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12 December 2014

All’s well that ends well, EVEN for an Economist! Day 2 at the Chatham House Food Security Meeting

The second day of the conference at Chatham house provided less in the way of keynote speeches and more in the way of focused discussions.  The panels were brilliant, and the diversity of participants kept up a lively and stimulating discussion.  In a way it is a shame that these are “off the record”; but I am grateful for having been one of the privileged few (in relation to the potential audience) to have been present. Going to an event like this is like yoga for the brain.

As discussed (o.k., more like “moaned about”) in my first blog from this event, the emphasis at this, and many other public debates, is on economic analysis.  And I still firmly maintain that the concept of “resilience” is far more profound than merely coping with price volatility.

The dichotomy between markets and access runs through many of today’s reflections, and we are provided with fascinating insights by practitioners on how this affects risk taking and investments.

One gem of an observation was that PPP (Public Private Partnership) really focuses on the interaction between governments (public) and big companies (private). For the agricultural sector we should have PPPP (Public Private Producer Partnership).

Encouraging investment in infrastructure (physical and human) comes across as an important area for policy development.  There is a general feeling that young people will not be interested in remaining in the countryside if there isn’t a concerted effort to make farming more profitable.

Still, I am left with the feeling that “risk” is viewed as an exciting challenge by those involved in international trade and overseas investment, while third world politicians and smallholders see it definitely as a threat.  The very fact that these two views meet and observe each other at Chatham House have made it worth the effort to be part of this.

Much time was spent on discussing how trade can be used to address food security issues.  Very few countries have the possibility of producing everything they need for a balanced diet.  It is important to guide food from excess areas to deficit areas; this also generates incomes and improves diversified diets.  The risks include price volatility and supply restrictions—but self-sufficiency is almost always more expensive.

So, the market has a major role in seeing to it that consumers have access to nutritious food.  (Even though I am a practicing Economist, I wonder:  does the market really do these things well??)  Shouldn’t dietary diversification allow for local production of high value, low bulk products such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, tubers. . .

There were many interesting diversions along this road headed towards the inevitable collision between the market and non-market forces. While it was generally appreciated that food security is intimately linked with energy and water security, the area of research known under the general heading of the “Nexus” approach was declared “dead” due to the dearth of useful planning tools available for this type of analysis.  Especially my colleagues at the Stockholm Environment Institute who have spent decades developing and disseminating such tools (WEAP and LEAP spring to mind) might feel that the obituary for the Nexus is a tad premature.

Another interesting side road was the technical discussion on the (sustainable) intensification of agricultural production.  It was very encouraging to see that even though there is widespread consensus that access is the primary impediment to increased food security; this does not preclude the importance of intensifying agricultural production.  Agriculture not only produces more than food, it takes place in a landscape where there are a variety of potential uses and potential conflicts, particularly in relation to water.

There are challenges to increasing food production sustainably, and these should be addressed but not under the guise of strengthening food security.

This, of course, begs the question not only of how to intensify production, but who should do it?  While there is agreement that food production should be a focus for economic development, many view development of the smallholder sector at all costs as not economically justifiable.  All farming, after all, is a business.  And, it was pointed out at regular intervals, a business in which women are among the most important human resources.

The reality is that there are a huge number of small holder farmers and we cannot ignore them.

The elephant in the room in most discussions of agricultural intensification is the issue of biotechnology.  Several participants lamented the “demonizing” of this technology in a largely uninformed political debate.

Why would one not want to examine all the available technological solutions? Indeed!

I could go on forever with a myriad of tantalizing intellectual tidbits and made-for-twitter sound-bites, but all things must come to an end, even this blog.  Suffice it to say that I came away very impressed with the quality and importance of the discussion, and would wish it possible to take away some of the aura of elitism around this venue and reveal to more than the privileged few how constructive even radically opposite viewpoints can be if handled with that particular brand of diplomacy that characterizes Chatham House.

Melinda Fones Sundell, SIANI’s Senior Advisor reflects on “Food Security: Mapping Risks, Building Resilience” conference held in London on the 1-2 December 2014. The reporting is based on what I can reveal from the discussions at Chatham House, a.k.a. the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London—famous for its “Chatham House Rule” which means that we who attend are free to use any information that we hear but may not refer to the participants, either by directly quoting someone or even referring to who is in the room.