Global Forum on Food Security and Nutrition (FSN Forum)

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    • Concerns expressed so far tend to focus on farmer income rather than food security. A family farm that is not providing a high cash income through sale of crops or livestock is not in trouble, in this pandemic, while it is still adequately feeding the family. Money is needed in most of these rural economies, to pay fees for school attendance, for taxes, fuel, other material needs, travel, and the transport of products and inputs. But during a time of crisis, surely the governments in these regions can legislate assistance to cover essentials, while suspending fees and rents until the virus is under control. In the meantime, the access to seeds and water, to grow food crops that can be used on-farm, or shared/marketed locally, seems to me to be a higher priority than continuing the access to commercial markets.

    • I am concerned by the label "primary forests" - I assume it means climax forest, especially "old growth" containing trees at least half as old as their lifespans. Often, the implication is that this kind of forest has not been subjected to significant disturbance by human activities, such as logging, and that the species composition has not been affected by humans either. Old growth forests have some of the most commercially valuable timber, but occupied land that could be used for second-growth stands that grew more quickly and could be harvested more frequently. For example, in British Columbia, Canada, harvesting in the coastal region is moving to such second-growth stands.

      There was a scientific symposium in Canada in 2001 that found difficulty in developing a rigorous scientific definition. I believe the results are available in the FAO data base: at the following: They concluded: "...Concerns over old-growth conservation go well beyond the more traditional areas of watershed (including water quality) and habitat protection, and includes emerging issues such as the conservation of genetic resources and carbon sequestration. Conservation of old growth is very much a cross-sectoral issue with many interdisciplinary linkages. It is important to dispel the notion that concerns about the disappearance of old-growth forests from our landscape are simply the preoccupation of environmentalists. It is an important issue with implications for ecological science, the long-term health of our forest economy, and our quality-of-life. It is time for the wider forestry community - the forest sector as a whole - to embrace this issue in a more serious way and to take up the cause of old-growth conservation."

      My own research, while I was a principal scientist at the International Crop Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, was partly focussed on the issue of forest uses. I found that, in almost every case, both patches of climax forest, and the mosaic of secondary growth, were generally constituted the ecological "commons" of each community we studied in the Sahel. These appeared to be critical, moreover, in the maintenance of water tables, and in preventing both rainy season flooding and erosion and in preventing dry season failure of wells and other sources of water. As population increased, and, more significantly, as acreage devoted to commercial crops increased, the percentage of land returned to the commons, after a period of cultivation, was falling during the 1980s, and has fallen subsequently. My colleague, agronomist Willem Stoop, and I wrote on this here:

      In the long run, it became clear that both nomadic pastoralism and slash and burn (long fallow) farming economies tended to produce mosaics of ecological diversity - in forested zones, this resulted in a complex of about 20-25% cleared land growing crops and 80% land in secondary growth. This secondary growth represented various stages from pioneering annual grasses and "weedy" plants, through early pioneering shrubs and trees, through to early stages marking the re-establishment of some of the climax tree species that would eventually become old growth primary forests if left alone. Sacred groves of such ancient trees were found in all the village territories. I suspect that these are essential to the overall process of restoring soil nutrients, for it was in symbiosis between these species and various underground fungi that nutrient capture was completed.

      Elinor Ostrom found that the preservation of these areas of forested commons was an essential aspect of long term sustainability even where more intensive agriculture had developed, and emphasized the importance of local management - and control - over the degree of harvesting of trees and other forest products. See and

      I hope this little contribution of mine is not too late to be of use.

      sincerely, Helga Vieirch

    • The Green Revolution, especially use of improve varieties and chemical fertilizers and other inputs, is one such wizardry of ecological upward manipulation. Adding chemical fertilizers and other inputs to crop varieties vastly improved by the breeder’s art: experimental crosses and hybridization, was among the factors credited with averting starvation in the last decades of the 20th century. 

      I worked for a Green Revolution Institute, the International Crops Research Centre for the Semi-Arid Tropics, (ICRISAT) during the 1980s. There I found a common assumption that people in subsistence economies, in developing nations, were suffering frequent short falls of food production. it was also assumed they had hit a ceiling of carrying capacity: they were not able to keep up with their rising population. Adding improved crops, augmenting soil fertility with chemical fertilizers, and yield improvement though other inputs like herbicides, pesticides and fungicides; these were the wizard’s gifts to prevent famine and starvation.  

