The new Future of Food and Farming Report: excellent diagnosis; patchy cure; no power and politics

I attended the launch at the UK Treasury this week of The Future of Food and Farming: Challenges and Choices FFF coverfor Global Sustainability. It’s a high level UK government report from some top scientists, and should have significant influence over the next few years on much of the terrain Oxfam will be exploring in its new campaign on food and resource constraints. Here are some initial impressions, based on the 40 page (!) executive summary.

Overall Message: ‘The food system is failing humanity’, John Beddington, Chief Scientific Adviser to UK Government at the launch.

The report argues that there are both major failings in the food system today, and five key future challenges, namely:

1. Balancing future supply and demand sustainably (i.e. feed the 9 billion without destroying the planet)

2. Managing volatility and protecting the vulnerable from unavoidable volatility

3. Ending hunger (the social justice/Amartya Sen bit)

4. Mitigating climate change in agriculture

5. Maintaining biodiversity and ‘ecosystem services’ (which seems to be what we now call the environment)

It sees small farmers as ‘an important component of both hunger and poverty reduction’ (p. 25)

In terms of policy asks, it lists the key priorities for action for policy makers as:
1. Spread best practice.
2. Invest in new knowledge.
3. Make sustainable food production central in development.
4. Work on the assumption that there is little new land for agriculture.
5. Ensure long-term sustainability of fish stocks.
6. Promote sustainable intensification.
7. Include the environment in food system economics.
8. Reduce waste – both in high- and low-income countries.
9. Improve the evidence base upon which decisions are made and develop metrics to assess progress.
10. Anticipate major issues with water availability for food production.
11. Work to change consumption patterns.
12. Empower citizens.

What do I disagree with? Not much. The report is maybe a bit too starry-eyed about science and technology, both old and new (hardly surprising given its authorship), but even there, with caveats:

‘New technologies (such as the genetic modification of living organisms and the use of cloned livestock and nanotechnology) should not be excluded a priori on ethical or moral grounds, though there is a need to respect the views of people who take a contrary view….. Decisions about the acceptability of new technologies need to be made in the context of competing risks (rather than by simplistic versions of the precautionary principle); the potential costs of not utilising new technology must be taken into account.’ (exec sum, p. 11)

Economically, the report is fairly liberal – arguing strongly for liberalized trade and against government intervention in a number of areas such as the regulation of corporate oligopolies (exec sum p 21). In contrast to its explicit criticism of export bans, it is more ambivalent (and vague) about land grabs.

The limits to liberalism are particularly evident in the lack of ideas on reducing volatility, where the report prefers transparency, information and safety nets to any kind of more forceful regulation (pp. 23/4). It says the jury is still out on whether speculation is a significant cause of volatility and is sceptical on global and virtual reserves apart from for WFP stocks for specific emergencies (p. 24).

It is pretty timid on the need to reduce meat consumption, merely mentioning it as a future possibility (p. 22)

But what worries me much more are the gaps. The report follows the unfortunate standard pattern of strong diagnosis, weak cure and absolute vacuum on issues of power and politics. There are several welcome but vague references to empowering women and northern consumers, but there it ends. There is almost no mention of producer organizations or more generally how to achieve a fairer distribution of power in markets, even though it is clear that the benefits of participation in such markets are shaped to a large extent by the relative power of the players involved.

When it comes to a model of change, there isn’t one. No discussion of what to do when those who profit from the status quo resist change. Instead the report takes refuge in the passive tense ‘a stronger constituency for hunger reduction needs to be built’. No power analysis, or sense of how the reforms it proposes might actually come about, and which are more/less politically feasible. No discussion of the likely role of climate and economic shocks like the food price spike in triggering change. Another depressing ‘if I ruled the world’ technocrats’ report, in fact.

It really is striking how many of these reports and processes refuse to stray from the happy sunlit uplands of evidence-based policy-making and win-win solutions. They see the global food system is dysfunctional, but talk as if this is just through some kind of accidental oversight or lack of research, rather than as an outcome of historical processes, including distributive conflicts and political struggle. Instead, the authors assume they can talk of a collective ‘we’, with shared interests and common solutions. The contrast between the subtlety of the science and the crudity/absence of politics (beyond largely vacuous appeals to ‘political will’ and ‘good governance’) is striking. It echoes the kind of ‘magical thinking’ on climate change that ran aground in Cancun, and which is regularly and brilliantly critiqued on the Political Climate blog.

When confronted with trade-offs – win-lose issues – such reports generally deny or avoid them, and have little idea how to discuss, let alone influence, non evidence-based approaches, even though those are an essential (some would argue much more important) part of political reality. The gulf between the polite debate in Whitehall and the turmoil on the streets of Cairo and Tunis (driven in part by high food prices) could not be greater.

In a sense, I guess that’s OK. Reports like these try to influence governments and other decision makers by expanding the boundary of rational policy making against the forces of ‘irrational’ (or at least non evidence-based) conflicts and political power. Talking of conflicts and power could mean taking sides and would risk compromising their objectivity in the eyes of their target audience. Instead, they aim to strengthen the hand of the Platonic guardians, be they civil servants or scientists, in shaping public policy and that is (generally) a good thing.

But even if the rationalist bubble is expanding over time, this approach still leaves a huge chunk of real life outside the remit of such reports, and that seems a serious weakness. Wouldn’t it be great if some body had the courage and the funding to take 10 of the major international reports (Stern on Climate Change, others on development, MDGs etc etc) and produced a parallel series of ‘the politics of X’ reports for each (and Anthony Giddens’ effort on climate change doesn’t count)? Any takers?

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Comments

7 Responses to “The new Future of Food and Farming Report: excellent diagnosis; patchy cure; no power and politics”
  1. Keith Johnston

    Thanks for blogging with such gusto Duncan and congratulations Dr Green. It is good to have you back. I think your research proposal is a fine one; it could be your next book, or PhD, or both. I would suggest one refinement. I think the “Review of the Politics of the 10 Major International Reports” has to find a plausible way through the political trade-offs and power plays and chart a path to the sunny uplands. That is, it cannot just take the rich and powerful on, head on, and disempower them or significantly reduce their wealth, even if a cursory analysis of the politics suggests we cannot get there without major shifts in power. It has to find a way through the politics that avoids the most direct confrontations with the powerful because on issues where long-term harms come up against short-term risks the middle polities in our systems tend to try to protect what is already within their grasp and focus on fending off the short-term risks and/or denying longer-term harms, a la climate change. I think the bureaucrats who seek out the win-win uplands (a role I have had some experience of in the past) do so for a few reasons – they are sufficiently part of the established system to know how much it will resist and repel fundamental change, they are often aware of what they would be personally putting at risk if the system changed in irrational or uncontrolled ways, and, in Westminster-type systems, they are encouraged to leave the more direct forms of politics to the politicians. This is not so say that we cannot achieve significant change through the work of the bureaucracy but the politics of this are at best nuanced and at worst contrary.

    Duncan: Absolutely Keith, so the politics reports would look at things like coalitions (actual or potential) for particular changes, how legislation could stealthily weaken blockers and strengthen drivers (role for disclosure and transparency there), and the likelihood of particular change moments (eg straight after major climate shocks) for which would-be change agents need to be ready and waiting.

  2. Catherine Dom

    It’s a great idea. There should be some funders interested by this too, with all this talk about political economy. The difference is that this wouldn’t be political economy confined to recipients countries/governments of course… Something to be linked to the MDGs for the top billion?

  3. You’re right the report is lacking in several aspects.
    The voice of the farmer is almost completely lacking – looks like only the NFU were consulted. We need a completely different attitude and approach to help them.

    It steers away from food sovereignty – seems to be a ‘business as usual approach’ which could end up with ever more complex and technocratic global food chains that will be increasingly susceptible to global disruptions which we must surely start expecting and plan for in a climate change world.

    It supports a lot of goodthings, such as better extension services, but no real indication of how this can be done and paid for.

    Was it really worth all the expense and effort to cover more or less the same ground as IAASTD?

  4. Nicholas Colloff

    Dr Green in the library with the candlestick…

    I expect one of the drawbacks of producing work on the lack of political analysis in reports is that it might be long on analysis and short on solutions!

    One of the gaps, it seems to me, is the absence of ideology (which for better or worse) has historically been a driver of change. A way of convincing people that change is possible and that they should participate in it – even if the amount of change secured is less than the ideological marketing (consciously or unconsciously undertaken) promised!

    I mean the kingdom of heaven has not yet broken in and the equality of Marx came down to an equal lack of jeans for everybody!

    But this lack of ideological potency may be the reason why ‘civil society’ looks increasingly like a mirror of the forces it opposes (technocratic, incremental and mostly dull) and we look to social movements to actually achieve shifts – and the absence of these, especially in the ‘West’ is a bit depressing!

  5. Ken Smith

    I’m not so convinced ideology trumps economics as a driver for change. It looks to me from recent history that folk in Eastern europe dropped their Marxism pretty quick when it looked like the West offered more jeans. Maybe it was the economics that drove the ideological conversion and not the other way round.

  6. Dear Duncan, thanks for this useful summary. There’s stacks of material on the ‘Future of’ website, and I’d hoped some of those pdfs and ppts would talk about what really goes on in the districts. The collective ‘we’ habit, which you’ve mentioned, wastes a lot of time. In Asia certainly a lot of the trouble with food is how it flows and why. We know the reasons for this just as well as we know how a 50 rupee / taka / ringgit note can make your local admin responsive. We know well that control of wholesale markets and transport chains and retail outlets is as much political as it is business, and that when those active in financial markets need to move money around they turn to commodities and that includes agri commodities. There’s no secret, there’s no need for ‘research-based evidence’ and there’s absolutely no need to cover it up. But they want all that and they do. For example, I now and again take part in one of the FAO email discussions about urban agriculture, and the tendency of the majority is to treat cities and towns as if they are somehow magically disconnected from everything else and are waiting to be delighted with homogenous ‘solutions’ (that ghastly management word) which will feed them. Is it a North-vs-South difference in perception? Does it have to do with how economics is taught? Is it about being politically correct in public debate so as not to jeopardise the next consulting contract? What could it be?

  7. Thanks to Lloyd Blum I learned of this report and your blog Duncan. Largely agree with your assessment – heavy on vague statements and passive voice about what should be done – zero about how to do it, especially regarding policy and governance. Possibly because these have to be holistic and can never be reductionist and they sought no new thinking although openly available. And I was sad to see yet again, but for references to fisheries, most of the focus on cropping practices when agriculture is the production of food and fibre from the world’s land and waters. In my own country Zimbabwe 90% of the land is under non-crop related agriculture – similar to many in Africa and the US, Australia, Canada, Mexico etc where we work. Such land in seasonal rainfall environments is contributing enormously to the global production of more eroding soil than food, to available rainfall becoming less effective, increasing droughts despite no change yet in climate, social breakdown, pastoral genocide and violence. Almost no mention of the vast greater areas of Earth’s land that are grasslands, savannas and man-made deserts and the usual blaming of livestock for contributing to climate change through methane etc.
    No mention of the billions of acres of grasslands being burnt annually (over 2 billion every year in Africa alone) contributing enormously to desertification and climate change. No mention of scientific insights of the past 60 years that so clearly show that while livestock as currently managed are contributing to the problem, increased livestock properly run are already reversing desertification’s role in climate change over millions of acres on four continents. All in all a disappointing report not by any means addressing the seriousness of the global situation. As a one time politician and party leader I would not have a clue what to do from this report other than carry on business with minor adjustments rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. As scientists we can and have to do better than this.

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