Font size:

Contact us:

Re: The contribution of the private sector and civil society to improve nutrition

Rahul Goswami Centre for Communication and Development Studies / Economic Research ...
26.09.2013
Rahul

Dear FSN Global Forum members, FAO forum administrators and facilitators, thank you for providing the opportunity to comment on the subject, 'The contribution of the private sector and civil society to improve nutrition', which will constitute part of the preparations leading up to the Second International Conference on Nutrition (ICN2).

As has been pointed out elsewhere amongst the contributions, a separation of 'private sector' and 'civil society' would likely have led to contributions that provided a greater degree of insight into the distinct roles of each of these groups, for they are (and should remain) quite different from one another.

I will extract some of the assumptions and statements in the guiding paragraphs which I think need close examination, and comment on these.

1) The topic text said: "It is clear the world must produce enough food in quantity and in quality in terms of variety, diversity, safety and nutrient content to feed a population of over 9 billion by 2050. How is this to be done sustainably and meet the zero hunger target?"

I will advise and urge forum administrators, facilitators and members alike to avoid using the "9 billion by 2050" (or variations thereof) metric. Not the FAO nor any global development agency, not any single country nor any group of countries, let alone any of us, reckon with food provisioning at this scale. All those on this forum I am sure work in local or sub-regional administrations, and if any FSN forum member has to plan for the population of a province of, let's say 2.5 million people (or a city with a similarly-sized number of residents) it would I think be out of the ordinary. Hence there is not, and never will be, a "we" who will feed this number. As long as we are able to help it, many of them will feed themselves, locally, nutritiously, affordably and with all the cultural variety and diversity you mention. Food companies can and do have overextending ambitions when it comes to numbers, but this I will take up below.

2) The topic text said: "In the last FSN Forum discussions, it was agreed that to counter malnutrition we need nutrition-enhancing agriculture and food systems that provide diverse and healthy diets. The role of social safety nets in protecting nutrition is also recognized as are direct measures targeted at reducing stunting and addressing acute malnutrition."

As to the first assertion, I doubt we can say there was agreement (I did not agree with the thesis provided as the topic text). There is a need for FAO and fora such as this to steer well clear of conflating at every opportunity the terms 'agriculture' and 'nutrition' into a single compound description, for continuing to do so is likely to turn the perception of agriculture as most of us commonly know and recognise it into a subordinate sort of activity, inadequate to feed people satisfactorily. So let us not foster the popularisation of a new term that can be spun by public relations firms (with the food multinationals as their clients) as a technological code for better food.

As to the second, concerning social safety nets, the recognition to which you refer may be found in a limited sense in the international circuits that have by now been provided to evangelise this method. Most instances of 'social safety nets' are cash or benefit transfers to populations comprising either rural or urban poor, and who have systematically been disempowered and disenfranchised from making and exercising their choices of what to grow and what to eat. As the experience with the cash transfer for food programme in the USA has shown, supplying money to poorly fed households results in ever greater quantities of junk food being purchased, with all the attendant health risks.

3) The topic text said: "If we consider food and nutrition insecurity essentially as a problem of poverty, the strategy to counter this insecurity needs to be founded on inclusive broad based development and sustainable economic growth. Indeed the World Bank reminds us that investing in nutrition makes sense from an economic point of view as every dollar invested generates a return of up to $US30 ..."

On the other hand, we may (and I do) consider food and nutrition insecurity as a problem of the sort of ill-conceived macro-economics fostered by the World Bank (and the International Monetary Fund, the Asian Development Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, the African Development Bank). In July 2013 the World Bank's report, 'Securing Africa's Land for Shared Prosperity', advised a ten-step program to "boost governance", "step up comprehensive policy reforms" and "accelerate shared and sustained growth for poverty reduction" in sub-Saharan Africa. The report outlined a programme aimed at "scaling-up land administration" in sub-Saharan Africa. Concealed behind these assertions was the World Bank's familiar paradigm of enhancing efficiency by "transferring land from less to more productive users at low cost" - and those more productive users are the private sector.

I think there is a very good reason why La Vía Campesina International, the global network of rural organisations, has begun a new worldwide action plan based on small-scale farming and agro-ecology, food sovereignty, and self-determination of communities - none of which has any connection with the return-on-investment example given by the World Bank. There is also a good reason why La Vía Campesina is reaffirming its stance against transnational corporations, industrial agriculture and agri-business (i.e., the private sector).

4) The topic text said: "Farmers, farmers’ associations and farmers’ cooperatives are key to feeding the world." You have my complete agreement with that statement. In its 2012 report 'Our Land, Our Lives', Oxfam deals with the type of smallholder farming households and communities that you must refer to. Debunking the myth of Africa's "unused land", the Oxfam report showing that most areas targeted by land deals were previously used for small-scale farming, grazing and common resources exploitation by local communities.

