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Re: Making agriculture work for nutrition: Prioritizing country-level action, research and support

Rahul Goswami Centre for Communication and Development Studies / Economic Research ...
05.10.2012
Rahul

Dear FSN moderators and friends,

Thank you for framing a few questions around a subject that is of utmost importance, and also for extending the deadline to submit responses. I will prefer responding to these questions in a different order. My reason for doing so is that this topic has been framed in a way that can tend to obscure key actors responsible for a number of the problems concerning cultivation, the provisioning of food, the price at which it is available, the choices that can be made by consumers, and the consequences of being unable to make choices that suit them.

Hence "Making agriculture work for nutrition" may divert us from other matters that seek to reshape agriculture. If agriculture is working as it used to (following some of the evidence that we have of pre-industrial agriculture), then the nutrition aspects are taken care of implicitly. If agriculture is not being carried out as it used to be, then our experience and knowledge (qualities that lead us to such a forum in the first place) tell us that the transformations it has been forced through, in the last few decades, are a culprit. To begin to rethink agriculture as a delivery system for nutritional goals (such as the MDGs) disconnects agriculture from its role as the locus of communities which, in their most durable forms, have been 'resilient' (a term much in vogue nowadays) for centuries. If we then ask, what has changed, I think we will find a raft of influences have changed in ways most fundamental to how crops are cultivated - in our discussions, let us not treat these as inert, for doing so will seriously if not fatally hinder our understanding of why the nutrition question is being posed on this forum.

What will be hindered or otherwise obscured? Let's look at this premise: "There is now considerable interest among international development organizations and practitioners in agriculture programming and policy to improve nutrition." Yes there is now, as there was eleven five-year plans ago in my country, India, when central planning aimed to do better to feed the hungry and to pay the farming household fairly for its service in providing foodgrain. What has changed in the interim? Some of the answer lies here: "... the increasing number of international development institutions formally weighing in on the topic ...multiple institutions for planning, implementing, and supporting nutrition-sensitive agriculture, as well as a number of gaps that limit action on these principles". In the introduction to this topic you posed a few questions.

These are, one by one: what are the main approaches we collectively see as most important? To answer, I cannot see there is a 'collective' approach - for countries (if they are small in size and population) and with sub-national regions (roughly corresponding to agro-ecological regions) there will be approaches based on more or less important needs, whether these needs are finding livelihoods, ensuring that water and land resources are not grabbed, finding alternatives to migration out of rural areas, and similar concerns. The second question was: what are some practical recommendations that can more effectively promote, support, and guarantee the integration of nutrition into agriculture and food security investments? To answer, I doubt any of us are in a position to provide guarantees of any sort. National governments can provide counter-guarantees (as these instruments are called, supported by policy measures) to 'investors' that help their 'confidence' (to invest). It is uncommon to find national governments providing counter-guarantees with similar alacrity and eagerness to their own citizens these days on the matter of providing adequate food at an affordable price. So we in this FSN community may have the knowledge and experience to make a host of practical recommendations, all at the local level - but in what way are these actions related to the idea of investment, and investment by whom?

And finally: what research is needed? To answer, if we revisit the research conducted in the rural regions of, let us say, 'developing' countries 50 and 60 years ago, we will no doubt find enough to guide us today too. The social medicine followed by Rudolf Virchow in Silesia in the late 19th century, as an analogy, has as much relevance today as it did then. The 'Indore method' of composting, documented by Albert Howard and Yashwant Wad in the first decades of the 20th century, is more relevant today perhaps than it was then. We would be ill-advised to ignore the research conducted in the past simply because of its vintage and the perception that the major problems that beset us today - climate change, galloping urbanisation, destructive macro-economics - are beyond the scope of the learning these can provide.

Hence, taking the last question first (this is: which agriculture investments would you suggest that can improve nutrition? and can you think of interventions that at the same time correct other harms of current approaches and policies, thus creating further opportunities?), here is my short response. There is no agriculture 'investment' to improve nutrition other than the farming household and the cultivating community being allowed to follow the routes its accumulated wisdom and oral transmission of practice suggests. No more 'investment' in agriculture per se is required. Investments in social sector services - such as good quality and affordable rural healthcare, culturally relevant education - which may combine with sober and helpful local legislation and laws that protect land and water resources, these can allow cultivating communities to find sources of nutrition and provide non-growers (in towns and cities) the cereals, vegetables, fruits and herbs they need. Indeed, there have been and continue to be 'harms' embodied ni current approaches and policies. But will their correction amount to justice or opportunity, and if opportunity, then for whom?

