Realigning priorities for a healthier food system

The Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition just came out with its latest report: “Future Food Systems: For people, our planet, and prosperity“. There’s a lot to, ahem, digest in there, but Dr Shenggen Fan has a brief blog post to whet the appetite. He summarizes the policy objectives of the necessary transformation of the food system as follows:

  • sustainably producing the right mix of healthy foods in sufficient quantities
  • ensuring those foods are readily accessible and at low cost
  • making healthy and sustainable diets affordable to everyone
  • empowering consumers to make informed food choices

Which is fair enough, but how do you do that when governments, the private sector and households have different, and sometimes competing, goals and priorities? Well, for that you have to go to page 179-182 of the report, where you’ll find a long menu of stuff. But let me give you a taste. Here’s what I happen to think are the most mouth-watering single actions that should be taken by different actors, according to the report:

  • Governments: Rebalance subsidies going to the agriculture sector in ways that better support sustainable, healthy diets.
  • Development partners: Realign donor policy priorities towards supporting actions which promote simultaneous achievement of planetary and human health goals.
  • Commercial food companies: Increase private R&D to support locally appropriate nutrient-rich foods and share related intellectual property with public research entities.
  • Civil society and citizens: Advocate for institutional investors and asset managers to link human and environmental health goals to their core strategies.

Needless to say, crop diversity comes into all these, and indeed many, if not all, of the other actions the report recommends. Though, naturally, I would say that, wouldn’t I?

And since I’m here, maybe this is a good time to talk about another report also just out, IPES-Food’s latest: “The Added Value(s) of Agroecology: Unlocking the Potential in West Africa.” Thanks to the Panels’ social media team for highlighting in a tweet what the report says on page 71:

…farmer seed systems are relegated to ‘informal’ status, and their potential to support diversified agroecological farming is held back. While farmer seed systems for cereal crops are highly developed, access to vegetable seeds remains low. As a result, the risks of genetic uniformity of crops, loss of biodiversity, and farmer indebtedness are high, and the prospects for agroecology are severely constrained. As Issouf Sanou, coordinator of FENOP, testifies: “In the beginning, people believed that improved seed would improve farmers’ living conditions, but we very quickly realized that improved seeds had a lifespan [ …] Improved seeds means pesticides, means fertilizers […] And all this creates dependence.”

An opportunity for realigning some of those subsidies and priorities?

2 Replies to “Realigning priorities for a healthier food system”

  1. Hi Luigi!
    It seems to me that the term sustainable needs redefining. Virtually none of the world’s agriculture, or the present developments in food production are genuinely sustainable. With the continuing large-scale conversion of forest, grassland, peatland and swamps to industrial style agriculture, the question must be raised as to the limits of growth on a fragile, warming planet. At the present rate there will be very little diversity left. At the recent ‘Leaders Pledge on Biodiversity’ the idea of 30% of land being protected was suggested. This takes no account of the details and vulnerabilities of different ecosystems, and in the case of Boris Johnson it was a worthless pledge when conservation of natural and semi-natural ecosystems in UK is moribund. Even as he spoke his scheme for developing a high-speed rail was actively destroying pieces of 30 different stretches of ancient woodland. Countries such as Australia and Brazil have refused to participate; many of those who did were, like Johnson, claiming things they had no intention of delivering. At what point will Brazil stop deforesting the Amazon for new soya planting? Reducing deforestation is not enough; on a finite planet when are present trends going to be halted?

  2. IPES-Food’s latest:

    (IPES 2020) Mamadou Goïta and Emile Frison, The Added Value(s) of Agroecology: Unlocking the Potential for Transition in West Africa.

    IPES reports are getting worse. This recent IPES report is an attempt to force agroecology down the throats of farmers in West Africa. A previous report (IPES-Food, 2016, p. 62) falsely claims that International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development report (IAASTD, 2009) is said to have: “encouraged the development of agroecological science and practice.”