      Here is my own dilemma: I did not find starvation within the rural areas where I was stationed in Burkina Faso, which was then one of the poorest countries in the world (lowest $.day figures). 

      My genealogical data indicated that for the period prior to aobut 1960, a rate of infant and childhood mortality that was  close to 30%, on average. Annually, factored against the death rates for all adults, this gave a modest annual growth rate of .07% to .05%.  I also did not see evidence of extreme poverty – if families were put at risk by illness or the death of a parent, they were allotted sufficient cereal from the headman’s granaries (consisting of the collective surpluses of all households in the lineage) until they could recover.

      The youngest families in the genealogies, however, had much lower infant and childhood mortality. Their completed family sizes looked much larger, in some families it was doubled. The differences appeared, to me, attributable to vaccination programs initiated in the country in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s.  There had been efforts through the WHO and Save-the-Children funded campaigns to extend vaccination to rural areas such as those where our study villages were located. Before this there had been a general resistance to such campaigns among rural populations in French West Africa. 

      My own experience, therefore,  indicated that perhaps the take-off of population growth in these regions had more to do with the success of vaccination programs and the extension of other aspects of medical care and sanitation, which reduced infant and childhood death rates. I was particularly struck by an example of a couple who had lost all but one of a dozen children (born during the 1940s and 1950s) to what appeared, from the descriptions given, to have been tetanus infections following the cutting of the umbilicus.  This was striking in contrast to their only child, a son, who had five surviving children ranging in age from 16 years to 18 months, all born during the late 1970s and early 1980s, when I interviewed this extended family in 1983. They had only lost two children during that time, both during an outbreak of some kind of fever, possibly dengue or yellow fever. I personally got dengue while I was in the field. It is still fairly common there.

      As a result of these observations, I am sceptical of the idea that most people, in traditional subsistence economies, go hungry because of inadequate yields. I found substantial surplus production was being concentrated in the granaries of headmen and village chiefs. These leaders traditionally deployed these surpluses when drought caused famine*1. 

      In my own view, the Green Revolution may have saved the lives of farming people on land degraded or marginal for agriculture but it was due to the fact that the better land had been take over by colonial plantations and later by commercial ranches and crop operations. 

      It was a nice idea – save the small farmer all over the world, in India, the Middle East, South America, and Africa but it was, I eventually concluded, in error when applied to tribal societies that showed no evidence of soil damage from over-cultivtion of land, no evidence that malnutrition was common, and which still had local political systems in place that secured surpluses for storage against drought. These traditional small holder subsistence farming economies were perfectly capable of feeding the people within them, and systems like slash and burn were even sustainable and protective of ecological diversity, keeping up to eighty percent of the village lands in secoundary growth and forest. This large area of common land provided supplimental food and fuel tothe villagers, as well as sustiaaning the penetration of rainfall into the water table and keeping wells, ponds, and rivers from either flooding or running dry. 

      Today, like other traditional indigenous economies, people in these systems are being systematically converted to a much riskier, unsustainable, and ecology-simplifying food production system that is creating socio-economic stratification. Norman Borlaug’s work – arising out of his desire to help people in degraded farming lands, has been turned to the further commercialization of the remaining landscape of the planet. 

      Of course some families in the ICRISAT villages appeared more prosperous than others. All human societies are marked by disparity of effort and luck, which sometimes manifests as a difference in family size, and may also translate as differences in conservative “traditionalists” and progressive “entrepreneurs”. 

      I observed this difference deepen through the extension of Green Revolution technologies to the rural Sahel villages. As chemical fertilizers became available, the primary effect was an increase the length of time a piece of land could be cultivated. Instead of being fallowed after a few years and thus returned to the commons, such land was now cultivated for decades with only brief fallows. And it was even being passed down within the family, as a kind of “farm tenure”. 