Looking at this landscape from a country that produces more than enough to feed itself (India) and which nonetheless has about 20 per cent of its children under five being wasted, 43 per cent underweight and 48 per cent stunted (in terms of numbers this is about 54 million children under five years in India who are underweight which constitutes about 37 per cent of the total underweight children in the world), the question of opportunity can sound both simple and sinister. This is because there has in the last five years (and especially since the 2007-08 food price escalation) there has been no dearth of new programmes and consortia created that aim to increase yield, deliver micro-nutrition and bio-fortification, facilitate 'better' access to 'new' markets and in general tackle hunger by promising innovation and private sector savvy.

Consider one of these, called a 'New Vision for Agriculture', and which is led by the Consumer Industries Community (whatever that means) of the World Economic Forum. This programme, in its own words, "works to develop a shared agenda for action and foster multistakeholder collaboration to achieve sustainable agricultural growth through market-based solutions". Using the idiom so typical of the Davos gatherings this programme claims to have "defined a vision that highlights agriculture's potential as a positive driver of food security, environmental sustainability and economic opportunity worldwide". Indeed, if such organisation and such prose was all that it takes, there would have been no need for an FSN Forum, would there? Market utopias are advanced by the profit motive, and are usually easily recognised as such, but again over the last five years they have become very much more sophisticated than before, and can nowadays usually be identified through descriptions such as "a diverse network of global and local stakeholders ...engaged in initiative activities, including governments, international organisations, civil society, farmers organisations, research and academia ...a high-level multi-stakeholder group, provides advisory and leadership support".

The point here is, however these are described, the monetary power and policy influence exerted by such consortia is enormous. The Grow Africa partnership, a joint programme, if I understand it correctly, of the African Union, NEPAD and the World Economic Forum, has said it will "accelerate sustainable investment in African agriculture to improve food security". Political support comes from the G8 and has taken the form of what is called a New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition. Who are the 'stakeholders' in this case, other than the intergovernmental grouping and programme secretariats? There are 49 companies which together want to invest more than US$ 3 billion. Is that combined figure more than the annual combined budget on agriculture of the 54 states of the African Union? If it is, would it be used in ways that support diverse farming systems that ensure that adequate diets are accessible to all, and which simultaneously support the livelihoods of poor farmers and that are ecologically sustainable? The history of the expansion of the global agri-food industry - especially in the last ten years in what are euphemistically called 'emerging economies' - is convincingly otherwise.

To move on to the next question, which is "What can our institutions do to help country governments commit to action around your recommendations, and to help ensure implementation will be effective?" I ask you accept that my recommendations will be more or less rural- and smallholder farming household-oriented as will be others on this list. Our institutions - I am taking these to mean local institutions, in the form of small farmers' cooperatives, growers' associations, enlightened consumer groups, progressive administrators at district level - are being and will continue to be subjected to shocks caused by the volatility of prices (in what macroeconomists call the 'real' sector, indicated by the steady upward swing of consumer price indices) of food, and also by the volatility transferred to their local economic circles by the gyrations in the agricultural commodities markets. Macroeconomic planners (unfortunately, many are still cut from the same cloth, and display little useful appreciation of actual household conditions in the 'real' sector) periodically complain that such volatility has a negative impact on economic growth, discourages investment and reduces the accumulation of physical capital. I can't see these effects as provoking complaint amongst the growing number of practitioners and advocates of the Transition movement, for 'degrowth' becomes one of the several key characteristics of such a society. To touch the question again, can our current local institutions embrace a 'degrowth' manifesto which delivers food and nutrition security just as surely as it insulates itself from the volatility associated with over-exposure to the 'market'? Probably not yet, but this is a worthwhile goal. For, ranged against us is the oft-repeated logic that diversification (in and of food marketing systems and its retail front-end) and industrialisation (of agriculture) remain important factors in order that agriculture contribute to GDP growth. You can see this logic at work in the G20 Commodity Markets sub-group summary report on the impacts of excessive commodity price volatility on growth.

