The new Future of Food and Farming Report: excellent diagnosis; patchy cure; no power and politics

January 27, 2011

     By Duncan Green     

The Future of Food and Farming: Challenges and Choices FFF coverfor Global Sustainability. It’s a high level UK government report from some top scientists, and should have significant influence over the next few years on much of the terrain Oxfam will be exploring in its new campaign on food and resource constraints. Here are some initial impressions, based on the 40 page (!) executive summary. Overall Message: ‘The food system is failing humanity’, John Beddington, Chief Scientific Adviser to UK Government at the launch. The report argues that there are both major failings in the food system today, and five key future challenges, namely: 1. Balancing future supply and demand sustainably (i.e. feed the 9 billion without destroying the planet) 2. Managing volatility and protecting the vulnerable from unavoidable volatility 3. Ending hunger (the social justice/Amartya Sen bit) 4. Mitigating climate change in agriculture 5. Maintaining biodiversity and ‘ecosystem services’ (which seems to be what we now call the environment) It sees small farmers as ‘an important component of both hunger and poverty reduction’ (p. 25) In terms of policy asks, it lists the key priorities for action for policy makers as: 1. Spread best practice. 2. Invest in new knowledge. 3. Make sustainable food production central in development. 4. Work on the assumption that there is little new land for agriculture. 5. Ensure long-term sustainability of fish stocks. 6. Promote sustainable intensification. 7. Include the environment in food system economics. 8. Reduce waste – both in high- and low-income countries. 9. Improve the evidence base upon which decisions are made and develop metrics to assess progress. 10. Anticipate major issues with water availability for food production. 11. Work to change consumption patterns. 12. Empower citizens. What do I disagree with? Not much. The report is maybe a bit too starry-eyed about science and technology, both old and new (hardly surprising given its authorship), but even there, with caveats: ‘New technologies (such as the genetic modification of living organisms and the use of cloned livestock and nanotechnology) should not be excluded a priori on ethical or moral grounds, though there is a need to respect the views of people who take a contrary view….. Decisions about the acceptability of new technologies need to be made in the context of competing risks (rather than by simplistic versions of the precautionary principle); the potential costs of not utilising new technology must be taken into account.’ (exec sum, p. 11) Economically, the report is fairly liberal – arguing strongly for liberalized trade and against government intervention in a number of areas such as the regulation of corporate oligopolies (exec sum p 21). In contrast to its explicit criticism of export bans, it is more ambivalent (and vague) about land grabs. The limits to liberalism are particularly evident in the lack of ideas on reducing volatility, where the report prefers transparency, information and safety nets to any kind of more forceful regulation (pp. 23/4). It says the jury is still out on whether speculation is a significant cause of volatility and is sceptical on global and virtual reserves apart from for WFP stocks for specific emergencies (p. 24). It is pretty timid on the need to reduce meat consumption, merely mentioning it as a future possibility (p. 22) But what worries me much more are the gaps. The report follows the unfortunate standard pattern of strong diagnosis, weak cure and absolute vacuum on issues of power and politics. There are several welcome but vague references to empowering women and northern consumers, but there it ends. There is almost no mention of producer organizations or more generally how to achieve a fairer distribution of power in markets, even though it is clear that the benefits of participation in such markets are shaped to a large extent by the relative power of the players involved. When it comes to a model of change, there isn’t one. No discussion of what to do when those who profit from the status quo resist change. Instead the report takes refuge in the passive tense ‘a stronger constituency for hunger reduction needs to be built’. No power analysis, or sense of how the reforms it proposes might actually come about, and which are more/less politically feasible. No discussion of the likely role of climate and economic shocks like the food price spike in triggering change. Another depressing ‘if I ruled the world’ technocrats’ report, in fact. It really is striking how many of these reports and processes refuse to stray from the happy sunlit uplands of evidence-based policy-making and win-win solutions. They see the global food system is dysfunctional, but talk as if this is just through some kind of accidental oversight or lack of research, rather than as an outcome of historical processes, including distributive conflicts and political struggle. Instead, the authors assume they can talk of a collective ‘we’, with shared interests and common solutions. The contrast between the subtlety of the science and the crudity/absence of politics (beyond largely vacuous appeals to ‘political will’ and ‘good governance’) is striking. It echoes the kind of ‘magical thinking’ on climate change that ran aground in Cancun, and which is regularly and brilliantly critiqued on the Political Climate blog. When confronted with trade-offs – win-lose issues – such reports generally deny or avoid them, and have little idea how to discuss, let alone influence, non evidence-based approaches, even though those are an essential (some would argue much more important) part of political reality. The gulf between the polite debate in Whitehall and the turmoil on the streets of Cairo and Tunis (driven in part by high food prices) could not be greater. In a sense, I guess that’s OK. Reports like these try to influence governments and other decision makers by expanding the boundary of rational policy making against the forces of ‘irrational’ (or at least non evidence-based) conflicts and political power. Talking of conflicts and power could mean taking sides and would risk compromising their objectivity in the eyes of their target audience. Instead, they aim to strengthen the hand of the Platonic guardians, be they civil servants or scientists, in shaping public policy and that is (generally) a good thing. But even if the rationalist bubble is expanding over time, this approach still leaves a huge chunk of real life outside the remit of such reports, and that seems a serious weakness. Wouldn’t it be great if some body had the courage and the funding to take 10 of the major international reports (Stern on Climate Change, others on development, MDGs etc etc) and produced a parallel series of ‘the politics of X’ reports for each (and Anthony Giddens’ effort on climate change doesn’t count)? Any takers?]]>