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Blog Post
9 December 2016

Rural special: A fresh look at food security policy?

Think for a second what is your image of a peasant. Poor, badly educated, non-progressive, do these adjectives come to your mind? But why does this have to be like that?

If we look into supply chains just a bit further than super market shelves, we will see that almost all of our food comes from rural areas, and most of it is grown by smallholder farmers. And if we look further in our history, we will see that agriculture was at the foundation of our civilization. Perfected and accumulated agricultural practices and tools survived wars, famines and natural disasters; our societies are simply not able to function without food.

So, rural areas have a very special place. But why do we then associate rural with something that is backward? This is a question about our perception and about our way of thinking, but ultimately it translates into an imbalance between cities and rural areas. City has become a major unit of our society structure, city is where things happen, it’s where all the investment goes, but cities thrive on resources that come from rural areas. Consequently, leaving rural areas behind exposes cities to vulnerability and can even challenge security of entire countries; the recent events in the Middle East are a great example of how radical rural-urban disparity can create social instability.

Why doesn’t top-down old-school really work so well anymore?

National level policies can create an overall framework for the country’s development, but this approach tends to ignore geographical differences within a country and does not tailor planning to different social groups. For instance, the poor and the minorities are usually included into the same group, regardless the fact that people from these groups have different access to social, physical and financial capital. This, in its turn has strong impact on food and nutrition security which translates into poor economic performance.

Top-down approach to food security policy also tends to ignore priorities and needs of local stakeholders, focusing instead on increasing overall food production. This approach appears effective from a country-wide perspective and is easier to implement, but it is not that effective for addressing food security caused by poverty and unemployment. And it is poverty and unemployment reduction that can really step up economic development.

Agricultural development alone cannot solve food insecurity and this is recognised by most countries, however, opportunities to strengthen the off-farm rural economy are often missed. In Peru, for example, the mining sector has great potential for promoting rural development – vast reserves of gold and copper can be used to provide jobs, better well-being and higher incomes for the local people. Instead mining is left to the private sector whereas agriculture falls under the domain of public policies. The result is that mining and agriculture sectors are in competition, while the people who live on the land where the activity is happening do not get much say about any decisions.

Parallels can be found in rural Cambodia, where the government prioritised rice-based farming, and it has initially led to significant economic growth, but in the longer run it resulted in high levels of poverty, high malnutrition in youth and increased migration to cities. So, in the end, the success Cambodia gained from rice-based farming isn’t as profitable as it once used to be, especially bearing in mind the effects of climate change, like prolonged drought, combined with the effects of the economic shocks of 2008. Hopefully, the rise of eco-tourism across Cambodia will provide rural areas with an opportunity to repopulate and reap the economic benefits of the on-going boom.

Morocco is taking significant steps for adopting a more balanced approach to rural development. Despite the fact that most of the population works in agriculture, Morocco is still heavily reliant on food imports, and 4 million of its people live below the poverty line. However, counter measures, like the Green Morocco Plan and a new Nutrition Strategy 2011-2019 as well as the Halieutis Plan to boost fisheries, were undertaken and projects launched under these initiatives has begun to take root.

How do we approach rural transformation?

Developing and transforming rural areas is not only a matter of social equity, but also a matter of state security. Balancing development between rural and urban can bring economic benefits and improve business performance. Territorial approach, jointly developed by FAO, OECD and UNCDF, aims to address all these points:

“A territorial approach allows the diversity of different territories to be taken into account, and leads to a better understanding of differences in development opportunities that are so often missed with one-dimensional or one-size-fits-all policies.” (OECD & FAO & UNCDF, 2016)

Territorial approach to food policy can promote food security, rural development and economic stability and suggests working in four major directions:

  1. Enhancing strategies and programmes beyond agriculture
  2. Promoting multi-level governance systems to strengthening horizontal and vertical co-ordination.
  3. Increasing the availability of data and indicators at the local and regional levels to support evidence-based FSN policy
  4. Linking social policies with economic growth policies.

Effective food security and nutrition policies require support and attention from different stakeholders and decision makers, but lack of communication between the parties can lead to misalignment in objectives. This, in its turn, can result in programmes being underestimated and therefore being underfunded or mismanaged.

Without supporting evidence-based policies, the needs of the locals will continue to be ignored and without them on board, the top-down policies will not use the resources efficiently and will not timely respond to local challenges. But evidence based policy requires effective data collection, something which can be significantly improved in rural areas and in low-income countries.

Better data collection and monitoring on local and regional levels can also make regional dynamics more visible and uncover the implications national policies have on a regional level. In reality, the data is far from extensive and is usually gathered in an uncoordinated way with little regard for what the information will be used for.

Social policies can support countries in achieving their food security and nutrition targets and, subsequently, can help to build stronger, self-reliant and financially stable countries. However, social protection policies are not viewed as generators of growth, but rather as safety nets to rescue the poor.

Social policies need to be perceived in a new light, one which is seen as an investment instead of expenditure. This way taking a territorial approach can transform rural areas, offering countries an opportunity to grow sustainably, and providing inclusivity to the whole population. So, farmers or rural workers will not be seen as poor and stick-in-the-mud, but proud and empowered and acknowledged for what they put on the table.

This blog was inspired by the “Adopting a Territorial Approach to Food Security and Nutrition Policy” publication by FAO-OECD-UNDCF.

Blog by Sunil Abeyasekera. Sunil is currently enrolled in MSc Rural Development and Natural Resource Management at the Swedish University of Agricultural Science in Uppsala. He has a BSc in Chemistry from the University of Surrey in the UK. He has worked in agricultural chemicals and environmental chemistry and has a strong passion for sustainable natural resource management. He also coordinates YPARD Sweden. Follow Sunil on Twitter.