      Secondly, the chemical fertilizers, and other inputs like herbicide and insecticide, were subsidized for farmers who were willing to grow a commercial cotton crop. This was done through policies of the agricultural extension services operating in Burkina Faso at the time. I am certainly not suggesting that all of this was down to the “green revolution” efforts of scientists at my institute. They were more interested in promoting cultivation of the sorghum and millet varieties they had been developing. The increased length of cultivation on any one piece of land, and the fact that this pattern was often tied to a commercial crop meant that “entrepreneurial” farmers generally had far more land under cultivation than traditional subsistence farming families. Only some, of the traditionalists, were able to afford the chemical fertilizers. Others often lacked the extra labour (being younger households or those with few sons) to tackle clearing extra land for a commercial crop, as well as for a food crop. 

      Social stratification was beginning to appear, as well as a shift in land tenure, as land use intensification occured.*2 

      A few of the bigger and more entrepreneurial family farms enlarged their holdings from year to year, while everyone else continued to farm small and temporary plots. Some particularly small or older households began to work as additional labourers for larger households. When this was not arranged along lines of kinship, but rather as a contract paid “in kind”, they got some of the crop. If it was arranged by kinship, these households were provided for during the rest of the year from the granaries of their lineage headman. Essentially, however, a landless class of rural labourers was being created. The children of these landless families got discouraged and migrated out of the village to seek work on plantations in the Ivory Coast, or in the growing cities like Bobo-djuolasso or Ougadougou. It was among these migrants, in the poor neighbourhoods of these cities, that I saw some evidence of malnutrition.

      *1 People who were promenant in these communities were not wealthy, except in the trust of other people. They were the peace-makers, the truth tellers, and the moral examples that the young modelled themselves after. “Big men” and chiefs were not so much exercising power over others as they were exercising responsibility to others.Let me give an example to show what I mean: I was interviewing households in an African village in Burkina Faso, on the subject of how much grain they had in store after harvest. Every one of them had cultivated more than they needed in order to contribute to the stores of the village headman. I then interviewed this headman, and he proudly showed me granary after granary.He told me there was enough grain in store to feed the village through seven years of drought.This was a moment of revelation for me. I had been thinking of him as a powerful and greedy man, who was enriching himself through his political position. Suddenly I saw the man for what he was – an ethical, methodical, and diligent person striving to live up to the great responsibility entrusted to him. He had to constantly monitor those granaries, checking for damage by rot or vermin, and carefully assess all withdrawals from this common fund. 

      *2 Boserupian intensification has helped explain land clearing even in the deep past (Ruddiman and Ellis 2009). At present, as human populations are growing and urbanizing, agricultural demand has increased so much that the most intensive agricultural systems are becoming dominant. The good news is that the most intensive systems tend to focus on the most productive land – marginal lands are increasingly abandoned and left to regenerate ( the “forest transition”; eg. Rudel et al. 2009). So even as we go off the end of Boserup’s chart, disaster is not the result and intensification continues- though the planet will never be the same- our agriculture has now transformed the planet for the long-term (Ellis et al. 2010).…

