On the Indicators of Contribution by Private Sector in Food and Agriculture to the Achievement of SDG’s

The descriptive framework provided for this discussion, seem to suffer from two major inadequacies. Their coherence with respect to the SDG’s appears questionable while as one contributor has already pointed out, they lack inclusivity. This contribution suggests a holistic approach to indicator design. It is based on the tenet that an indicator ought to show the extent to which a given set of actions has enabled a certain group of people achieve a specified objective.

The purpose of attempting to achieve the SDG’s is to enhance the quality of life of everybody. As it has been described in the parallel discussion on child labour, this requires that everybody should be able adequately to satisfy their six fundamental needs:

  1. Nutrition
  2. Good health
  3. Security in its justifiable sense; it includes safety from the inclemencies of the weather (housing and clothing), physical danger from animals, other people (lack of law and order, war, etc.), threat to personal belongings, various forms of discrimination etc.
  4. Education in its justifiable sense, i.e., enabling an individual to develop one’s innate abilities and skills which one may use to meet one’s fundamental needs.
  5. Procreation; education enabling one to understand that the equilibrium between the living species and the ecosystems services on which their existence depends, demands the qualitative and quantitative biodiversity among them. This quantitative dimension imposes a limit on the number of individuals of every living species with no exceptions. Hence, procreation ought to be guided by family planning.
  6. The set of non-material goals; so called because their achievement does not result in a material gain. For Example, aesthetic enjoyment, engaging in games and sports for pleasure, entertainment of varying quality.

The justifiable purpose of engaging in pursuits connected with food and agriculture is enabling people to obtain a sustainable, wholesome and adequate nutrition, for its value stems from the fact that after air and water, food is the most important thing needed to sustain life. Further, people derive a personal pleasure or a culinary enjoyment from their meals which is an established cultural good. Therefore, it is reasonable to suggest that the direct indicators involved here, are those concerned with ascertaining the private sector’s contribution to these.

There seems to be some confusion around what may justifiably termed indirect indicators which are applicable here. They are indirect because they influence how one satisfies some other need in a positive or a negative way. When negative, it may impinge directly or indirectly on how well one is able to meet any one or more other needs. A brief explanation is given below to facilitate the understanding of this notion.

Emergence of agriculture was followed by that of division of labour and the barter system. Even at this early stage of human development, it is possible to distinguish between fundamental and secondary needs. Consider now two people; one is a skilled farmer while the other is a maker of good agricultural implements. Neither of them have the time nor the skill to do each other’s work satisfactorily. Barter system enables the former to meet his secondary need for farm tools by exchanging food for them.

It is important to grasp that here both farming and tools are secondary needs the farmer must meet in order to satisfy his fundamental need for nutrition. The tool maker’s secondary need to make tools is motivated by his desire to satisfy his nutritional needs through an exchange of his product for food. It will be easy to see how need for transport and energy become more and more important as human intellectual and technical advances proceed.

However, the barter system is rather clumsy. Therefore, value tokens of various forms ranging from coins to intangible credit were introduced. This enabled trade on an ever expanding basis, hence the tertiary need for money. Unfortunately, in spite of the emergence of non-secular and secular ethics, the introduction of value tokens accelerated the acceptance of the desire for power and unlimited wealth as an institutionalised social value by the majority.

Now, the reader will be able to trace the development of two networks of needs; one justifiable and the other not. Regardless of the political ‘ism’ it may profess, they co-exist in every society. In the first, the six fundamental needs subsume a varied and increasing array of secondary needs whose prior satisfaction is a necessary condition for the satisfaction of the former. Satisfaction of those secondary needs often depends on satisfying the tertiary need for an income.

Second network of needs are subsumed by institutionalised value of unlimited personal gain, desire for power, prestige, publicity, etc. It cannot be justified by any civilised standard of common decency. Their existence has promoted the modern competitive economy which is essential to those who seek unlimited gain. Too often it is often overlooked that other things being equal, had it not been for cooperation, man would have remained what he was, viz., a mere mute brute, for emergence of language and education are impossible without it.