We are asked how, "to support the design and implementation of this programme [the one we outline under the first question], where would you like to see more research done, and why?" and to do justice here I would like to dwell upon the 'research' meme as it is applied to smallholder cultivation, to organic agriculture, to subsistence cultivation, to a human-sympathetic study of cultivating households. What might we find with a research guidance that follows cultural pathways, rather than one (so zealously peddled by phalanxes of new consortia) that is technology-driven and whose impulses are oriented towards trade and markets? I would like to explain by backgrounding my home region, in coastal western India, the small state of Goa. Here, the distance between the sea and a long chain of hills (the Western Ghats, a global biodiversity hotspot that has this year been included in UNESCO's World Heritage sites) that marks the western boundary of the enormous Deccan Plateau of peninsular India is no more than 55 kilometres at its widest. In this zone, so favoured by the south-west monsoon, there are to be found the remnants of a most ingenious rice-fish farming system which skilfully employed the tidal estuaries and a myriad small waterways. These were commons, administered collectively and their use governed by an elaborate system of coding. In the early 1980s, Goa and the adjacent regions were home to paddy histories that included over 20 varieties of rice unique to this agro-ecological region, a number of them saline-tolerant. Further towards the hills we find the dense integrated farming plots which have carefully, painstakingly accumulated growing diversity for its food value, for medicinal purposes, for commercial sale, for fruit and to fulfil the need for a ready supply of offerings (flowers, certain herbs, certain fruit) to deities (prayers and the religious calendar when read with scriptures serve as media that reinforces the ecological principle, that enshrines the ancient kernel of sustainability). In these plots, through tiered layers that rise to the canopies of the mango tree and the areca-nut tree, we find also the 'neem', the drumstick, the tamarind, small groves of coconut palms, edible gourds and a trove of local leafy vegetables.

These rural homes, for whom cultivation is a cultural activity just as much as it relates to supplementing cereal staples with the rest of the typical vegetarian food basket, have followed orally principles of sustainability for more generations than any of them can count. They maintain high diversity in on-farm niches and to buffer against climatic and economic adversities; they have long long ago combined species to enhance productivity and yields (especially in aquatic systems, which are in rapid decline over the last 20 years because of the pressure of urbanising settlements); they mastered crop rotations and intercropping, they mastered too the algebra of nutrient availability, developed their local science of pest and disease control and water management. Transmitting this lore from parents to children the knowledge of management practices that use complex, ecologically-grounded approaches (no place for off-farm inputs brought in by the seduction of short-term outputs), they invested great care in the nurturing of soil biodiversity (long before the Indian national agricultural research system began classifying the sub-continent's soil groups). They studied and conserved arthropod biodiversity to increase localised understanding of how agro-ecosystems function - this became a key ingredient in effective pest management in rice production in the rice-fish farming system, which in turn depended upon careful observations about the monsoon, and the fresh water-brackish water cycle that balanced from one season to another the entire system and so transported the community with a degree of contentment and I am sure thankfulness.

In the same way, I understand that in the Philippines there are still more than 300 kinds of edible fruit and that no more than a handful have been, as they now tend to say, 'commercialised'. There are reputed to be edible nuts in the Philippines that the urban markets are still ignorant about and yet despite the equal legacy of cultivating communities stewarding tropical diversity of utmost richness the country also contains one of the world's largest pineapple plantation businesses, whose daily and annual operations alike are overhung with the mountainous debt incurred to keep that particular supply chain in good order - it is a question of investor confidence whose ugly marriage to retail mendacity robs the growing communities of the Philippines of their accumulated wisdom, generation by generation. Yes we need a research, one that can identify and arrest this loss. And even so, what research can replace the lost rice strains of my native Goa, where the fat and fragrant red grains have been displaced by pale hybrids bearing sterile alphanumeric code names?

This is a well-trodden path, although one that governments and an internationalised agri-research network has only nodding acquaintance with, and that too reluctantly. Organisations such as the International Institute of Environment and Development (IIED) have about 40 years' experience working alongside such communities. In its published work, the IIED has repeatedly emphasised that measures to increase 'resilience' (whether for climate change or to absorb the excesses of globalisation) must view food, energy and water as interconnected and mutually dependent - indeed I would have added traditional knowledge systems, for these underpin our values and behaviour. In a similar way, this has been the core of UNESCO's Management of Social Transformations Programme, which is of a similar vintage and has more than 40 years of study and careful reflection that can guide us through troubled times ("A Guide for the Perplexed', E F Schumacher had once written, and so very useful that slim volume proved to be). These are the holistic approaches that must also be applied to economic analysis on what is now being called adaptation planning. I am convinced it is vital to use traditional knowledge and the rich raft of management skills available within communities that live with their legacies, to follow such planning - it is, in this view, the moral compass for the 'green economy' which is a term blithely and glibly appropriated by industry and their partners in government.

