Agriculture’s New Narrative

The language of agriculture and development has evolved, argues Diana Carney. Now conversation must translate into action.
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November 4, 2013

I have been involved with rural and agricultural issues – mostly in developing countries – for much of my working life. But for the past three or four years, I have largely focused on other policy issues. It was with interest, then, that I attended a couple of agriculture and development focused events last month.

What did I find? Many of the issues, not surprisingly, remain the same. There are still concerns about how to bridge the gap between agricultural scientists and producers; there is still tension over the extent to which higher producer costs are passed on to consumers; and there are still worries about how the agriculture sector is distorted by various subsidy regimes.

But there have also been changes.

Firstly, there has been a subtle evolution in vocabulary.  Twenty years ago, almost nobody involved with agriculture issues, at least with regard to developing countries, was talking about “value chains”. The focus was on production and perhaps marketing: how to grow more and ensure you could sell it.  About a decade ago, the conversation evolved to embrace the notion of agricultural value chains, which elevated the status of farmers and highlighted the different points at which value might be added through the system.

Now the conversation is evolving again. The emphasis on value chains is giving way to the concept of “food networks” – a far more complex and non-linear construct, involving many more stakeholders interacting in different ways. This idea also accommodates the fact that certain groups play more than one role (for example, it is often noted that most producers are also consumers).

This new holistic focus on the networks around food, rather than just the agriculture component, changes the dynamic somewhat. For example, it makes it easier for production issues to be considered alongside health issues. This makes an enormous amount of sense given growing global concern over obesity and food-related health issues.

Paralleling the rising interest in food networks is the concept of “resilience” which has now been fully integrated into the discourse.

The language of resilience facilitates meaningful discussion of many of the thorniest issues, including the need to feed nearly 10 billion people by 2050; lessen the degradation of natural capital (with soils being a particular concern); accommodate, adapt to, and perhaps even mitigate climate change and volatility (though I have to admit, I was disappointed and surprised by how little discussion there was on this issue at the events I attended); and reduce both producer and consumer price volatility, in part by learning to better understand the role that supermarkets play in mediating the effects of these two forces.

Thinking about what creates and sustains a resilient system also directs attention toward production systems that encourage effective countryside management and increased rural prosperity, and away from the idea that keeping producers in poverty should be the comparative advantage on which food systems are based. It also pushes those countries and populations who believe in food self-sufficiency or food sovereignty (which flies in the face of risk-spreading and undermines efforts to ensure low and stable prices) to reconsider their assumptions.

Putting resilience front and center also allows for a more productive debate over how to advance scientific progress in a manner sensitive to environmental concerns. Much of Europe, for example, remains fixated on GMOs and the debate over whether rejection of GMOs is ‘anti-science’ or a matter of reasonable risk aversion. The new language will not solve this difficult problem, but it does provide a more meaningful basis for discussion.

That there has been progress in how we talk about agriculture and development issues is a positive sign. And when put into practice, resilience should lead to a combination of price stability and environmental sustainability. A gap remains, however, between the growing appeal of resilience and related notions such as  ‘sustainable intensification’ of agriculture, and the adoption of measures to increase resilience on the ground.

There are some concrete ways in which the resilience of existing agricultural systems can be enhanced.

Reducing food waste appears to offer one of the biggest opportunities. Approximately 30-50% of all the food that is produced, globally, ends up being wasted. Where exactly that waste occurs depends upon the country; in developed countries, much waste takes place at the consumer level, while in developing countries, waste is often much more of a problem at the producer/post-harvest level).

But reducing waste – even in countries that have made this a priority, such as the UK, which created a special non-profit organization, WRAP, to bring together government and business stakeholders, and where supermarkets have been pressured into revealing their own food waste figures – is not always easy. Governments throughout the world come to power promising to increase efficiency, only to find in most cases that delivering on that promise is harder than they imagined. We need to be cautious of assuming that any measure, including reducing food waste, is a silver bullet.

Ensuring that food networks are adequately and fairly adjudicated is also part of building a truly resilient system. Global subsidy regimes make this extremely challenging at the international level. Domestically, however, there is more scope for independent adjudicators to mediate between producers and food retailers and thereby increase confidence and reliability in the system. Happy farmers, unsurprisingly, make better farmers, as well as more willing contributors to food networks.

Another pressing issue upon which resilience relies, which I will address in a future piece for this site, is innovation – how to nurture it, sustain it, and leverage it. Too often agriculture is thought of as the ‘old economy’ when in fact it is and always will be our future, as well as our past. Supporting and embracing change is therefore essential.

There is still little consensus on the best way to do this. One thing, however, is clear: we need to make hay while the sun shines, at least as far as agricultural sector reform is concerned. Global food prices, although lower relative to the peaks of 2008-2011, are still quite high compared to those that have prevailed for the past quarter century. It is usually easier to lock in policy change in a sector when it is doing fairly well. It would be a shame to waste this opportunity.