The crucial bottom-up approach

Climate & Natural resources,Food Security30 Oct 2010Chris Geerling

Security is the central theme of the ‘It’s Down 2 Earth‘ conference on agriculture, food security and climate change, and the conference is coming not a moment too late.

Measuring poverty in terms of income – the less-than-one-dollar-a-day standard – is useful as an indicator. But a predictable income and a secure existence is far more important for poor people. In fact, food security is a top priority. Perhaps food sovereignty is a better term, since it refers to people´s autonomy to choose what food to produce and eat. After all, if you don’t know what you are going to eat one day, how can you ever make responsible choices for tomorrow?

Evidence suggests that birth rates are higher in areas where people live a marginal and hungry existence. So for women especially, this makes food sovereignty an absolute condition for limiting the number of children in families, as the current trends in birth-rate figures and economic development demonstrate (and see this article, in Dutch).

These issues are raised in some of the conference papers, but always in a top-down context, as if grand solutions were about to descend on people. However, the reality is that institutional factors determine what goes right or wrong. So what ends up being crucial for any intervention in the field of food and climate change is a bottom-up approach, which integrates different levels of organization and encourages self-organization. And this is nowhere to be found in the conference programme.

The only outcome that really matters at this conference is creating a secure existence for rural populations, especially in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. The problem isn’t short- and medium-term food production; it’s giving the bottom billion access to it. The Unilevers, Monsantos and CGIAR institutes know very well how to look after themselves, but where do the bottom billion fit into this picture?

Climate Change

‘Climate’ and ‘change’ are two words making notable waves in debates between believers and non-believers. The discussion – or rather the lack of real discussion and response – shows similarities with the evolution-creationist debate.

Whoever is right or wrong, climate change is just one of the human species’ transgressions threatening this planet’s carrying capacity. In that respect, biofuels are part of the problem, not the solution. The discussion has to focus on that.

Let’s learn from what happened in the Sahelian countries during and after the droughts in the 1970s and 1980s. A basic ecological principle manifested itself there at the population level: there was a strong shift from a K-selection (survival) strategy – attuned to predictable conditions – towards an r-selection strategy, attuned to unpredictability. This resulted in substantial migration to towns and villages, and an increase in population growth.

This will happen again. The climate and natural conditions will become less stable, and people’s behaviour riskier. And they will offset future risks by having more children. But this is a wheel that doesn’t need reinventing.