Global Forum on Food Security and Nutrition (FSN Forum)

From the outset, we will make sure that the reader is certain of what is presented here. Our heading is clear because we have added the word ‘relevant’ to it while deleting ‘scientists’ and the species named as ‘knowledge holders.’ To the vast majority of us who do not speak ‘institution speak’ scientists could be concerned with nuclear physics or Volcanology, none of which has much to do with food and agriculture. We will not comment on the obvious grammatical and syntactical errors in the title of the present discussion, because our remarks on similar faults in the parallel discussion has been expertly ignored.

As for ‘knowledge holders’, those may range from an electronic data base, a library or even a box of old books in an attic. Assuming this curious phrase refers to people who know something, we again face the problem of its relevance. Moreover, one may know everything about cycling from a book, but that knowledge would be of little use to him in cycling in the real world. A policy is intended to direct and guide goal-directed actions in the real world, and for its shaping, we need those who possess the relevant knowledge and the skill required to put it into practice. This knowledge and skill constitute the competence relevant to policy design and implementation.

We have now cleared the ground so that it would be possible to engage in a rational discussion on the subject, but we very much doubt that that this exchange would be no different from the previous ones i.e. contributions more or less adequately summarised for posterity, for they do not seem to have any significant effect on the conceptual scheme of the FAO on food and agriculture. For instance, in the current parallel discussion, the ungrammatical use of the English preposition ‘for’ has been retained even though this has been pointed out in the run up to it.


Let us keep one fact firmly before us; policies are man-made to serve a given human aim. As such they are tools shaped by the norms of the society in which they operate; thus, their use represents a social practice in action. Success of this usage depends on how skilfully a suitable action has been carried out. A successful policy design and implementation therefore implies the possession of the relevant knowledge and skill by all those who are involved in the process.

This is the context in which we will have to proceed with the discussion. As every policy emerges from the norms governing how a given general purpose is to be achieved, let us  note some of them briefly:

   • Food systems that are sustainable, robust, resilient and are operated in a manner benign to the environment are necessary to attain the objective of our policy.

   • Their output is physically available and is affordable and will enable people to procure a wholesome, varied and balanced diet.

   • Food systems will support the continuance of world’s food cultures and would enhance global agricultural bio-diversity.

Our point of departure is that there is already an ample body of relevant competence required for sound policy formulation and indeed, implementation. We hold that the solution of the problem lies not in ‘searching for opportunities’ but in removing the barriers or obstacles that everyone with relevant competence has encountered when dealing with institutional inertia and the masterly inaction of the authorities.

In the next section, we will identify the levels of relevant competence involved in policy design and implementation. Often overlooked, it results in inappropriate deployment of expertise which leads to unsound policy and fragmentary implementation. An analogical situation would be to invite an electronics expert to design a rocket and ask a rocket engineer to make the required electronic components.

Levels of Policy design and Implementation

It may surprise the expert policy designers to learn that a sound policy description should be cogent and brief. It embodies the general goal of the policy and its implementation at the strategic level. For instance, in the present case, the relevant policy may be thus described:

   • The authorities shall undertake the appropriate actions required to found or modify the national food systems as well as the other adjunctive measures necessary to enable the people to procure an adequate quantity of wholesome food they need to enjoy a varied and a balanced diet relative to their individual dietary requirements. They shall undertake all requisite measures to ensure that the food systems used are sustainable, robust, resilient, environmentally benign and promote the increase of agricultural bio-diversity.

Next, it will outline the strategies to be employed in its implementation. This is the point at which superfluous verbiage flourishes like weeds in a field. Let us consider some of generic strategies while keeping in mind the distinction between the strategy and its qualitative attributes.

   • Success of a policy depends in part, on the degree to which it is in harmony with the other policies in a given national policy set. We have described this inter-policy harmony in detail in our previous contributions to this forum and will not be repeated here. Very briefly, impact of environment, legal, industry and employmemt policies on food systems is indisputable. Indeed, this is extremely difficult to achieve, hence the failure of most policies on food and agriculture. Therefore, it is imperative to undertake vigorous measures to attain this strategic objective.

   • Ensure that the strategies of implementation chosen do not conflict with the goal of the policy involved. All too often, implementation strategy lacks this intra-policy harmony owing to the flaws inherent in committee’ism, which is the preferred method use in strategy design. It may be democratic, but none could live on such abstract notions for they are highly non-nutritious.

   • Ascertain as well as possible the amount of various food the country needs to meet the goal the policy has specified; due attention should be paid to the national food culture when food varieties are considered.