The foregoing makes clear two common confusions, viz., paying undue attention to what are secondary and tertiary needs instead of letting them branch out from fundamental needs in a logically cohesive manner and allowing a set of unjustifiable needs to promote the tertiary need for value tokens into a position of an unjustifiable primacy. For instance, one may have to travel some distance to buy food from a shop before it can be prepared and eaten which requires some means of transport, hence the need for money and not vice versa.

Another confusion seen in the present discussion is its failure to distinguish between two logically different categories and their sub-categories. They are food and and its mode of production. What is relevant to SDG-2 is the sustained availability and affordability of adequate amount of wholesome food. What is meaningful to ascertain is whether such an amount would be sufficient for a given group of people.

Naturally, what food is required for the purpose depends on a given group’s dietary habits as determined by their food culture. Food items needed here will vary widely; generally speaking, some staple item will be required in a larger quantity than others. Therefore, ascertaining the output from one or another food production method does not seem to serve a useful purpose.

Mode of food production has two elements; the methods in use and the people using them. The former are of crucial importance to the sustainability of food systems, hence their effect on the environment should be ascertained. However, despite the emotional reactions some groups in the second sub-category seems to evoke, their inclusion cannot be justified with reference to the achievement of SDG-2. It would be wiser to leave those issues to those best able to deal with them.

Meanwhile, man’s primitive food system consisted only of a harvesting system viz., hunting or gathering and consuming the harvest on the spot as the other primates do. As agriculture emerged, his environment was more or less replaced as his primary yielder sub-system by cultivation and animal husbandry. Fishery and collecting forest produce represent harvesting man’s oldest yielder sub-system. To day, a typical food system has the following sub-systems which often display a wide technological variation:

  • Yielder.
  • Supplementation; it represents the attempts to supplement the diminishing ecosystems services owing to continued land use by agriculture and population increase. These include irrigation, use of fertilisers and biocides, etc.
  • Harvesting.
  • Transport.
  • Storage.
  • Preservation.
  • Preparation; it includes actions needed to make food ready for consumption.
  • Selling sub-system; it may include fresh food, preserved or ready-to-eat items, etc. It may also contain its own sub-systems like sorting, packing and promotion.

It will be noticed that large scale commercialisation continues to intrude into every sub-system of food systems. However, family farms and small holders still play a vital role in nutrition. Even though they are essential elements of a food system, some of its sub-systems like transport, storage and selling are common to many other fields. Thus, the present task would be to identify what could accurately indicate the direct and indirect contribution to the SDG’s made by food systems run by the private sector.

It would be irresponsible to ignore the reality of food production; apart from those few places like Northern Russia, communcal food production rose and fell with the Bolshevik regime. True, a little of still lingers in afew places, but majority of food producing units are privately owned. The same applies to the other sub-systems in food systems. Therefore, use of the term ‘private’ in the current discussion appears to be redundant.

One can now expand on the direct and indirect indicators. However, it is necessary to examine the soundness of distinguishing between qualitative and quantitative indicators. Under unusual circumstances when the need for nutrition is acute, a temporary emphasis on quantitative aspect may be justified. This should not blind one to the danger of it being given a permanent emphasis in order to maximise profits. Hence, a pragmatic coalition between these in a double-faceted indicator is desirable.

Direct Indicators

These will reveal the private food systems’ positive or negative contribution to nutrition. They have several dimensions all of which are crucial to the SDG-2. The indicators pertinent to each are given  under the heading which describes it. Moreover, an indicator represents a relative increase or a decrease given as a percentage.

Sustainability; unless this is ensured, disastrous results may obtain.

1. Biodiversity in yielder sub-system; its increase reduces the vulnerability of agriculture and animal husbandry to diseases. Promotion of the local food culture seems to be an appropriate way of achieving this.

2 .The extent of food wastage in food systems; this may occur in every sub-system of it.

3. Loss of soil fertility, erosion, pollution and salination; one may look up the Aral Sea disaster resulting from agro-industry which turned a huge area salinated and barren which left tens of thousands helpless.

4. Promotion of ecologically sound agriculture.

5. Use of the most energy efficient methods including modes of transport; priority ought to be given to water and rail transport as much as possible.

