Sow food security, harvest peace
By José Graziano da Silva on 29 March, 2016
To sow the seeds of peace, we need seeds. And we need farmers to plant them!.
Food security and a healthy agricultural sector can play a central role in efforts to prevent conflict and build peace.
The international community currently devotes the vast majority of its resources to humanitarian interventions aimed at saving the lives of people affected by protracted crises. Unfortunately, not enough is going to help these people, most of whom live in rural settings, save and rebuild their livelihoods – to help them avoid becoming refugees, illegal migrants or beggars and instead take care of themselves and their families.
I will meet with the United Nations Security Council this week in what, remarkably, is the first time the Food and Agriculture Organization has addressed that body. The goal is to foster dialogue on how the international community can more effectively engage in conflict prevention and management. Protecting livelihoods and building resilience among farm and rural populations will lead to fewer lives on the line.
Consider Syria. More than two-thirds of the population now require humanitarian assistance, including 8.7 million people who do not have enough food. About 4.8 million Syrians are refugees, and even more are internally displaced. Most have been uprooted because their livelihoods have been destroyed – sometimes by unaffordable food rather than direct violence.
FAO has remained active in Syria and helped farmers by provisioning seeds and other farm inputs and vaccinating livestock. We have found that US $200 in support enables a Syrian farmer to produce two tonnes of wheat, enough to feed a family of six for a year and provide seeds for future planting. That is a fraction of the economic cost of food aid, not to mention the dramatic human costs.
This small international assistance has helped a lot. Syrian farmers were able to harvest 60 percent of the country’s average pre-crisis wheat production. That is certainly inadequate, but helped prevent even more desperation triggering an even larger exodus.
Greater efforts are needed to keep food production and food systems functioning, even in dire conditions, as this can help break through the vicious circle of hunger and conflict. It is part of what is meant by sustainability and the time frame and scope of international efforts must be broadened accordingly.
Peace and freedom from fear are necessary for humans to thrive. Along with the eradication of hunger and poverty, they are essential for the pursuit and fulfilment of the Sustainable Development Goals to which all countries have subscribed.
Interventions to ensure food security and protect and rehabilitate the agricultural sector have a large and often unnoticed contribution to make, as beyond their obvious role in addressing hunger, they can also help mitigate and even prevent conflicts. Peace and food security are often mutually reinforcing.
That is why FAO emphasizes that rural development must be a priority.
Farming is the primary activity of the world’s rural poor, who are also the most vulnerable to the consequences of civil strife, which nowadays is the most common form of armed conflict. Fostering broad-based agricultural prosperity can enhance social cohesion, reduce tensions over rival claims to natural resources and, by creating rural jobs, undercut the recruiting base of violent extremism around the world.
Increasing evidence shows that timely and robust food security interventions can enable individuals and communities to build resilience to conflict and hasten their recovery from it.
We must leverage what we have learned. Consider two lessons from Sierra Leone, for example. First, the country’s long civil war prompted millions of people to abandon their farms, which meant it took even more time and effort for food production to recover after the war. Second, in the aftermath of conflict FAO sponsored farmer field schools to offer training and strengthen skills. These not only helped the recovery of food production, but catalysed the spread of community organizations and helped restore social cohesion. The intangible value of those face-to-face agricultural extension services was reflected in the high voter turnouts precisely in the areas hit hardest by the war, a strong sign that relapse into conflict had become less likely.
There are many others examples that corroborate it. Such outcomes are worthy in themselves. In the long run, efforts to protect livelihoods will translate into fewer lives that need to be saved in the wake of failure to build and sustain peace.
The vast increase in the number of displaced persons today is a daily reminder of what is at stake. With no support, more farmers in conflict settings will have no choice than to move within or across borders.
Sustainable peace is intimately linked to sustainable and let me emphasize sustained development. This requires many ingredients. Food and its production are prominent among them.