Address to Opening Session of the World Food Forum 2023
Rome, 16th October 2023
Ladies and gentlemen,
I am delighted to be part of this meeting here today at the World Food Forum, meeting as we are at the headquarters of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations.
This Forum is one of truly immense importance, focused as it is on issues relating to food security, addressing the necessary transformation of our agri-food systems so that they may be fit for purpose to address urgent current challenges, indeed interacting crises.
Our meeting highlights the importance of taking into account responsible collaboration between the current and next generation, of their combined ingenuity in science, technology and innovation, and investments in key areas of food and agriculture, of their being no borders to the application of science and technology.
The outcome of this Forum, should it yield successful output in terms of policy and consensus, could be truly emancipatory for those growing numbers across the world who are living with food insecurity.
The 2023 Global Report on Food Crisis issued by the World Food Programme reported that 258 million people in 58 countries were suffering food insecurity, up from 193 million in 2021. In responding we must turn a corner, move past reactive emergency responses to tackling the underlying structural causes of hunger.
To deliver successful food systems, we must recognise the links between food insecurity, global poverty, debt and climate change.
We must address, too, dysfunctionalities not sufficiently recognised regarding the delivery of food, where success in production is often defeated by costly transportation. The issues of ownership of seeds, fertilisers, tools of production and their distribution, obstacles to the migration of science and technological innovations, questions around the lending policies of the financial institutions cannot continue to be ignored. We know that some of Europe’s largest lenders assisted fossil fuel companies to raise more than €1 trillion from the global bond markets since the Paris climate agreement.
We must face up to these sobering facts, facts which illustrate the dysfunctionality of our current food systems: how half of the world’s over 8 billion population are defined as malnourished, how 2 billion people are experiencing under-nutrition, how over 2.5 billion people consume low-quality diets or too much food, while 3 billion people could not afford a healthy diet – yet 1.6 billion tonnes of primary food production are wasted each year in what are described as ‘developed’ countries where obesity levels continue to spiral.
Such food wastage results in an unnecessary carbon footprint estimated at 3.3 billion tonnes of CO2-equivalent emissions being released into the atmosphere each year. The total volume of water used each year to produce food that is lost or wasted (250 cubic kilometres) is equivalent to three times the volume of Lake Geneva.
Similarly, 1.4 billion hectares of land – 28 percent of the world’s agricultural area – is used annually to produce food that is lost or wasted.
Those countries known as ‘developing’ countries suffer significant and avoidable food losses during agricultural production, while in middle- and high-income regions it is food discarded at the retail and consumer levels that is contributing to food waste. Our agri-food systems are broken, not fit for purpose, causing our planet harm, leading to food dependency, food insecurity and hunger.
We have to tackle food speculation in crops, especially in wheat production.
While recent volatile prices for crops are certainly a result of geopolitical movements as well as weather forecasts, these variations have been exacerbated, as studies of recent famines show, by excessive financial speculation, a speculation that is also affecting transparency as to reserves.
Food storage must be addressed. The over-concentration of wheat reserves, for example, among just a handful of nations, must be tackled. China now holds over half of all wheat reserves globally. Excessive stockpiling is driving up international food prices, having devastating consequences for poorer food-insecure nations.
We need a ‘new departure’ with regard to food production models, one that deals with local realities, one that benefits from evidence ‘from below’, emerging from a new, empirical and peer-reviewed anthropology guided by the new African scholars. Such a model offers a transparency and a security that a complete dependency on the market indicators of the international food value chain can ever offer.
To bring new models into being, ones that can serve the diversity of our needs in sufficiency in a sustainable way requires a recognition of the flawed assumptions upon which our current model was based.
These are assumptions which have a history. From an early emphasis on the subjugation of Nature came the imposed hegemonic idea of “progress”, followed by modernisation theory, evolutionist development theory, such as that outlined and led by the Princeton Studies of the 1960s, that would go on to guide the practices of the World Bank.
What a price we have paid for ideologically laden modernisation-influenced development theory, with its inherent bias against indigenous practices and local cultural agency.
We have not faced the basic structural issues that influence food insecurity. How did so many in Africa become so dependent on so few staples, the production, distribution and consumption of which they have so little control? How did the complex dependencies of global value chains develop and how are they sustained?
