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Global Forum on Food Security and Nutrition • FSN Forum

Re: Nutrition-enhancing agriculture and food systems

Rahul Goswami
Rahul GoswamiUnesco Asia expert on intangible cultural heritage; adviser, Centre for Environmental Education Himalaya, IndiaIndia

Dear FSN members,

I thank the Forum stewards for devoting space and time to this important matter, and for accommodating a variety of views on it.

The topic briefing said: "Notwithstanding the importance of the role of agriculture in producing food and generating income, employment and livelihoods, it is the food system as a whole i.e. the post-production sector beyond agriculture including processing, storage, trade, marketing and consumption that nowadays contributes significantly more to the eradication of malnutrition."

This is undoubtedly true, and what we see in country after country are populations urban and rural within which households make decisions (as consumers) for food in rapidly changing socio-cultural environments that are unfortunately disconnected from the myriad worlds of small food producers. There is, particularly in cities with populations of over half a million, considerable ignorance about food production. Such disconnectedness and ignorance is in far too many cases the hidden currency of the food systems referred to in the paragraph above. While the expectation may be - using the rubrics of governance and corporate responsibility - for food retailers to make the food chain transparent and trustworthy, doing so gets in the way of profitability and so is left undone. What becomes of nutrition (malnutrition as much as misapplied nutrition) in such scenarios, which are the norm in an urbanised planet?

Next, the topic briefing has said: "Nutrition-enhancing agriculture and food systems are those that effectively and explicitly incorporate nutrition objectives, concerns and considerations, improve diets and raise levels of food and nutrition security. Actions may include making more nutritious food more accessible to everyone or to specific targeted groups, supporting smallholders and boosting women’s incomes, ensuring clean water and sanitation, education and employment, health care, support for resilience and empowering women in a deliberate attempt to explicitly improve diets and raise levels of nutrition.

As this is a wide shelf, upon which nutrition is placed as one subject, and that is why I suggest the effective and explicit incorporation of nutrition objectives be diminished proportionately, for to insist on its primacy while attempting to preserve the importance of the 'actions' also mentioned will be confusing. The link between purchasing power of households (whether they are growers or not) and their access to food for example will govern the outcomes of many of these actions, and who is to say which is the more important of these other than the households themselves? What is also missing from this shelf is the the importance of government spending on the social sector, and equally on agricultural research and on food-related subsidies. On these matters there is usually much tension that exists, between the attempts to reduce or neutralise government (that is, public) influence in policy-making and spending, and between a private sector that wants to step in more actively.

The topic briefing continued: "Agriculture and food-based strategies focus on food as the primary tool for improving the quality of the diet and for addressing and preventing malnutrition and nutritional deficiencies. The approach stresses the multiple benefits derived from enjoying a variety of foods, recognising the nutritional value of food for good nutrition, and the importance and social significance of the agricultural and food sector for supporting rural livelihoods."

While the attention given to the diversity in diet and to rural livelihood is encouraging, it needs to be unequivocally said that the majority of traditional farming communities and indigenous peoples have, over generations, developed agricultural systems that are productive and environmentally sustainable, and which deliver 'nutritional value' automatically. These cultivating communities have domesticated thousands of crop species which, until the middle of the 20th century, were grown without agrochemicals. It is no surprise that the reason we espy, more conspicuously in organic retail outlets in Europe for example, a revival in 'ancient' or 'heirloom' cereals and fruit, is the reaction by concerned consumers to the atrophying of traditional agricultural knowledge and practices and the desire to ensure it is not lost altogether. It is small diversified farming systems that offer the most promising models to promoting agricultural and horticultural biodiversity, that conserve natural resources while doing so, that sustain yields sans agro-chemicals, and that are resilient in the face of environmental and economic change without compromising on nutrition and food security.

The topic briefing also added: "The multiple social, economic and health benefits associated with successful food-based approaches that lead to year-round availability, access to and consumption of nutritionally adequate amounts and varieties of foods are clear."

The new and seemingly permanent availability of food and the new idea of access to nutrition (which is not always associated with a typical food basket) that can be delivered, therapeutically through bio-technological methods and by employing genetic modification, needs to be halted. The idea of perennial availability is in conflict with the need to divorce modern industrial agriculture and food retail from its dependence on oil and gas. This is a limit that has long been recognised in the fossil fuels era, and in 1973 D Pimentel provided a breakdown of energy inputs for the production of a hectare of maize (about a third of the energy employed in corn production was fuel). In today's market-determined crop production and food retailing systems, the ratios of dependency have risen much further (see D A Pfeiffer, 'Eating Fossil Fuels: Oil, Food and the Coming Crises in Agriculture', 2006, which had for agriculture in the USA the following: 31% for the manufacture of inorganic fertiliser; 19% for the operation of field machinery; 16% for transportation; and 13% for irrigation).

The topic briefing has further stated: "The causal pathway from the food system to nutritional outcomes may be direct - as influenced by the availability and accessibility of diverse, nutritious foods and thus the ability of consumers to choose healthy diets, as well as indirect – mediated through incomes, prices, knowledge and other factors. Interventions that consider and affect food systems as a whole can potentially achieve more widespread nutritional outcomes than single uncoordinated actions."

There is little that the multi-dimensionally poor can choose from, in reality, and a representative reading of national and sub-national food balance sheets at the household level will prove this sad truth. The current method of providing food involves industrialised systems that are centralised and oriented towards profit (a position central to the recent 2013 June Conference on Agroecology for Sustainable Food Systems in Europe, sub-titled 'A Transformative Agenda', and organised by the European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility (ENSSER) and several like-minded partners). Such a method is also averse to regulation, let alone social needs. In such a linear approach, the assumption are made (because the current macro-economics of 'growth' permit it) of an unlimited supply of energy and raw materials (neither of which there is), and of an environment which can ceaselessly absorb pollution and waste (it cannot). This is the background against which new actors claim to be addressing priorities to strengthen nutrition and banish malnutrition.

Better nutrition emerges when communities repossess their cultural and ideological spaces to develop productive systems that minimise external inputs, pollution and waste by becoming circular in nature, by returning to principles that reflect the natural world - which is based on cycles, and in which the ‘waste’ from one species is food for another, or is converted into a useful form by natural processes.

Thank you and regards, Rahul Goswami