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Is Promoting Farmer Resilience Recycled Agricultural Risk Reduction?

Organizers of the Building Resilience for Food and Nutrition Security Conference have managed to facilitate stimulating discussions in spite of the very short time at hand and, while I am not learning that much about resilience, there are many other insights to be gained!

However, since both resilience and nutrition have been largely on the sidelines in the global food availability debate, it is regrettable that more attention could not be paid to resilience.  It is a bit annoying that known efforts and technology to reduce risk in agriculture are being dusted off and recycled in new packaging, “promoting farmer resilience”.

1. Philosophical Insights – what is “evidence based”?

Panelists in one session debated the use of evidence to support policy recommendations.  What constitutes “evidence”?  Is it limited to a strict definition of scientific evidence where data can only be taken from a model built on random samples, clinical trials, control groups, etc., or should policy-makers listen to other types of evidence more based on observation and local knowledge?  Is this bias slowing us down or is it a necessary precaution to avoid potential disaster? In this debate the Economists tended to favor the use of observational evidence, while the ecologists and public health specialists tended to favor scientific evidence. 

2. Practical action uniting agricultural production and human nutrition

Agricultural research has been generally successful in reducing risk for the producer, but much less successful in promoting diversity in diet. (It has been argued here at the Conference that farmers are far more interested in producing a crop with a high market value than even promoting dietary diversity for their own family, and much less interested in producing what is nutritionally important for consumers). Plant breeders and other agricultural researchers could begin by breeding disease resistance and drought tolerance to fruit and vegetables, as they have done very successfully for staple grain crops. This is a practical way forward to reduce the risk of producing these crops and promoting their cultivation.

3. Nutrition-sensitive Landscapes/Health and Development

Practitioners here seem to be very excited about the relatively new concept of “nutrition landscapes” which grew out of an FAO conference on Forests and Food security last year, where SIANI figured prominently with the discussion brief on the topic.

The nutrition-sensitive landscapes concept focuses on the  global challenges of Agriculture, Environmental Degradation and Malnutrition/Illness. The landscape scale is the best meeting place for biophysical and socioeconomic factors to come together.

Throughout the Conference, there have been references to the direct links between human health and economic development.  This was summarized by one presenter as the Ecosystems approach to health – human health depends on healthy environments and human prosperity depends both on healthy people and healthy ecosystems.

4. Emphasis on Human Capacity Building/Defining Resilience

Thank you, John Hoddinott of IFPRI, for a concise and functional definition of resilience, focusing on the importance of building human capacity:

Resilience is the capacity to ensure that adverse shocks and stressors do not result in long term adverse effects.

This set the tone for the first plenary session where panelists discussed, among other things:

  • Resilient food and nutrition security should focus on poor children; they are the most vulnerable group and the weakest link in the chain.
  • Long term economic development is dependent upon early childhood nutrition, as deficiencies in nutrition put a lasting negative impact on life expectancy.
  • Resilience should be entered through social networks; all factors supporting resilience from bio-physical resources, infrastructure and markets are affected by human decisions and behavior.

The most surprising moment of the day came at the end of the session when Panelists (most with white beards) were asked to name the most important entry point for beginning to build resilience and, overwhelmingly, mentioned the empowerment of women!!  This connected both to the discussions on social networks and early childhood nutrition.

Melinda Fones-Sundell is an Agricultural Economist with 18 years experience in private consulting after 11 years as a researcher and lecturer at SLU. Her field experience is mainly from Africa and Latin America where she has specialized in managing agricultural development projects and carrying out environmental impact analysis on infrastructural projects, particularly in the field of energy.