Development, Indigenous Governance Models, and Food Security

Partially in response to “Unsustainable goals” from The Economist.

Food security and international food systems have been a sort of fascination of mine since I took a class on the World Food Economy at Stanford (I posted the paper of the final project of the class – projecting world food prices in 2050 – here), though it seems like it is a constant topic of the moment popping up everywhere.  I recently attended a fascinating talk by Dan Barber on the US food system – not a talk on ending hunger per se, but it does have implications for that space that have been on my mind ever since.  I also went to an off the record talk yesterday by David Lane, Ambassador to the UN Agencies in Rome (there are six agencies in Rome, three of them are related to food and food security), and he mentioned his disagreement with the above article from The Economist.

The implication of the article is that recent development goals have been broad and vague, making them difficult to achieve.  The crux of this matter is an emphasis on governance itself is a broad and vague concept.  The Economist seems to imply that the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) would be better served by keeping their list shorter (i.e. closer to the MDG 8 than the SDG 17) and narrowing down the list of indicators.  (It is worth mentioning that one of the primary criticisms of the Millennium Development Goal’s list of 8 was that it was both too narrow, leaving out important goals, and too broad, leaving too much room for failure in its ambition.)  Ambassador Lane’s primary critique of the article is that, at least from a food security perspective, most if not all of the current food security crises in the world are caused by a crisis of governance.  At this stage of global development, it is impossible to separate issues of hunger and poverty from issues of good governance.

I agree with Ambassador Lane’s assessment, but I would like to take it one step farther (and, perhaps, a place an ambassador to a UN cannot go).  The Economist has a point – the broad and vague list gives countries the opportunity to say that they are working toward sustainable development without truly changing their status quo. UNDP, the UN agency with which I am most familiar, has a similar problem with their democratic governance projects – everything, including addressing climate change, urban development, building government buildings, gender mainstreaming, anti-corruption, and “strengthening” election systems and/or judiciary systems and/or parliamentary systems was considered a democratic governance project. It meant that authoritarian regimes, including Iran, Saudi Arabia, and China could have UNDP democratic governance projects (exclusively infrastructure projects, if I remember correctly) without making meaningful democratic reforms.  The presence of these projects could also have a negative effect, as these countries could use these projects as rhetorical signs for improving governance to their people and the outside world.  The SDGs risk going down a similar path.

But there is another way these broad, vague lists can instigate change.  For the SDG case, governments could take advantage of focusing on the goals that best fit their particular need – an important criteria in an increasingly divided and diversified world – without needing to conform to an externally mandated definition for reform.  As The Economist itself admits, the problems in today’s world are increasingly interconnected, and anybody can make a convincing argument that a different issue should be focused on first.  Any type of reform in any of the 17 areas has the potential for improving the condition of the world, and it is the UN’s mission to push the world to improve itself – of course it would be ambitious (which is, I gather, the primary critique from The Economist).  As would be the case for any list, no matter how short, long, or ambitious, the onus lies with a country’s people and the international community to keep government’s responsible for their commitments to the SDGs.

It is also worth noting that, despite the 17 goals and the 160 plus indicators, the governance systems espoused by the SDGs are undoubtedly based on the Western state model, the same model that has been failing the most fragile parts of the world for decades.  Of course the SDGs will be vague and ambiguous, otherwise countries would not sign on to them.  But perhaps this could be structured ambiguity that leaves space for a conversation on alternative state models that could better serve states facing a governance crisis.  Unlikely to happen, but still a potentially viable option for bringing increased state stability and all the benefits that come with it.

Part of this movement for reflecting on historical political structures around this world could extend to food, which could also be a useful thought exercise when constructing the final draft of the SDGs (again, unlikely to happen, but useful nonetheless).  Ambassador Lane reflected on the future food security challenges, citing a recent World Bank Report, such as how to feed 9.5 billion people with fewer inputs (including less water and less land) with more nutrition and in the face of climate change.  Here is where Dan Barber’s words could have some resonance.  Barber discussed the concepts of efficient resource usage, a varied diet, and the importance of cuisine.  He pointed out the ridicule of drought ridden Australia and California exporting milk, almonds, rice, and alfalfa sprouts (all water intensive crops) to China – to paraphrase his words, these countries are essentially deciding to export their precious water.  Such waste would be even less tolerable if the world is to meet the challenges set out by Ambassador Lane and the World Bank. He also discussed his famous wheat bread, which uses a special type of ancient wheat that, due to an extensive crop rotation for sustainable farming, is several years in the making.  Barber admitted that, unknowingly, he was not using most of his farmer’s crop rotations, which included cow’s peas, mustard, and kidney beans.  The farmer would sell these other crops at a loss for animal feed, or simply plow them back into the ground, hoping to make up his profits with his special wheat and his corn (which is also part of his crop rotation).  This waste of food dovetails with the lack of cuisine in the United States – by cuisine, Barber means that the cultural diet includes all of the components of the crop rotation.  For example, the Japanese eat both white rice and buckwheat soba noodles as part of their cuisine, and rice and buckwheat are both part of the same crop rotation. Again, in order to meet the challenge of feeding 9.5 billion people, farmers around the world should not be plowing most of their crops back into the ground, but instead be harvesting for a consumer market demanding more varied foods.  This would not only be a more efficient use of land and inputs, but would also help people eat more nutritious foods.  But how to create a cuisine?  Circling back to that World Food Economy class, most cultures have a historical cuisine that utilized crop rotation using so-called “orphan crops,” indigenous agriculture that has evolved to be nutritious and effectively utilize the available resources for a particular locale.  As the world has become more western focused, orphan crops have become somewhat passe (with some exceptions, notably quinoa).  In addition to a stable government, it is probably not possible to meet the coming food security challenges without a re-embracing of traditional cuisines based on orphan crops.

None of this is easy – it is a delicate balance to grant governments autonomy for their own decisions but still provide pressure for meaningful change, and it is a delicate balance to let people choose what they want to eat while ensuring that those choices are sustainable for the rest of the world.  But, as a world renowned and respected organization, the UN has the clout to reintroduce the importance of historically innovative governance models and foundations for food security.  Most likely this won’t happen for the upcoming SDGs, but maybe they will in the future.

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