A Fundamentally Transformed Model for Global Agriculture to Prioritize Nutrition

By Daniel Bornstein

Daniel Bornstein is a student at Dartmouth College interested in global food security. He has written columns on international development issues for PolicyMic.com, the Merrick Herald (Merrick, N.Y.), and College News Magazine. He was named a national semifinalist in the 2010 Intel Science Talent Search for his research on poplar’s viability as a biofuel—a potential alternative to the corn-based ethanol that drives up world food prices. Daniel, a native of Merrick, NY, graduated as salutatorian from John F. Kennedy-Bellmore High School.

This month’s 2nd African Organic Conference in Lusaka, Zambia brought together 300 participants from over 40 countries under the theme “Mainstreaming Organic Agriculture in the African Development Agenda.” The resulting Lusaka Declaration established a six-pillar action plan for the full realization of organic farming, which it emphasized must involve serious political will on the part of national governments and regional organizations.

Linking farmers to international and national policy processes will be crucial to asserting local control over food systems. (Photo credit: La Via Campesina)

International institutions and donor countries have prided themselves on the renewed investment in agricultural development since 2008, when riots in three dozens countries due to high food prices provided a wake-up call about the fragile state of the global agriculture situation. These new investments must be evaluated in terms of whether they work toward ushering in a fundamentally different model for agriculture, or whether they simply occur within the prevailing context of industrial agriculture—a point often made by UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Olivier De Schutter. Bringing nutrition to the forefront must be a central part of such a transformed global food system.

Agro-ecological approaches—relying on nitrogen-fixing crops, composting, manure, and other practices—offer a great potential to raise the profile of nutrition. Farmers’ production of a diversity of crops can make available the various nutrients essential for healthy diets.

This requires challenging the longstanding notion that higher yields are what will end hunger. The 1960s Green Revolution, which deployed new crop technologies toIndiaandLatin America, targeted major commodity crops such as maize, wheat and rice. But its package of highly capital-intensive industrial agriculture was detrimental to the poorest farmers, and it neglected the locally-available crops considered important for human nutrition.

“The Green Revolution’s focus was just on a few crops: rice, wheat, and maize, which are not particularly nutritious,” said Molly Anderson, the Partridge Chair in Food and Sustainable Agriculture Systems at the College of theAtlantic. “You can deal with caloric malnutrition and protein malnutrition with those crops, but a lot of nutritional deficiencies are vitamins and minerals, and focusing on a few major grain crops won’t help with that.”

The Green Revolution set in motion an international agricultural research system focused largely on improving the productivity of the major staples, at the expense of local varieties. One result has been that staples are the most affordable for the world’s poorest, whereas nutritious fruits and vegetables are more expensive due to the lower degree of research on them, according to Bonnie McClafferty, director of the Agriculture and Nutrition program at the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition.

Nutrition’s elevation on the food security agenda will also have to entail a rethinking of the comparative advantage theory that has been pushed by international financial institutions. As part of the structural adjustment programs imposed by international financial institutions in the 1980s, African countries were encouraged to orient their agricultural systems for export and generate the capital to purchase food on global markets. But this left them vulnerable to high global food prices and to the price volatility of the commodities they were selling. The export-driven approach continues to this day in the form of integrating African smallholder farmers into global agribusiness supply chains, which diverts land from growing the food crops crucial for local nutrition.

“The food bills of the Least Developed Countries increased five- or six-fold between 1992 and 2008,” De Schutter writes. “These countries are caught in a vicious cycle. The more they are told to rely on trade, the less they invest in domestic agriculture. And the less they support their own farmers, the more they have to rely on trade.”

Reliance on global markets for food has not only left African countries susceptible to high prices but has come at a great cost to human nutrition. Without self-sufficient food systems, they’re forced to consume the products of other regions’ large-scale industrial agriculture—mainly major staple crops lacking key vitamins and minerals. HarvestPlus’ work on sweet potato in Uganda and Mozambique is a perfect example of linkages between nutrition and local food markets. In response to widespread Vitamin A deficiency, sweet potato varieties bred by theInternationalPotatoCenter have been introduced to households through local NGOs.

Indeed, the health costs of the American food system should provide a wake-up call to the rest of the world, with the nation’s obesity epidemic traceable at least in part to the dominance of industrial agriculture. The mobilization in favor of local food systems in theU.S., then, is driven significantly by the need to restore nutrition to its rightful place in agricultural systems.

And then there are land commodification issues that threaten Africa’s food security. Asian and Middle Eastern countries are buying large tracts of the continent’s farmland to secure food supplies for their own populations, and Western investors are doing so for biofuel production. For example, U.S.-based Agrisol Energy is planning to acquire land in Tanzania that would displace 162,000 refugees who have relied on small-scale agriculture for their livelihoods.

The prevailing assumption is that foreign investment in land will automatically bring food security and other benefits for local people. But local farmers’ loss of control over production amounts to a loss of their livelihood and increases their dependence on outside food, impeding the development of local markets for nutritious food.

How can we form a coalition at all scales—from international policy to national governments to farmers themselves—to stand up for farmers’ control over their own food systems? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!

 To read more guest blog posts by Daniel Bornstein, click here.

To purchase State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet please click HERE. And to watch the one minute book trailer, click HERE.

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