6. Effect on local pollinators; their presence is said to increase yields by as much as 25%.

7. The extent of over harvesting from the environment; this is most concerned with over fishing but in some cases, it may involve forest products as in felling sago palms to extract the starch they contain.

8. The extent of mixed cultivation; its benefits to the environment are many.

9. Emission of so-called ‘green house’ gases.

10. Water conservation; this is very relevant in some areas. Selection of crops suited to the degree of aridity of an area, harvesting rain and use of covered irrigation channels are among the solutions proposed.

Availability; this dimension has six aspects on which its indicators are based. Although food wastage affects availability, sustainability has a logically prior claim on it.

11. The extent to which the available food items enable the people of an area to partake of a wholesome, varied and balanced diet. It reflects the food diversity of an area. It is logically impossible to determine this with reference to any universal standard, it should rather be determined relative to the local food culture. However, if that should prove to be nutritionally deficient, appropriate additions may be made.

12. Quantitative sufficiency of the food items in 11 for the people in the area concerned. Surplus food may be disposed of either through trade or laying it aside as a reserve.

13. Quality of the above items with reference not only to their nutritive value, but also to their ability to enhance people’s culinary enjoyment which depends on their freshness and flavour and not to cosmetic properties like colour and large, uniform size.

14. Adequacy of the transport system and its cost between food producers and end-users.

15. Distribution, adequacy and the cost of storage facilities of the food systems concerned.

16. Accessibility which depends on the number of outlet locations from where food may be conveniently procured by all the people of the area concerned. These may include shops, stalls, restaurants, etc. Their aggregation in a few places would not make food easily accessible to some who reside in remoter parts, especially where transport is difficult. Therefore, this should be ascertained with reference to the total population of the area.

17. Export of key food items; selling sub-systems may export food to increase profits cutting down the supply of food available for local use.

18. Amount of food from a local food system in storage that is not released into the outlets in the area. This is done to increase profits and causes an artificial shortage as well as a price increase.

19. Replacement of food crops by cash crops.

Affordability; this is a crucial indicator when taken in conjunction with indicators 11 to 17. High prices may often result in a pseudo-surplus which merely benefits the operators of the selling sub-system.

20. Price change in food items caused by the relevant indicators above.

The purpose of the indirect indicators is to ascertain what adverse effects food systems run by private sector may have on the people, which in turn may influence the availability and affordability of food.

21. The extent of job losses/redundancies in food systems owing to changes in them, purportedly undertaken to increase their efficiency. This would lead to an obvious reduction in affordability.

22. The incidence of the so-called NCD’s; beverages with a high sugar content, factory-made ready-to-eat comestibles and colourfully packaged sweets are thought to play a significant role here. These may reduce one’s earning capacity which could have an adverse impact on affordability.

Concluding Remarks

The foregoing is based on the assumption that a set of indicators are needed in order to decide on and guide some suitable actions to enhance people’s nutrition. Serving this purpose requires the indicators to be as comprehensive as possible. Looking at what is needed from a food system perspective seems to be a suitable approach to achieve such completeness. However, it will make statistical analysis difficult.

This is because some of the factors that adversely affect the availability and affordability of food originate from different sub-systems in the food system. Not only does the profit motive of the competitive economy plays a part here, so does also the variations in the ownership of transport sub-system. In many less affluent countries, the state-run communications remain inadequate. Resolution of these problems is beyond the scope of food and agriculture authorities.

Some may argue that weather conditions are critical for food production especially the snows for winter wheat and monsoon rains in tropics, and therefore, they ought to be included. The difficulty here is that it is still impossible to predict them with any significant degree of reliability. Even if it does, one can hardly do anything to directly influence them. It seems that undertaking steps to enhance those ecosystems services is a sounder alternative.

The notion of core-food items may make statistical work manageable, but this reductive notion would result in a set of indicators that could hardly guide one towards remedial action enabling the people procure a balanced diet, not to mention culinary enjoyment. In a world where the incidence of NCD’s is described as an ‘epidemic’, this limitation is a cause for concern.

Best wishes!

Lal Manavado.