    • I am very worried about this neoliberal green revolution agenda for African agriculture. I worked for one of the institutes involved in this. As dedicated and sincere all my colleagues at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics were, I found it incredible that they had so little contact with farmers and seemed to accept without question the “failure” of traditional subsistence economies. 
      This failure is an absolute myth, as I found that the traditional lineage system in Mali and Burkina Faso functioned well as a risk management buffer: many lineage heads had set aside up to eight years grain in the communal welfare bins. I never saw evidence of malnutrition where these systems were intact. trade between different regions, like the indigenous systems of rotating farmer markets, were for spices and commodities of a more specialized nature than the major subsistence crops. Millet and sorghum was produced for basic subsistence needs, and many rural communities still adhered to the traditions that made sale of these crops a shameful and even punishable offence. 
      Where I saw malnutrition was in the urban slums, and I understand it is common in refugee camps. Malnutrition in Africa is a by product of development “efforts” dating from the displacement of people from much of their best land during the introduction of European stye commercially oriented farms in the colonial period. 
      There has been enormous change in much of Africa, and much effort has been expended to make life better for people in all the countries which became independent states since the end of the colonial period in the last century.  But a lot of damage has been done, certainly much of it unintentionally, in that period, in attempts to provide development assistance. 
       Traditional rural socio-economic systems, with their organization into lineage’s, chiefdoms and clans, have been misunderstood by outsiders.  The function of the traditional tribal elites was  not about accumulation of wealth.  Rather senior councils of village elders and conventions of tribal leadership were,  rather, about the entrusting of communal surplus to a respected persons.  This was, then, as i mentioned at the outset, about managing risk. 
      A chief who sold this for personal gain would be stripped of office and was, in the past, executed. It is not a question of a powerful person extracting tribute, it is someone taking on a lot of responsibility, often for specifically generated communal surpluses generated for that purpose. Ranking is directly related to increasing responsibility. Household heads were expected to produce enough to feed their families from year to year, plus they must donate a certain amount to their lineage heads. 
      Each lineage head has responsibility to store enough to see to most necessary ceremonials within the lineage (marriages, funerals etc), and the chief, often elected from among a council of older lineage heads, was responsible for donations to the communal stores. 
      In pastoral societies, you get this sort of thing happening also, but it is mainly livestock that the lineage heads and local chiefs accumulate. Theft and counter-raids to recover value are undertaken often, and involve both duplicity and loss of life, Long term risk management is a serious concern in all viable cultures.
      The role of young men within these systems is to show themselves worthy of respect. They do this by honouring the responsible heads of their family, their lineages, their clans, and the village chief. Chiefs are elected by a council of elders (lineage heads) and hold authority in the same measure as “our heads sweat with worry”, as one village headman told me. Young men compete for honour, and for recognition as people worthy of respect and trust. This is kind of important, since it is the elders who make decisions about allocation of land and livestock from communal resources, and without their favour, a man cannot afford to raise a family.
      There was a recent paper published in PNAS, which begins by asserting that warriors have more wives and offspring.  The main author of the reported study, however, makes it clear that  it is more complicated than that.
      "The overriding question I'm interested in is how humans cooperate, and one type of cooperation is participating in intergroup conflict,” (Luke Glowacki) explained. "Why do people do things that benefit their group if they have to pay a cost? For the Nyangatom there are no formal institutions governing society, and yet they manage to make a living from one of the toughest landscapes on Earth, and they do that through cooperation."
      In fact, he said, cooperation plays a key role in virtually every aspect of Nyangatom life.
      "I set out to study who herds together, who digs water holes together, who plants together, and also who participates in conflict events together," he added. "I conducted interviews about the raids, and collected reproductive histories by asking how many wives raiders have, how many children each has had, how many are alive, how many died and how they died."
      Glowacki interviewed village elders detailing their history of participation in raids. Analysis of lifetime participation in raids, of 120 men, showed that participation in more raids resulted having higher rank, as well as more wives and more children over the course of their lives. 
      This is an example of a pastoral society, and it should be noted that most of the raids were not planned as actual armed conflicts between men, they were expeditions to steal cattle or to recover stolen animals.  But this is very different form the profit oriented kind of rustling of livestock that is such a problem here in North America, which leads to serious law enforcement headaches. Indeed, while the traditional authority and motivation is intact, the actual violence and lose of life is much less than what happens without traditional systems of authority in place. 
      Glowacki: "We don't have quantitative data to that effect, but there are some groups in neighboring Kenya where raiders who capture cows in a raid don't have to give them to the elders or they can sell them at a market for money, and the violence is significantly greater" he said. "The Nyangatom have a mechanism that mediates the benefits the warriors receive," he added. "There is a lot of status and privilege that comes with participating in raids -- when you come back to the village, the women are singing and people are parading. They're celebrating you, but you still go home alone."