   • Ascertain the actual quantity, quality  and varieties of national food production through feed-back from food producers and harvesters; if and when reliable, figures from food traders may be used as a supplementary source.

   • Identify the shortfalls in quantity, quality  and variety, inappropriate items i. E. Those are injurious to health. This provides the basis on which food systems may be founded or modified.

   • Undertake measures to found or modify food systems with reference to the shortfalls mentioned above; this generally involves empowering regional and local bodies to make those measures operational at the field level.

   • This empowerment involves any one or more of the following actions guided by the requirements of sustainability, benignity to the environment, resilience and robustness:

  1. Establishment and expansion of the necessary extension services.
  2. Assistance to obtain seed, breeding stock, fertilisers and irrigation.
  3. Provision of appropriate technology.
  4. Technical support when indicated.
  5. Financial aid.
  6. Sometimes, it may be necessary to introduce new species or methods, but this must be undertaken with the greatest prudence lest they have undesirable environmental consequences. Always consider re-intrroduction of a sound traditional crop or an animal in preference to a highly ‘promoted’ one; keep in mind the sad aftermath of the much vaunted ‘green revolution’.

We shall now outline how the foregoing may be made operational at the regional and/or local levels according to the size of a country or the administration of its internal affairs. Here, the strategy will be implemented with reference to the local possibilities which are best known to the local food producers or harvesters like fishermen. For instance, while a markedly wet region would be suitable for rice production, in a semi-arid area cultivation of drought resistant pulses like chick peas would repay the cultivator. Such operational niceties should be delegagted to the competent local professionals. Thus, it is obvious that it is imprudent to specify how the implementation strategy of a sound food and agriculture policy may be made operational. However, we have offered here some of the generic factors that should be taken into consideration during the process.

The Barriers and Their Elimination

The very first obstacle we face is the unreadability and understandability of policy and strategy documents. This arises from two sources; the prevalent belief that such a document should run to many pages because its importance is proportional to its length. The second is a desire to impress readers with jargon and circumlocutions of most inane kind. A classic examples are phrases like ‘main pillars’, ‘to strengthen’ etc. An attempt should be made to employ people able to think in a logically coherent manner to produce such documents.

   • Diploy people with an excellent command of the language involved to edit and shorten the documents. Language skills of most technical experts are obviously inadequate to the purpose.

The next barrier has been with us for centuries. Never openly expressed, it is the belief that an expert in a limited field is an infallible authority on other areas. Perhaps, some may recall how the great medical authorities like ‘the father of modern pathology’ Prof. Rudolf Virchow ridiculed Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis when he advocated those who attended women in labour should sterilise their hands by washing them in chlorine water. Naturally, the ‘great man’s’ word was accepted, Semmelweiss was driven out to die in obscurity, more and more pregnant women succumbed, but the profession believed the word of the famous pathologist even though he was not a medical microbiologist.

   • Therefore, it is incumbent on the authorities to diploy people with the relevant competence at the appropriate level. The question is whether the authorities have the competence required for such rational deployment of abilities.

Our next hindrance is the institutional inability to undertake pro-active measures. Reactive response is so ingrained in the institutional mind, it is difficult to see how this state of affairs may be changed. Perhaps, higher education may carry out a change in their basic conceptual tools imparted to the students by making them think pro-actively i.e. anticipating the results of their potential actions before they are undertaken. At present, their education is concerned with how to conduct ‘research’ after the event! The good results of such an endeavour however, is a long term prospect.

   •  Assuming this is achieved, then it is possible for ecologists to guide the strategies that may impact on the environment. Meanwhile, meteorologist, geologists, soil scientists etc., to play a vital advisory role in the way some of the strategies are made operational. Such interventions would not only enhance the output of food systems, but would also diminish the risk of soil salination and erosion, pollution of water ways etc. It is obvious that the only way to avoid those undesirable consequences is by pro-active measures approved by the relevant expertise.

Transport and trade sub-systems are important components of every food system. But they are not within the perview of food and agriculture authorities. Although there are several other good reasons for it, this alone makes inter-policy harmony crucial to the success of a sound food and agriculture policy. This age-old obstacle blocks any fruitful deployment of those competent in policy harmonisation.

   • We find it hard to demolish the wall of institutional autonomy behind which monoliths of inertia, incompetence and varying degrees of corruption continue to thrive. Unless this barrier is broken down soon, those who are skilled in policy harmonisation cannot be suitably deployed.

