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Global Forum on Food Security and Nutrition • FSN Forum

Re: Towards a common understanding of Sustainable Food Systems

Emilia Venetsanou
Emilia VenetsanoufreelancerCabo Verde

I am positively impressed by this debate that presents many interesting developments, thanks to the quality-contributions of dedicated and committed colleagues.

I want to come with a second intervention on the concerns raised about the causal links between SFS (Sustainable Foods Systems) and FNS (Food and Nutritional Security). Whereas the “One Planet Sustainable Food Systems (SFS) Programme” states that SFS are a precondition to FNS (“while the ultimate goal is food security, it will not be achieved while the economic, social and environmental bases for food production and consumption are being compromised”) a number of contributions are clearly opposing this view. Probably, we have to slightly shift our standpoint of analysis and try to finetune language and terms.

I consider that SFS are not a precondition for the FNS, but, a sine qua non condition, based on the following premises:

1. There are strong causal links between FNS and SFS. Both, SFS and FNS, are highly inter-related and mutually- reinforcing/ed systems.

2. These causal links are not linear (in the sense of time, i.e. first this and then that) and are not unidirectional, i.e. only A provokes an effect to B or that A is prenominal cause to B..

3. There is agreement on the holistic approach, for both constructs (SFS and FNS), so, our analysis should be coherent with such approach, which assumes that the whole is greater than the sum up of the parties and therefore, it focusses on the wholes rather than to the dissection into parts, e.g. SFS, FNS, although distinction is necessary.

4. Both, SFS and FNS, are constructs, i.e. conceptual and political agreements. Conceptual constructs are attempts of interpretative models on which stakeholders agree upon through a knowledge-building consultative process, in order to facilitate common action, based on common language and minimally shared understanding. On the other hand, political constructs result through negotiation capabilities of several constituencies and groups over different and even conflicting agendas. Constructs are dynamic, i.e. evolve.

5. Any developments on FNS as well as on SFS do not happen just spontaneously but, are governed. Actually, Governance (including policy-making and its implementation through appropriate institutional arrangements – Public Action) is a relevant sub-system of the whole picture. Governance may be good or ill, but in any case, is a relevant part of the picture particularly in our endeavour to address disfunctions, inequalities, (un)sustainable Food Systems or Food and Nutritional (un)security.

6. Both FNS and SFS are dynamic and continuously evolving, yet, in inter-relation. There is not a SFS standard to be achieved per se but, always, in relation with FNS and vice-versa. Food Systems may be considered sustainable (environmentally, economically, socially) only if effectively underpin FNS. Yet, Food Systems can be sustainable only if FNS meets at least minimum standards. When food insecurity prevails, it is not possible building up any sustainable food systems.

Let’s see an example from the bottom, on how SFS are subject to poor FNS conditions because food (in)secure people foster (un)sustainable practices that negatively impact on environmental, economic and social sustainability. The below example focusses on the social and economic unsustainability. Yet, we also know that vulnerable-households impact negatively on the environment e.g. through ill practices on land (rotation shortages, clearing by burning and so on), firstly because of the shortage of labour (related to economic and social sustainability shortcomings). Through the example, we also try to concisely show that Governance is part of the whole picture as well as why inclusiveness and equity are important features to be understood, reminding that inequality does not stop at the gates of the community and that all small-farmers are not just the same.

In the rural areas, in Africa, the poorest, during the “hunger gap” or “lean season” when the food-need is extreme, end up selling their labour under cost (sometimes for a plate of beans) to the “better off”. In Kenya, this is the case of those households whose food (in)security mainly relies on farm temporally work (“kibarua” in Swahili) paid in cash or kind. A good number of them are women workers that are the main or only breadwinners and, whoever, the ones ensuring food to the children. Similarly, in Northern Mozambique, in the Macua society is usual the so called “o’lala” which is a traditional practice of exchanging labour for food. Such practice enables those who benefit from the work of others to reach considerable accumulation. Suffice it to say that one day's work under "o'lola" can be paid in about 3-4 kg. of cassava per day of work, sometimes only with a plate of beans, while a worker can produce 7 - 9 kg. of cassava in one day’s work. Small-farmers that have to sale their work under these conditions do not manage to cultivate their own plot of land. Labour is the major limiting factor for small farmers in the context of the subsistence agriculture, at least.

Consequently, such widespread practices as “kibarua” and “o’lala” trigger a vicious cycle of vulnerabilities, food insecurity, multiple unsustainability and trans-generational poverty. Inequalities blow up. For instance, in rural Kenya, the richest 20% of the rural earn 62% of incomes (SID, 2004), while the bottom 20% earns 3.5 % of rural income (World Socialist Website, 2008). In Northern Mozambique, Nampula, already in the beginning of the 90s’ a trend of concentration of land was observed, with about 40-50% of the total land held by only the 25% of small-producers, the latter farming 5 times more land per household than the lower quintile.

For many rural households, their production – consumption system is a cycle (a continuum) evolving along three key moments, i.e. a) production (harvest and usually sufficient food for 3-5 months) – b) lean season (6-9 months) – c) severe food shortages (periodical crisis - emergency). The “Governance” of the cycle starts at household. At household level, to make face to the food-shortages, people develop appropriate risk management (ex-antes) and coping strategies (ex-post), aimed to strengthen household resilience. However, several times such strategies are not enough and, as we can see in the above example, lead to the unsustainability of the systems. Public Action is needed. Recognising that for several small farmers, the Production – Consumption cycle evolves along a continuum (as exposed above), the Public Action may propose a corresponded remedy evolving along the Promotion-Prevention-Provision - Continuum / PPPC. As a matter of fact, food security approach addresses: a) agricultural livelihoods development (Promotion of the production, addressing underlying causes of food insecurity); b) social transfers / SSNs (Prevention from falling into extreme poverty; risk management ex ante) and c) emergency assistance as last remedy (Provision of means to meet basic needs; coping strategies ex post). (see, e.g. “Entitlements and access to food: systems of social transfers to fight extreme poverty”, Brussels, May 2008, Position paper). ).