And so on to the final poser, "if you were designing an agricultural investment programme, what are the top 5 things you would do to maximize its impact on nutrition?". The foregoing paragraphs will help, I hope, justify why I cannot answer this as an individual or as a representative of an organisation or group. It is really not in our hands, nor ought it to be. In cities and urbanising regions of the world in which households - having struggled with food inflation for five straight years and facing no relief in the visible short term - are taking to growing some of their food basket (see FAO's first status report on urban and peri-urban horticulture in Africa) the impulse and practice to find and maintain food independence takes on a myriad shapes and directions, a kaleidoscope of growing creativity in hostile environments. Do these households - in dense housing blocks crammed into fast-expanding suburbs, in shanty towns ruled by water supply and land mafias - have choices that are just and fair? No, they are making desperate attempts, using whatever residual community knowledge they can muster, to find an equity from within. Consider what the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food said about the right to an adequate diet (he called it the agriculture-food-health nexus and it was presented to the 19th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council). "The health impacts of bad diets are well known ...unhealthy diets increase the risks of cancers of the breast, colon, prostate and other organs. Low intake of fruits and vegetables, for instance, increases the risks not only of cardiovascular diseases, but also that of gastrointestinal cancers." A homogenous approach to insuring the poor and the indigent (regulated nonetheless by endless grey paragraphs of WTO directive, subject nonetheless to the need to preserve 'shareholder value', that final metric of all things financial) will further burden these households. The cash transfer programmes that have begun in several countries over the last five years and which will be emulated in many more (mine included) are not agents of change, rather they are agents of the idea that chronic dependency can be an effective tool of governance at the most local level. The corollary is that other behaviours - by households and by rural communities, convinced that reclaiming their right to grow and to choose their food and nutrition futures - is beginning to be seen as declarations of independence. In our labours to make as much sense of it all as we can, do we stand for science, for equity and fairness, for the means with which hunger may end, or for an independence rooted in cultural values and respectful of the knowledge streams that brought us this far without endangering our environment?

Thank you and regards, Rahul Goswami

Additional notes:
1. See the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS)
2. In 2012 August, FAO recorded that the international prices of grains averaged 23 percent higher in July than June- maize at record levels; export prices of maize increased sharply in the first three weeks of July and remained firm to the end of the month while international prices of wheat followed a similar trend to those of maize through July.
3. See Oxfam's report on the world's largest commodity traders which have a significant impact on the modern agri-food system. "Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), Bunge, Cargill and Louis Dreyfus, are dominant traders of grain globally and central to the food system, but their role is poorly understood," said the report. This report considers the traders - collectively known as the ABCDs - in relation to several global issues pressing on agriculture: the 'financialisation' of both commodity trade and agricultural production; the emergence of global competitors to the ABCDs; and some implications of large-scale industrial biofuels, a sector in which the ABCDs are closely involved.
4. See this report by Der Spiegel on price surges since the beginning of the agricultural crisis in 2008 that cannot be explained by normal factors. "Market prices for rice, for example, sometimes shoot up by 30 percent in a single day," said the report. Growing demand causes futures prices to rise, which ultimately affects the real market- which is precisely the problem. Many studies show that futures contracts affect prices on real markets, and experts only disagree on how large the effect is.
5. Cargill is the world's biggest grain trader and produces meat, animal feed, food additives and a host of other products. Cargill CEO Greg Page wrote an opinion article in The Washington Post, "How to ensure the world's food supply". He wrote that the keys to meeting the world's food needs are freer trade, the elimination of mandates for biofuels and "closing the agricultural productivity gap between Africa and the rest of the world."
6. The New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition is a programme by the government of the USA in which 45 multinational corporations are participating. These corporations are reported to have committed to investing billions of dollars in Africa.
7. Chinese agribusinesses are changing the landscape of farming at home. China Dialogue in an analytical feature said that "the new face of agriculture in China is no longer the household farmer but people like Liu Yonghao, president of the US$8.8 billion agribusiness New Hope Group and China's fourth richest person". This company claims to process 750 million fowl and 8.5 million pigs a year and already owns 16 feed factories outside of the country.
8. Shenggen Fan, director of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI, which is one of the CGIAR institutes), is reported to have said that the food price crisis "is not here yet" but that "if droughts in India, Russia and a couple of other major food producers become worse, we will see continued tightened food supply. Trade restrictions by these countries will make the situation worse." This is an extremely problematic viewpoint as it ignores (a) the crisis that has not departed since the 2007-08 food price escalation, and which has deepened since 2011 as a cursory look at country CPIs shows, and (b) that food inflation is being advanced as evidence that trade restrictions are to blame, when in fact it is exposure to global price volatility as a result of such trading that has been transmitted to local food markets and which has helped drive up food inflation.