We have already remarked on ‘committee’ism’ which represents the commonest but the worst possible way to determine the implementation strategy of a policy. Generally, the most vociferous members of the committee or one with impressive but irrelevant qualifications would succeed in introducing strategies that would result in intra-policy disharmony, and thus leading to a failed policy.

   • It is critical to radically revise how an implementation strategy if formulated. Only those who are aware of the needs a policy is designed to address in detail, know people’s competence, available resources and most of all capable of logical thought and possessing lucid language should be entrusted with the task. This is easy to say, but institutions seem to be either impervious to reason or display a touching belief in irrelevant qualifications.

At this point, we will anticipate some attempts that may be made to cloud the issue by introducing certain worthwhile but inappropriate items into the current discussion. We have already stated that one should clearly distinguish between strategies and their attributes. Let us now consider some of these attributes:

  1. All strategies shall ensure environmental benignity, sustainability, resilience and robustness of food systems.
  2. They shall endeavour to minimise food wastage in every sub-system of food systems.
  3. They shall take every possible step to ensure the variety, quality and quantity of food systems’ output.
  4. Enormous tracts of arable and pastoral land has been lost owing to mega-culture (Aral Sea disaster), ‘Green Revolution’ (in Mexico and Pakistan), improper waste disposal etc. Moreover, scandalous deforestation of many areas of the globe has led to soil erosion, desertification, silting and drying up of water ways etc. Soil pollution by toxic wastes and salination by imprudent use of fertilisers present a grim picture. While preventing such occurrences is  a very important attribute of every strategy, we find it difficult to incorporate reclaiming such soils into a policy on food systems. Owing to the extreme importance of soil reclamation, it would be essential to modify the topic viz., to policy on food and agriculture. Then, we may logically assign such efforts to the expansion of the yielder sub-system of our food systems. This provides a natural niche to the scientists devoted to this subject.

We know that some would criticise our view because they do not include certain social problems here. While being sympathetic to them, we cannot include what obviously concerns other social norms in a discussion of this sort without being irrelevant, or worse, riding one’s own hobby horse on an ego trip that does not yield anything with a nutritional value to the public at large.

Deployment of Competence

Once more, we will emphasise certain scientific competence is necessary not on policy and strategy formulation, but rather on ensuring that they possess the attributes of strategies and making them operational as we have outlined here. For instance, early warning of a change in future rain fall or an earth quake could enable the farmers to modify what they are going to cultivate or even stop wasting their resources which might be damaged beyond recovery.

Most of the scientific competence should be deployed at the operational level before field implementation in order to be pro-active. For example, no useful purpose would be served by a reactive deployment such resources when arable land is lost due to inprudent use of fertilisers. Competence would strive to ascertain the consequences of using certain crops, household animals and methods prior to their field use.

As for research relevant to policy on food and agriculture,  much imagination and a quantity of resources have been used. However, extremely little of this is pro-active, but we have a considerable body of results from reactive research; and as everyone knows, few are able and willing to learn from the mistakes of their predecessors. Moreover, Virchow Semmelweis syndrome is still very much alive among us.

If governments could be induced to be guided in their design of food and agriculture policy and its implementation by scientific recommendations based on locally conducted investigations to answer the following questions, much may still be gained:

  1. What crops, household animals and methods are most suitable with reference to the food system attributes discussed above?
  2. How to increase the local agricultural bio-diversity?
  3. What means may be used to increase the quality and quantity of the selected food items?
  4. What measures may be taken to increase the availability of the local ecosystem services?
  5. What crops and household animals that ought to be replaced in order to ensure that the operational methods embody the attributes noted previously?
  6. Discover and develop methods to reclaim abused arable land.

The reader may have noticed that we have not recommended the involvement of the experts on ‘high-yield’ varieties; this is a lesson we have learned from the damage caused by the ‘green revolution’. It is imperative such experts, gene manipulators and those of that ilk should have no place in policy design or in its implementation.

Those endeavours are in part, political undertakings aimed at meeting a real need of the living people, and as such, authorities should only resort to those whose relevant competence has been acquired by working for an adequate period in the area concerned. Satellite pictures may pick up a cigarette end on the ground, but not the exact cause of the havoc resulting from a long period of inappropriate land use.

While we hope the institutional ills we have outlined may soon be ameliorated, we also hope that the notion of proper deployment of competence may find a toe hold on the slope up which streams of relevant and irrelevant competence seem to climb with flying elbows and magnificent gestures. Leaving this very picturesque scene before our readers, we will now withdraw wishing them a happier new year!

Lal Manavado, Oslo