to be mindful of whom they are representing.
  5. The private sector plays a role that is expected to grow further within the food system. While one of their goals is to make profit, the attention of many entrepreneurs is increasingly focused on realizing long-term, sustainable results.

All stakeholders bring their own perspectives and assets with regard to food security, and each have their own challenges. But with innovative techniques, capabilities and given opportunities, we can contribute to change in order to attain sustainable benefits for all.

Inclusiveness, knowledge and evidence, and responsibility

So, how can we move forward?

Inclusiveness, knowledge and evidence, and responsibility are the pillars to support us in moving beyond short-term interests and towards sustainable solutions in agriculture and food security. All stakeholders need the attitude and will to work together, listen to each other, learn from each other, take ownership of their actions and invest in relations in order to build trust. This takes time and effort. But investment in trust and in a multi-stakeholder approach is necessary to move towards “the world we want”. Trust will prove to be the basis to implement at grassroots level what we have decided upon.

I believe that the method I have described is the preferred one to tackle global issues in the future. The UN Secretary General, Mr Ban Ki-moon, addressed CFS stakeholders in May of this year in Rome. The SG praised the innovative multi-stakeholder approach and stressed the importance of the “Rome agenda” on food security, nutrition and sustainable agriculture for the post-2015 development agenda.

Pursuing self-interest in the short term has caused long-term problems to persist or to spread. Self-interest in the long-term means: working together, based on knowledge and evidence, rooted in ownership and responsibility. That’s the smart economy, and it is in everyone’s interest!


This is a shortened version of the Dick de Zeeuw lecture given by Gerda Verburg on 4 September at the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague.