On Friday 19 November, Agnes Kalibata gave an online lecture on ‘Paradigm shifts in food systems’ as part of the Cutting Edge Issues in Development Lecture Series for 2021/22. Dr Agnes Kalibata served as President of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa. Professor Ian Scoones was an invited discussant for the lecture. Read what MSc students Ali Hassan and Jack Devine took away from the lecture below.
Faced with both climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic, agricultural experts and policymakers must deal with the dual challenges of making food production more environmentally sustainable and ensuring that everyone has access to food regardless of their circumstances. The recent Food Systems Summit, held in September 2021 and organised by the United Nations, was a platform designed to discuss food security in the context of climate change and COVID-19. The Food Systems Summit website defines a food system as “the constellation of activities involved in producing, processing, transporting and consuming food”, and states optimistically that “we know what we need to do to get back on track” with respect to food.
Dr Agnes Kalibata attended the summit as the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy. Dr Kalibata was pleased to see 148 countries actively participating in the summit. She cited the willingness of countries to cooperate with one another to transform food systems as one of the biggest achievements of the summit. In addition, she noted that there was a consensus among summit participants that food production must be made sustainable, and highlighted the role technology will play in bringing about desired changes in food production. Professor Ian Scoones responded to Dr Kalibata with measured scepticism. While acknowledging Dr Kalibata’s observations, he expressed disappointment that the summit was devoid of any discussion on the politics of food production and distribution. The world may transition towards environmentally sustainable agriculture in which enough food is produced for all, but will that food make its way to every person?
Dr Kalibata’s arguments about the international nature of the issue of food security and the need for considerations of sustainability are pertinent at a time when climate change threatens the upheaval of food production entirely. However, we cannot ensure that everyone has access to food without taking into account considerations of political economy, as Professor Scoones pointed out. As the pandemic has highlighted, people who are financially vulnerable do not have the means to access food that is otherwise available for consumption. Since the start of the pandemic, there has been a proliferation in the number of food banks, and existing food banks have had to scale up their activity dramatically in order to meet the needs of people who had lost their sources of income. I used to manage a food bank in Lahore called the ‘Robin Hood Army’. Of the 1 million meals it has served since its inception in 2015, 800,000 have been served since March 2019, since many daily wage labourers in Lahore were left jobless following the start of the pandemic and were at risk of starvation.
The pandemic showed us that many people live paycheck to paycheck, and when their livelihoods are threatened, their survival too is at risk. Attention must be paid to the vulnerabilities people experience which put them at risk of suffering tremendously due to shock events, and we must ask how essential resources such as food can be made available to all irrespective of their ability to pay for it.
In her role as President of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), Dr Agnes Kalibata engages daily with fundamental challenges to the sustainability and equity (or lack thereof) in our food systems. She makes the case for a transformation of these systems, in part to respond to the shocks of COVID-19 and climate change, but also in anticipation of future shocks. In this sense, the need to transform food systems is driven by the imperative to address the crises of the present while building resilience to the stressors of tomorrow.
For Dr Kalibata, this transformation means policies that are grounded in science and evidence. This is not necessarily a new idea, but how to bridge the gap between evidence and practice remains a fundamental challenge. For Dr Kalibata, who has a background in both the science and policy worlds, policymakers have failed to keep up with the advances that have been made in climate-resilient agricultural technology. It is deeply frustrating, she lamented, when technologies that could address critical gaps in food security are left “sitting on the shelf”.
But the burden to bridge the science-policy gap cannot be left completely to policymakers. The producers of research and evidence also have an obligation to design, conduct, and disseminate their research in a way that meets the needs of policymakers who may lack the time, resources or technical know-how to proactively seek out evidence to inform their work. Instead of relying on policymakers or researchers to bridge this gap, perhaps there is a role for ‘knowledge brokers’ whose role in the science-policy ecosystem is explicitly focused on communicating, or ‘translating’ scientific evidence into policy impact.
Professor Ian Scoones from the University of Sussex offered a different perspective on the role of evidence in the transformation of food systems. Recent emphasis on evidence-based policy and the ‘systems perspective’ has tended to lead to what he describes as “an overly technocratic view” of food access, availability and utilisation. Systems are also about social and political relations. Food systems are also plural – there are dominant, powerful food systems, and there are smaller, less influential ones. This means that in order to have a meaningful transformation, we cannot simply lean on questions of what the evidence says are the best practices – we must also consider questions of power: who controls food systems, and do they prioritise sustainability and equity?
These questions of power and equity in transforming food systems to meet the challenges of the future were on stark display at COP26. Professor Ian Scoones expressed disappointment at how leaders framed these issues at the UN summit. The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) presented the transformation of food systems as a kind of innovation race, using the terminology of the space race to make the case for a climate shot towards sustainable agriculture. But we cannot assume that science will always deliver. The critical question in the science-policy link is the negotiation of power over decisions and resources.
This is an especially urgent and unresolved question in the transformation of food systems in response to climate change. At COP26, wealthy countries failed to make tangible commitments to finance climate adaptation in the global South in a meaningful and transformational way. Yet again, the countries most exposed to the consequences of global temperature increases have been left hanging at the edge of a fiscal cliff – in a sad yet predictable repeat of past UN climate summits, commitments from the United States and Europe fall well short of what is needed and well short of what would be proportional to their emissions. As Oxfam’s Tim Gore highlighted in a recent paper, “by 2030, the richest 1% are on course for an even greater share of total global emissions than when the Paris Agreement was signed”. Unless measures are taken to address emissions driven by the consumption and investments of wealthy countries, a paradigm shift driven solely by an ‘innovation race’ will fall short of addressing the underlying inequities in food systems.
The next guest lecture will be with Ingrid Srinath on Friday 26 November 2021 on ‘COVID-19, Corporatisation and Closing Space: The Triple Threat to Civil Society in India’. LSE Students, Staff and Alumni can register here. External audiences can join the lecture via YouTube.
The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the International Development LSE blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science.