It is a remarkable statistic that, despite having two-thirds of remaining arable land, Africa still imports 100 million tonnes of food at a cost of $75 billion annually. Yet African nations, along with many others facing food security challenges, have the potential to be self-sufficient in terms of food production and to make a contribution to feeding the world.
We now need best ecological practices in agriculture, including agroecology, to become widespread. This is substantially different from mere adjustments to the productionist agronomy model, a colonially imposed food system, which has exacerbated food insecurity by creating over-dependence on a small number of staples and an over-reliance on imported fertiliser, pesticide and seeds.
We must acquire a space for the discourse that is needed if we are to achieve the necessary transformation in policy and practice. It is an achievement we have yet to make.
We must move past a reactive emergency response to one that confronts the structural causes of hunger. A humanitarian response is urgent, essential, is so welcome, but it is not sufficient. The underlying failures – some structural but some sourced in the inadequacies of the multilateral institutional architecture – are disrupting global food supply and must be addressed. The global humanitarian response cannot be distorted to functioning as a mask that serves to cover for the continued neglect of the structural sources of food insecurity.
Yes, increasing food production in an appropriate way for our growing world population must be undertaken as urgent, but what is crucial are the addressing of the social structures in which that increase in production and distribution of food is achieved.
We have had a limiting over-focus on food productivity, food volumes and yields. This has been a simplification that we must move beyond if we are to tackle the root causes of food insecurity. It is a fundamental issue as to where food is produced, what is produced and how, and with what participation.
A range of staples high in nutrition can be produced in the regions where they are needed, and make unnecessary the practice of long, hazardous transport routes and supplier monopolies.
Agroecological models too can contribute to showing us a path away from dependency and insecurity, towards a decolonised agronomy. We must make concerted efforts to ensure the removal of barriers to diverse agricultural development in food-insecure regions, such as Africa, if we are to unlock its vast potential.
The 19th century was a brilliant century for cartography, but we can only speculate as to what a similar exercise today on what has been lost through desertification, destruction of soil fertility, unplanned urbanisation and the general effects of climate change could show us. A cartography of consequences of climate change and inappropriate policies might indeed be useful.
We must ensure that our food production models promote greater autonomies, are informed by local wisdoms, respect the seed sovereignty of native practices and indigenous peoples, taking cognisance of the consequences of largescale land and water resource ownership and soil fertility maps. Increases in food production must be sustainable, even as we continue to lose land to environmental degradation and climate change, with all the horrific attendant loss of biodiversity that is involved.
Ours must be a values-led approach to politics and food security so that the primary public goods of life may be shared equitably. This is not just necessary to addressing rising global hunger, it is fundamental to democracy.
The European Union should use its considerable influence to promote systemic shifts at global level, strengthen localisation of food production and policy coherence.
We must face up to some difficult questions. How do we achieve balance globally between feeding people and feeding animals to feed people? What about the balance between meat- and plant-based diets with regard to health, nutrition and climate impacts? How do we find the optimal balance between land used for food crops versus land used for bio-fuel crops? What are the cultural implications of changes in land use?
Let us this week imagine a world where, as that seminal 1972 report “The Limits to Growth”, commissioned by the Club of Rome, remarked, “each person has an equal opportunity to realise [their] individual potential” – a world where, as writer and practitioner Glenn Denning puts it, “the food needed for healthy diets is produced, managed, and distributed in ways that do not harm the environment”, ways that can begin to not only go some way towards repairing the damage done but halt ongoing environmental degradation.
I advocate using the tools of anthropology for a new purpose. The purpose of the new anthropology will be to see how the consequences of climate change are being experienced, how interventions are succeeding or not succeeding, and how strategies of intervention will facilitate citizen involvement, inclusion, rights of women and children for example.
The pursuit of resilience in food systems may help us to see beyond disagreements and to begin resolving conflicts. The growing convergence of food systems and climate diplomacy should prompt us to overcome competing and wasteful silo approaches in multilateral diplomacy and to recommit to the United Nations 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals, our collective, shared blueprint for a sustainable world and thriving humanity.
I wish the World Food Forum every success.
Beir beannacht mo bhuíochas libh.