The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is pleased to present the 2019 Next Generation Delegates blog series. This year’s Delegation was comprised of 20 outstanding students from universities across the United States and around the world studying agriculture, food, and related disciplines. We were thrilled to feature these emerging leaders at the Global Food Security Symposium 2019, and look forward to sharing the exciting work of this extraordinary group.
Farmers ushered us forward to see their river. It ran nearly dry; the deep areas left were full of factory sludge and waste. This was the village’s main water source, and the farmers had taken us here to give unassailable testimony about the challenges they faced. With unpredictable rains and lax pollution regulations, the sugarcane farmers I visited in India struggled with safe water sources for farming and domestic use.
This dilemma is not unique to India. Globally, roughly 2.4 billion people live in water-scarce regions. By 2050, over half of the world’s population could be at risk due to water stress. As food insecurity and hunger continue to rise, increased stress from unpredictable water supplies and changing climate patterns will only exacerbate the unjust hunger patterns worldwide.
The Chicago Council on Global Affairs recently convened a global food security symposium to interrogate the causes and impacts of food and water insecurity. Our failure to feed the world is not a failure of production. Rather, unjust policies and food system structures exacerbate the disparity between those who have enough to eat, and those who do not.
This disparity exists for several reasons. The first is the gap between policy and implementation. Even the most well-meaning policy threatens progress if it fails to consider cultural, economic, and agricultural context as well as farmer needs. Policy changes intended to support grievance mechanisms for smallholder farmers, for example, have no benefit if the farmers themselves are not made aware of them, or if they fail to address the underlying struggles farmers face.
The second comes from discordances between concurrent national policies. Food systems governing production and distribution are complex and impacted by policies often considered to be outside the purview of departments of agriculture. While a government may employ progressive policies that support farmer access to inputs or subsidies, for example, a separate trade policy the government employs may undermine the progress.
The United States is a common example of this. Though the country supports agricultural development in low-income countries through USAID platforms like Food for Peace and Feed the Future, its domestic agricultural support subsidies threaten the competitiveness of those farmers the USAID programs attempt to reach. Providing agricultural assistance with one hand while reducing the farmer’s ability to compete against American foodstuffs is counterproductive, and detrimental to food security overall.
The disunity between policies is not inevitable. Earlier this year, I had the good fortune of attending the Chicago Council’s food security symposium as a Next Generation Delegate. Lessons I learned from the symposium events and my fellow Delegates complemented my study of sustainable development and human dignity at the University of Notre Dame. From these perspectives, I see two critical steps to improving policy impact and cohesion.
Firstly, we must reframe food and water from commodities to human rights in and of themselves. Food and water are both essential to human dignity and flourishing. Amartya Sen’s capability approach emphasizes the importance of the freedom to achieve and the intrinsic value of opportunity. These freedoms are severely infringed when one suffers from undernourishment and must focus narrowly on meeting his or her basic needs.
In this vein, we must think of water and access to it holistically. Rather than simply considering water as an input for irrigation or WASH schemes, for example, we must instead acknowledge water rights. Betsy Otto (global director of WRI’s Water Program) demonstrated the nexus between water and human dignity beautifully in an example of the value families place on being able to provide a safe space for their members to wash.
Establishing a shared view of the true nature of food and water as human rights will help align policies. When every policy must consider the impacts it has on people’s access to food and water, regardless of nationality, policies may start to coalesce to prioritize just outcomes.
Secondly, policymakers must meaningfully include smallholder farmers in the decision-making process. This idea is not novel. We must move beyond the catch phrase of farmer inclusion, however, to have consultation in which their voices are not just heard, but acted upon. While the importance of hearing from farmers is known, structural and significant ways to ensure the farmers’ input actually influences the final policy decision are rare. Listening for the sake of listening alone is not enough.
Farmer inclusion helps address the gap between policy and implementation. Genuine engagement helps policymakers understand what farmers need, and farmers understand the existence, intent, and application of specific policy measures and protections (as well as how they can influence them if they fall short). According to Pearl Rana—an inaugural Obama Foundation Scholar at the University of Chicago and an innovative Botswanan farmer herself—involving farmers in policy frameworks and building trust between them is a cornerstone in successful agriculture.
We must stop making policy in silos. As the Council’s report chair A.G. Kawamura put it: “We have the capacity to feed the planet. Do we have the will?” The passion of my fellow Delegates makes me confident that we do.