      The fact of being a successful participant in raids is secondary, I think, to the fact of being a person with a good reputation. It is, in a sense, an older and, in evolutionary terms, a much more illuminating aspect of human social behaviour. I found reputation absolutely critical among the forager Kua, in the Kalahari, as well. indicating that  where violent confrontations were considered childish and imprudent, a man’s reputation - his character - judged by means of qualities universal in human societies no matter what the economy, still makes a difference.  Among the Kua, such men, although they were on the surface, entirely modest characters, never lacked for eager campmates, they always had the largest camps. Even though most hunts were individual affairs, meat was shared - as you can imagine, larger camps had the best supply of meat.
      This is because these universally admired qualities - loyalty, diligence, diplomacy, generosity, and a certain shrewd wit - all made such a person sought after by companions, surpassing any claims based merely on genealogical distance or appearance. Honour is a very real thing among men. 
      The heart of human cooperative life, is a moral weight based on honour. Willingness to contribute to joint ventures is rooted in the same impulse as willingness to share food, and to extend a hand to help a friend.
      I would suggest that the ordeals involved in coming of age often subject young people to tests.  For young men this involves finding ways to show older men that they were worthy.  It  depends on the kind of economy, how reputation - the touchstone of respect and support from others - can be won. A focus on increasing farmer income, or income from livestock production,  misses this point about cooperative ventures being one important way of gaining reputation.  People strive to live up to cultural ideals, and are ranked, formally or informally, in every society, even the most egalitarian. being respected and esteemed by one’s companions and elders were usually major factors leading to improved  networks of cooperation and long term welfare.
      The earning of respect and reputation is closely tied to showing behaviour that benefits the whole community. Human beings are extremely sensitive to the moral parameters involved in achieving honour, and it always has a moral dimension. Justice is rarely served by means dishonest to the interests of the community. Thus people can get personally wealthy but still be widely disparaged as greedy and selfish. Self interest is NOT enough to get you honour.
      I think the period of colonial rule was detrimental to these traditional systems, either seeking to make use of chiefs and other local tribal authorities to carry out changes in farming practices intended to create marketable commodities like cacao, coffee, bananas, peanuts, and cotton... or to generate beef and other livestock products for world markets.  This has weakened the traditional risk management within these societies, and of course also converted some of the best farmland to production for export.  
      Meanwhile the business model of entrepreneurial individual large scale farming, using green revolution techniques involving mechanization, chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, as well as seeds developed for improved yield, has been very prominent in many development efforts.  Where this has caught on it, tended to result in families of those prominent in the traditional elites commandeering formerly communal lands for themselves, leading to the displacement of lesser lineages into poverty or, at best, employment as agricultural labourers or, at worst, shantytowns now ringing Africa’s expanding cities.  
      Recommendations to prevent this from getting worse would be to discourage the (often westernized and entrepreneurial) elites who constitute Africa’s leaders today, from further displacements of tribal and traditional societies from their lands to make room for foreign investors who want to develop agricultural or other enterprises. 
      Landlessness was not a problem of Africa’s people prior to colonialism and it is a major cause of poverty and hunger today.  The other major cause is breakdown of traditional tribal risk management in favour of emphasis on turning farms into sources of “income” rather than family and community food supplies.  There has been pressure to develop private land tenure and discourage traditional communal tenure where farmers have use-rights (usufruct) as their crop locations rotate through a long fallow system. This is a very flexible system that adjusts access to land to the size of the family group dependent upon it, rather than to the market.   Help for small farmers on traditional usufruct allotments of village communal lands is critical.  ICRISAT has some programmes for small farmers, especially women farmers, on communal plots, that might be worth looking into.
      The settlement of nomadic pastoralists should also be discouraged not encouraged, by development and foreign aid organizations. Most of this was and is done out of the typical unease, of many state societies, about people who cannot be easily located and whose children cannot be put into schools. Even the best of intentions, under such circumstances, play right into the hands of any special interests who have other plans for the land that the pastoralists traditionally controlled. And regular supplies of food aid from foreign donors are no substitute for traditional systems of risk management.  In fact they make it easier to continue to undermine them, especially if the local village elders are left out of the distribution process.  This just creates conditions begging for development of corrupt bureaucracies or local warlords. 
      Planning for, and some control of,  reproductive decisions is really a crying need of all the women I ever met in Africa. Yes, they want children, and yes, they want their children to have vaccinations, and medical care, and clean water and opportunities for schooling, but all African women deserve private and discreet access to birth control. This is long overdue in many countries. Men in governments might object, if so, make all development aid and further loans contingent. This is women’s business. . I have talked to a lot women, African women are not different. Given a choice, women generally want to have fewer children and to invest more in each child.  I am aware that this is a tricky issue. But the fact remains that if population continues to grow to the limits fo food supply, hunger will always be a moving target. 
       Moreover, there is no need for a development model based on only one kind of production system geared to markets. Nor does it have to be a matter of modern methods being taught; but rather of various techniques and options being offered as possible additions to the traditional methods. People all over the world adopt technology that makes life easier, less risky, and more entertaining. the lightning spread of cell phones should alert us to this!  When people live in a cooperative local community, like a village which has its own land base intact, its systems of social control, honour, and welfare intact, they will be far better judges of which technologies and innovations they adopt.