5) The topic text said: "As governments cannot feed people on a sustainable basis, they need to deal with structural conditions which constrain development while at the same time promote policies which will enable the private sector to continue to innovate and invest in the food and agriculture sector."

Governments are sovereign entities and exist, for better or worse, as the result of a contract between themselves and their citizens. I must advise that it is not for this forum to generalise that "governments cannot feed people on a sustainable basis" or that governments "need to deal with structural conditions which constrain development ..." We are not here to adjudicate between the many manifestations of governance and applaud those of them which are devoted to the promotion of private sector activity in the cultivation of primary crops and the provision of food to the population from those crops.

Let us recall that in 2007 an important report - perhaps the most important one thus far - emerged from the multilateral system, and this was the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), with contributions from experts from over 100 countries (and endorsed by nearly 60 countries). The IAASTD report concluded that "business as usual is not an option" and argued with a collective authority that was not seen before for a shift toward agro-ecological approaches, to make this shift urgently as it is necessary for food security and climate resilience.

Remember also that in the IAASTD were a number of references to the role of the government in ensuring that this shift is made keeping in mind the need for equality, social justice and people-centric development. What the authors of the IAASTD urged for was transformative changes needed in our food, agriculture and trade systems in order to increase diversity on farms, reduce our use of fertiliser and other inputs, support smallholder farmers and create strong local food systems.

Now re-examine the topic text of "feed people on a sustainable basis", "deal with structural conditions which constrain development" and "promote policies which will enable the private sector to continue to innovate and invest in the food and agriculture sector".

Six years after the IAASTD, the Trade and Environment Report 2013 of the United Nations Commission on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) recommends a rapid and significant shift away from "conventional, monoculture-based… industrial production" of food that depends heavily on external inputs such as fertiliser, agro-chemicals, and concentrate feed. Titled 'Wake Up Before it is Too Late', the UNCTAD report has said the goal should be "mosaics of sustainable regenerative production systems that also considerably improve the productivity of small-scale farmers and foster rural development", and includes in-depth sections on the shift toward more sustainable, resilient agriculture; livestock production and climate change; the importance of public sector research and extension; the role of land use; and the role of reforming global trade rules. Unfortunately, heedless of the mass of evidence marshalled in the IAASTD business as usual has largely continued. Will the new UNCTAD report be similarly ignored by the private sector (intent on pursuing the prescribed return-on-investment from 'nutrition-enhancing agriculture') and pliant governments? Or might it instead lead to a much-needed policy transformation? We shall have to wait and see.

6) The topic text said: "A thorough involvement of civil society organisations ... is key to ensure coordination, ownership, effectiveness and accountability of initiatives aimed at improving nutrition."

A cursory reading of the behaviour and approach on the ground of many transnational corporations (TNCs) and other business enterprises reads like a roster of the devastation of livelihoods, of territories and of the environment of the communities in which they pursue business and profit. For the most part, the private sector hastens the commodification of essential services and of nature itself. In so doing, they can and do violate or are complicit in violations of human rights and labour rights, they erode the basis of food sovereignty, pollute water sources and lands, and plunder natural resources.

That is why the 'Vienna + 20 CSO Conference', held in June 2013, to address current challenges for human rights, called on countries to urgently develop and institute binding systems of international regulation and norms for TNCs. States have the obligation to ensure, by establishing strong legal systems of accountability for violations of rights and effective remedy and justice for all affected people, including along the food supply chain.

The reading is shocking, dismal and everything else in between: eleven peasants and six policemen killed. 13 peasants prosecuted, and more than 50 incriminated in the course of one of the most violent land conflicts in Paraguay’s recent history; fisherwomen, men and children who have been deprived of their access to Lake Victoria in Uganda threatened with being shot by private security guards if they cross the borders established by investors who claim to have 'bought' the lake; female workers of big food retailers who are put under surveillance, sexually harassed at their workplace and underpaid in the USA; pastoralists who are trying to survive the consequences of the destruction of their habitat due to mining activities in Mongolia. These dreadful examples are but a few of the testimonies of human rights’ violations and abuses that demonstrate the increasing trend towards criminalising social movements defending food sovereignty all over the world.

However even this sparse and scattered information has been enough for UN monitoring bodies and defenders - such as the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights - to state that the second most vulnerable group of human rights’ defenders are those working on land, natural resources and environmental issues, and these you will find are central to food cultivation. The International Labour Organization has also reported that the incidence of bonded and slave labour is particularly high in certain workplaces in the food chain - such as big plantations, industrial slaughterhouses and trawlers. Remedying these violations is what I am reading in your statement of the "thorough involvement of civil society organisations" and "accountability".

Thank you and regards, Rahul Goswami