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Opinion: Food Security & Nutrition

Puvan Selvanathan: Is Food Security Any of Your Business?

Puvan Selvanathan Puvan Selvanathan

What is food security? That everyone has enough calories to consume? Having those calories in a balanced, nutritious and affordable diet? Some believe that every country should have enough resources to feed all their own people. Others say security is having a reliable supply of produce from places where things are grown to places where they are consumed. How you view food security depends on who you are, where you live and how much money you have. If you add elements like poverty, population and pride things become tricky. Using a word like ‘security’ suggests a position that can be secured, protected and defended. But isn’t the prospect of feeding several billion more people within planetary constraints scary enough without also being panicked into protectionism?

If food security entails elements that are not just about ‘having enough calories’, then the idea that any single country can be food secure by itself is nonsense. Our domestic and global food systems have grown symbiotically over centuries. They cannot be delinked without changing the core of our cultures and economies. So any realisation of food security must evolve from today’s food systems. We cannot hark back to a bucolic past – that ship has sailed (and it’s now a refrigerated double-hulled container mega-vessel). Anyway, we should be grateful because without those green revolutions and industrialising food production we wouldn’t be close to feeding the billions that are currently being fed.

Our food systems are a complex web of relationships none of which can exist without some business activity. Business is involved in production – whether by aggregating small farmer produce for market, or large-scale contract farming and plantations. Business in involved in transport, packaging and distribution. Business is both a buyer of crops to process into food or feed, as well as a retailer to end-consumers. Business finances, guarantees, insures and assures for safety, health and quality. Business invests and takes risks. Every one of these activities has a role to play in food security and altogether they impact environmental, social and governance issues. So food security is everyone’s business.

There are two things that we have lost sight of in pondering the pending problem of feeding 9 billion people. First, a large chunk of those people are farmers. Second, our food systems are our own creation and reflect our wants, needs and values. These two things are closely related.

The production of food for the whole planet depends on farmers farming

It must be worth it for farmers to produce food beyond what they themselves consume. So farming must deliver livelihoods, dignity and community. When farming families thrive, have respect and some money, they invest to improve themselves and their environment. The injustice of current production, supply and market systems is that farmers are treated as production units and not as people. If we reduce the effort of a farmer to a quota or a tonnage, a commodity or a certification, then we strip that person of their identity and their sense of worth. For food to be secure our farmers must be secure.

Recognising farmers as individuals

I believe that food security will be achieved when a billion farmers are recognised as individuals and valued for their individual efforts. I do not believe that a few global companies with billion-dollar brands can survive or contribute to food security unless the farmers that support their businesses help them. I am confident we are at the cusp of governments and companies understanding that ‘the farmer’ is the only legitimate unit of inclusion, recognition, measure or analysis when we consider food security.

Implementing business principles for food and agriculture

The UN Global Compact’s Food and Agriculture Business Principles are designed to bridge business, government and farmers’ pursuit of food security. What began as a discussion at the United Nations Conference for Sustainable Development (Rio+20) is now a set of six principles – altogether less than 250 words – encapsulating the input of over 1,000 food and agriculture companies worldwide. This consensus has been built by business for business to work more effectively with farmers, communities, policymakers, consumers and other stakeholders.

I believe that if we have one billion fed, happy and respected farmers by 2050, then the other 8 billion of us are going to be just fine.

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