    First criticism. The IAASTD certainly did no such thing for West Africa. The facts are that the main IAASTD global report has 165 mentions of agroecology. However, this was massively skewed in the regional reports, with Latin America having 151 mentions but no with mention of `agroecology’ in the text of 253 pages of the Sub-Saharan Africa report (there are eleven mentions of `agroecological’ related to zones – but this is an older use differing from `agroecology’). We conclude that the multiple authors of the IAASTD Sub-Saharan Africa report thought agroecological approaches to be not of any significance. Yet IPES insist on using agroecology to `transform’ agriculture in West Africa.

    Second criticism. In promoting yet more biodiversity in cropping systems, IPES ignore the real ecology of biotic constraints to cropping. For example, maize, cassava and groundnuts flourish in West Africa because they were introduced from the Americas. Thus they are able to escape co-evolved pests and diseases in their continent of origin: the message is that less biodiversity is better for crop yields. There is no `natural synergy’ when cassava mealy bug escapes quarantine, arrives from South America and threatens cassava production in West Africa: the message here is more biodiversity is worse. The whole value of massively important crop introduction is to reduce the associated biodiversity of pests, diseases and weeds active in the crop’s former home (Purseglove, 1968). Yet IPES insist that adding biodiversity allows some unspecified form of `synergy’ in cropping systems.

    Fordlândia is an example of the economic cost of ignoring the lesson of `less diversity is better’. Fordlândia was a doomed attempt by Henry Ford to grow rubber in the Amazon region. Unfortunately rubber is native to Amazon forests and there is lots of associated biodiversity – the bad stuff – dragging down yields.

    Third criticism. This IPES report fails to understand the real reasons why farmers maintain crop diversity. Diversity is maintained not to attain some holistic, synergistic, agroecological interaction that increases yields (it doesn’t). Rather it is to have a tool kit in part to match crops to differing environmental conditions on farm but mainly to allow selection between crops and varieties in an attempt to choose the best varieties. In effect, to have the best, not the most, biodiversity is the target. There need be no interaction whatever between the different crops and varieties. [This is further explained in Wood and Lenné, 1993].

    An example of total failure to add diversity, The Community Biodiversity Development and Conservation Programme (CBDC) (Stegemann, 1996) was the most misplaced and certainly the most unsuccessful diversification programme ever attempted for crops. With the support of multiple donors, multiple agencies in multiple locations promoted the conservation and `development’ of multitudes of varieties on-farm. What happened? Farmers tried out the varieties, chose a few they liked and abandoned the rest. There was no agroecological synergy apparent, very little conservation, no on-farm evolution, and very quickly, no projects. Farmers wanted the best, not the most, biodiversity.

    Providing farmers with the best (not the most) biodiversity is, of course, the main purpose of conventional agricultural research, where hundreds of thousands of samples can be screened each year to find the very best characters to be used in breeding programmes in national and international public research institutes.
    This entire process of conventional agricultural research for development is pushed to one side by the polarizing rhetoric of IPES 2020: “Agroecology is emerging as a compelling response to the challenges West Africa faces, and a viable alternative to the industrial agri-development pathway.”

    Absolutely not so: the idea is breathtakingly bad. If any alternative is needed to any “industrial agri-development pathway” in West Africa it is certainly not a `transition’ to the un-ecological version of agroecology as promoted by IPES. The alternative already exists in national and international agricultural research in local research stations and universities, working to help West African farmers.

    IAASTD 2009 International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), Vol. 5 Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), ed. B. D. McIntyre et al.

    IPES-Food 2016 From uniformity to diversity: a paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems. International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food systems.

    Purseglove, J.W. 1968 Tropical Crops: Dicotyledons, Longman, London, pp 12- 16

    Stegemann, R. 1996 Conservation and development of genetic resources at the community level: the International Community Biodiversity Development and Conservation Programme (CBDC). In J. Engels (ed.) In-situ Conservation and Use of Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture in Developing Countries. Report of a DSE/ATSAF/IPGRI Workshop 2-4 May 1995 Bonn-Röttgen, Germany, pp. 59-52.

    Wood, D. and J.M. Lenné 1993 Dynamic management of domesticated biodiversity by farming communities. Proceedings of the Norway/UNEP Conference on Biodiversity, Trondheim, pp.84–98.

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