26 Who will and how will we feed humanity?

Finding complementarity between contrasting approaches to achieving food security and nutrition

Organizers: Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation; Quaker United Nations Office


Discussions around how to achieve food security and nutrition and the related targets of Agenda 2030 are often polarized — and charged. How core challenges are framed, often rooted in a particular ideology or perspective, lead to different and sometimes contrasting approaches to solving them. Along the way we risk setting up false dichotomies between large- and small-scale agriculture; certified organic vs. conventional production; biotechnology vs. agroecology; formal vs. informal seed systems and local vs. global markets. An integrative approach to achieving food security and nutrition will require moving beyond such dichotomies and entering into genuine dialogue across ideologies and perspectives. Discussions on the role of trade and the value of on-farm innovation and biodiversity will be enriched as a result and lead to practical outcomes. The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation and the Quaker United Nations Organization will host a conversation with people coming from a diversity of perspectives to see where mere semantics may be preventing agreement, where different approaches may be complementary, and where there is true disagreement. In moving beyond polarized debate we will be able to identify where dialogue can be moved to action.

Key speakers

Pat Mooney, ETC Group

Nettie Wiebe, La Via Campesina

Nichola Dyer, Global Agriculture and Food Security Program

Juan Gonzalez Valero, Syngenta

Main themes/issues discussed

The main themes discussed were:

The importance of engaging with new technologies in sustainable and inclusive ways;

The importance of local markets and farmers’ organizations for increasing farmers’ negotiation power; and

The role of governments in creating supportive regulatory environments for farmers.

Summary of key points

“Technology is our friend, but it is also fraught with risk.” It was discussed how technological solutions to food security often have perverse environmental effects, and that we need strong institutions to accompany technological advance. In particular we need fora such as CFS where good, healthy debate and discussions about the implications of emerging technologies can take place.

It was discussed how are are ‘embroiled in technology transfer to farmers,’ a model of technology development and dissemination that leads farmers to become heavily indebted and poses threats to biodiversity and small farming systems. The panelists agreed that innovative solutions to food security lie with farmers, and that farmers’ organizations need to be in control of decision making. Panelists expressed concerns in particular about government subsidies that encourage the transition to agricultural systems that have negative impacts on the environment and nutrition.

Too often the assumption is that production needs to be increased and farmers’ brought into global value chains in order to achieve domestic food security. However, it was highlighted that increasing production does nothing for farmers’ negotiation power, who continue to get squeezed by more powerful actors in value chains. Moreover, 70 percent of people are fed by the peasants’ food systems, and most food (between 80 and 90 percent) is not traded internationally. One panelist commented that, “global food chains sound great, but they’re not scalable.” This is overlooked when food is discussed primarily as a series of commodities produced for global markets.

All panelists emphasized the importance of farmers’ organization. This enables farmers to increase their negotiation power, particularly for local markets. Farmers are already organized into village level, local, regional and international networks, however these must be reinforced and governments must in particular provide enabling environments for farmers’ organizations to thrive.

The roles of governments include to protect the public interest when in comes to the treatment of natural resources, including agricultural biodiversity, and set up enabling environments, incentives, regulations to ensure sustainable access and use to natural resources; establish and participate in institutions that ensure that the voices of less powerful are heard; design policy and legal frameworks that are supportive of private enterprises, while not infringing upon the human rights of all citizens including the right to food; invest in infrastructure such as roads to local markets; and create public policy that links nutrition and agriculture to ensure good public health and nutrition outcomes.

Key outcomes/take away messages

Complementarity can be found among actors working in different ways towards food security and nutrition outcomes. Private sector actors such as Syngenta depend upon the existence of strong governments acting in the public interest and taking steps to ensure the food security of their populations. Peasant farmers’ groups such as La Via Campesina are not anti-technology nor anti-trade, but emphasize the value of existing knowledge and the role of local and regional markets not only for food production in terms of volumes, but in terms of cultural inheritance, food cultures and biological diversity.

Agreement can be found among actors coming from seemingly divergent perspectives. Panelists shared nuanced perspectives on the roles of trade and technology in achieving food security. Investing in technological solutions may in some cases improve efficiency and sustainability of farming systems, but farmers must be central to technology development. We need in-country trading systems to bring healthy fresh food into cities to feed growing urban populations, with processing being a necessary and important part of these systems, but brining smallholder farmers into global value chains is not the solution. We need to strengthen local trading systems, and governments have an important role to play in this.

A key take-away message is that stakeholders do not come to the table with equal sized ‘stakes,’ weight and authority. One cannot equate the loss of profit with the loss of one’s livelihood or life. Governments and donor organizations need to reflect upon assumptions about the equality of relationships and equal concern and commitment to natural resources in ‘multi-stakeholder partnerships.’