Saturday, October 12, 2013

World Food Day 2013: Ensuring “Sustainable Food Systems for Food Security and Nutrition”

By Kimbowa Richard, East African Sustainability Watch Network c/o Uganda Coalition for Sustainable Development

The Official World Food Day theme for 2013 from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) is “Sustainable Food Systems for Food Security and Nutrition”. Observance of the World Food Day every year raises the world’s attention to understand current problems and solutions in the drive to end hunger.

According to the Geneva Environment Network, today almost 870 million people worldwide are chronically undernourished. Unsustainable models of development are degrading the natural environment, threatening ecosystems and biodiversity that will be needed for our future food supply. Calls for profound changes in our agriculture and food systems are becoming more frequent and more insistent.

In light of the above challenges and in view of the 2013 World Food Day’s theme, I would like to share my thoughts about this theme: “Sustainable Food Systems for Food Security and Nutrition” which are based on experiences from the Lake Victoria region in East Africa.

What would a Sustainable Food System look like?

There are many different views as to what constitutes a 'sustainable' food system, and what falls within the scope of the term 'sustainability'. Strictly speaking sustainability implies the use of resources at rates that do not exceed the capacity of the Earth to replace them. For food, a sustainable system might be seen as encompassing a range of issues such as security of the supply of food, health, safety, affordability, quality, a strong food industry in terms of jobs and growth and, at the same time, environmental sustainability, in terms of issues such as climate change, biodiversity, water and soil quality (European Union, 2013).

Within the Lake Victoria basin and East Africa in general, the key foundation to such a system is the majority smallholder farmers. These are characterized by small pieces of land, large families, but poor crop yields. Their primary occupation is growing food, yet many do not grow enough to feed their families. Therefore as I see it a number of interventions need to be undertaken to address the small-scale farmers’ needs, key of which I highlight below:

1. Initiate Smallholder Farmer Resilient Actions as part of agricultural development 


Small holder farmers are increasingly susceptible to hostile weather patterns that have resulted in long droughts leading to food insecurity in many parts of East Africa, increase global energy prices that impact on their operations, and economic impacts arising from macro-level effects as well as disasters. A key aspect of securing a truly sustainable food system would require countries and the international community to put in place counter interventions to such occurrences. This could take the form of improved and expanded food storage facilities, specialized training and skills for affected farmers and extensionists, agro-processing to add value, incentives for small holder farmers to make savings for possible alternative investment and farmer-to-research linkages.

2. Importance of scaling up agricultural extension support

Agricultural extension in many parts of East Africa has been cut back due to Government and donor decisions to privatize this service. Though it sounded a feasible venture, in most cases it has alienated the poor farmers as they cannot regularly access the much needed agricultural information and technologies that could offset the current challenges including disease/pest control, sustained pockets of hunger and environmental decay. In this case a reasonable sustainable food system would need to scale up agriculture extension in crop (staples), animal production, fisheries, forestry, soil and water conservation in view of the huge climate change impacts.  

3. Emphasis on sustainable land management and other environmental considerations

A whole range of innovations, technologies and techniques that are environmentally sound, affordable and socially acceptable should be promoted as a package of options for small farmers to make a choice. These would range from conservation of local crop varieties and animal breeds that are resilient to climate stress, soil and water conservation, tree –crop – animal combinations for maximum land use, and alternative energy options to fuelwood. In addition, conservation of local watershed catchments (rivers, lake-shores, streams, wetlands, estuaries etc.) should be emphasized, as they moderate local climate, provide water for domestic use as well as for production. In current development discourse, healthy and productive landscapes provide people with the goods and services that form a basis for development

4. Targeted inputs to revive the poorest farmers agricultural produce

In view of the vulnerability of the poorest farmers – those that cannot afford private extension services, purchase of inputs, access to information (weather forecasts, market information and so on) in real time, some actions are required. One of these would be targeted time bound support to such groups in terms of farm inputs through appropriate non – exclusive social development models. This will enable this group to be elevated to the others so that they can access extensions services and appropriate technology, gain from resilience plans, food storage and marketing plans.

In conclusion, the 2013 theme on “Sustainable Food Systems for Food Security and Nutrition” has a direct bearing on rural livelihoods that are heavily dependent on agriculture. As I see it, the importance of addressing the needs and concerns of majority poor farmers in this quest cannot be ignored any longer.