Global Forum on Food Security and Nutrition (FSN Forum)

An Early Warning Mechanism to Identify Emerging Threats to Adequate Nutrition and Food Security

In this discussion, we will propose a holistic way to detect emerging threats to FSN as early as possible, so that an appropriate rapid response to such a crisis may be undertaken by the authorities at national, regional and global levels as indicated. However, what is constitutive of this response would be beyond the scope of our present brief. Therefore, we will assume  that a suitable inter-institutional plan to manage such an emergency has already been made by the responsible authorities.

Our suggestion comes in two parts; first, we will identify the possible generic threats to FSN that may make a sudden appearance and their impact on it. Secondly, we will describe what may best indicate their more or less immediate onset with a view to undertaking a rapid pre-emptive response to those threats. The present approach represents a holistic analysis of the problem and a synthetic solution. Every effort has been made to make the present discussion pragmatic and free of jargon.

The impact of such threats may manifest themselves recursively at three levels:

  • Global; impact at this level would be comparatively rare but should a serious threat should affect a region or well separated countries which are major producers and exporters of a some staple food like wheat or rice, its effects may be felt throughout the world. Such an eventuality should trigger the emergency management plan of organisations like the FAO which should smoothly fit into the regional and national plans of the areas involved.
  • Regional; some threats may affect a region bringing about shortage of food in several contiguous countries. If they are a members of a regional organisation, it may have a regional plan that dovetails into the national plans of its members.
  • National; a discreetly localised threat to the FSN of a country. This in turn, may be seen as global relative to the area of its impact. However, this may be regional or local in its impact rather than national. For instance, regional or local flooding may have variable effects on national FSN.

We will now identify the various points of impact a threat to FSN may strike. These may occur singly or in some combination:

  •    Agricultural production and fisheries.
  •    Infra-structure; especially the transport network.

Let us next identify what kind of threat may bring about those two disruptions of FSN:

  • Unfavourable weather conditions such as drought, unseasonable rain,storms, etc.
  • Natural disasters like earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tidal waves etc.
  • Serious reductions in man-power in food production and its logistics due to ill health (epidemics   and/or pandemics), civil unrest, and armed conflicts.
  • An unconcealable drastic reduction in food production resulting from inappropriate agricultural practices. This remains a future threat owing to the current drastic lowering of agricultural biodiversity, while the giagantic industrial farming of wheat and cotton in Amur-Daria basin led to the permanent salination of vast former grasslands and to the near disappearance of the Aral Sea. A similar result on a smaller scale took place in developing countries unfortunate enough to welcome into them the ‘green revolution’ of the sixties.
  • Artificial food shortages brought about by the food trade and once by the authorities themselves as the “great grain robbery” by the defunct Soviet Union illustrates.

We will not take up civil unrest and armed conflict even though it could have grave consequences for the national FSN as the wars in Ethiopia and Biafra have shown. Resolution of such threats to FSN are the domains of diplomacy and/or the military. Early detection of such evantualities are delegated to diplomatic and intelligence services.

Thus, what we have to monitor and interpret as potential threats to FSN are linked to four phenomena:

  • Adverse weather conditions.
  • Natural disasters of the types descried above.
  • Pandemics and epidemics insofar as they impact on agricultural production, its logistics, etc.
  • Consequences of inappropriate agricultural practices.
  • Speculation in food by the traders and authorities. It may be noted that sometimes, sanctions could include food exports.

Some previous contributors to this discussion have proposed specific monitoring techniques which will not be repeated here. However, we will mentions a few possible monitoring methods which may be directed at the global, regional and national levels. It is assumed that the ground work has already been done to coordinate such efforts from one level to the other. Further, we presume that standardised interpretation of monitored data is in place.

Impending adverse weather conditions can be predicted with increasing reliability with the help of satellite data, air sampling (for dust particles that determine the quantity of winter snows), local monitoring of weather data, etc. The usefulness of the former depends on the degree of cooperation between the nations that own the weather satellites and those who do not. However, it is difficult to see how this fore knowledge might help to avert a disaster unless appropriate long-term plans are implemented in advance. Once it has taken place, international help may offer its temporary amelioration.

There is no conceivable way to avoid natural disasters. Advanced geological survey techniques may offer fairly reliable predictions of them. At present, we do not seem to have a comprehensive understanding of such phenomena even though they have been known since antiquity. We appear to have little choce in averting them, hence, what we can do is to make our food systems as resilient as possible so that and adequate FSN is restored as soon as possible.

As for the health threats that may adversely affect the FSN, their monitoring is obviously the domain of WHO, regional and national health authorities. The current Corona outbreak amply demonstrates their inadequacy. Food shortages due to this problem could have been avoided with comparative ease if the national authorities had in place a sutable plan to deal with all the aspects of such an emergency including food production and supply.

Monitoring of food trade in general and commodity futures in particular can warn the authorities of potential artificial food shortages. It is difficult to see how to counter this threat to FSN except by introducing and enforcing unequivocal food legislation based on the natural value of food. This value differs from the artificial value attributed to it by tradesmen in that its natural value stems from it being essential to life. And human life is supposed to be invaluable!

We have not said much about the actual modes of monitoring the indicators of impending threats to FSN. In our view, knowing about the threats from the described categories does not help us much to avoid them. Rather, we think that those indicators provide us some guidance for changing the structure of our current food systems in order to make them rational by being sustainable, really equitable, resilient, adequate and an integral part of our environment.

Best wishes!

Lal Manavado.