Experts Discuss Food Security at Pardee House Seminar

Hans Hoogeveen
Hans Hoogeveen

When it comes to food security, the issues confronting global food markets are not very different from the ones facing small farmers in Africa: food, fuel, finance and fertilizer. The manifestations are different, but the fundamentals are the same.

McCann & Najam
McCann & Najam

This was one of the points made by a panel of experts who spoke at the Pardee House Seminar on October 9 titled Food Security. The seminar was part of the “Future Challenges” series, sponsored and hosted by the Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future at Boston University.

The seminar panel featured Hans Hoogeveen, the Director General for The Netherlands Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality, and BU Professor and Pardee Center Fellow James McCann, of the History Department and Director of the African Studies Center. BU Professor Adil Najam of the International Relations and the Geography and Environment departments and Director of the Pardee Center, joined as panelist as well as moderator.

From the global perspective, Hoogeveen said the current and anticipated crises in food security are rooted in a combination of factors, including a growing global population that needs to be fed and increasing economic prosperity in countries such as India and China that are creating larger markets for both food and fuel. He added that water scarcity is likely to be a related issue in the future, since 70 percent of the world’s freshwater is used for agriculture; as agriculture expands to meet the growing food demand, more demand will be placed on water supplies, he said.

While there are “no easy answers,” Hoogeveen said the longer-term solutions will have to include increased private sector investment in sustainable agriculture practices, especially in Africa, along with initiaves to develop local and regional markets that better serve both small farmers and consumers. In the short-term, he said, the increased provision of emergency food aid will be necessary as well as increased lending to small farmers through micro financing programs.

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McCann, who leads a research program working with 22 small farmers in Ethopia, said from the perspective of the small farmer in Africa, the biggest issues at the micro level are related to “food, fuel, finance and fertilizer.” On a day-to-day basis, while the farmers have enough food to feed their families, they worry about the cost and access to seed for their crops and the cost and access to necessary fertilizer, both of which are largely tied to an individual farmer’s political connections. Citing the work of Prof. Amartya Sen, Prof. McCann stressed that perhaps the biggest challenge African farmers contend with is the issue of access.

“The fundamental issue is really about networks of distribution,” said McCann, in discussing why Ethopia, despite having areas that appear agriculturally rich, is also sprinkled with camps where people are impoverished and malnourished.

Najam spoke about Pardee Center research examining country-level connections between chronic food insecurity and bad governance. While the research is ongoing, preliminary indications point toward “a triple whammy,” he said — countries with the worst food security indicators also have the worst governance indicators and among the worst human depravation stress. The research is being conducted by Prof. Najam and Pardee Center Visiting Fellow Roshan Malik.

“We won’t get to the bottom of food insecurity by only measuring the amount of grain left,” Najam said. “There are other things that can trigger and compound food insecurity.”

All three panelists also suggested that food security issues are necessarily related to other global challenges, including climate change and the global financial crisis. However, the policy and academic discourse tends to focus on the issue competition that creates “competing claims” that pits issues that need to be resolved together, against each other.

“We are not dealing with these issues in an integrated way, and the problems won’t get solved that way,” said Hoogeveen. “For example, we have a huge number of experts around the world focused on climate change, but they are not dealing with agriculture because they don’t have the expertise. We need people who can ask the right questions.”