Working for a Fairer, More Sustainable Food System: An Interview with Shiney Varghese

Nourishing the Planet’s Catherine Ward  spoke recently with Shiney Varghese, a senior policy analyst at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) who leads the organization’s work on global water policy. Ms. Varghese focuses on water availability, its impact on water and food security, and local solutions that emphasize equity, environmental justice, and sustainability.    

Shiney Varghese is a senior policy analyst at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. (Photo Credit: Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy)

How do you define “sustainable agriculture”?

Sustainable agriculture has come to mean different things to different people these days. To many, sustainable development or sustainability is simply about ensuring resource sustainability, primarily through improving resource use efficiency. Too often, that answer relies much too heavily on technological solutions. I find such an understanding of sustainability rather reductionist.

True, given that most of the resources we need to sustain ourselves in this world are not renewable, resource recovery and efficient use of resources has a crucial role in achieving sustainability, provided that these processes do not end up having higher environmental footprints. But this in itself cannot address the issue of sustainability. There is another equally important component: equity.

In an understanding that simultaneously emphasizes equity and efficient use of resources, the achievement of ecological sustainability involves limiting our consumption today so that it is not at the expense of consumption of people in other spaces today, nor at the cost of environment or future generations. Sustainability means we have to efficiently use our share of the world’s resources to meet our livelihood needs.

Thus to me sustainable agriculture would go beyond improving resource use efficiency to uphold peasants’ right to land, water, and genetic material—including their right to say ‘no’ to bio-pirates or legitimating bio-prospectors—and will help realize food sovereignty of ordinary people.

What do you think is a feasible solution to feeding the world’s increasing population?

This question about “how to feed the world’s increasing population” once again reminds me about the call to “limit our consumption.” This is especially important in the context of calls to increase food production to feed the world’s increasing population. Do we really need to increase food production, or is it a question of re-prioritizing the what, how, and who of food production?

It is not as if lack of agricultural production is the reason for the billion people who are hungry; after all, annual food waste (over a billion tons) itself is enough to take care of the food needs of the hungry people today, let alone the vast quantity of food crops that is diverted to bio-based products that are used as part of luxury consumption or as alternate fuel sources, let alone the vast quantities that are used for animal feed. Is it possible to shift to production of food grains for human consumption rather than for animal feed—even though it may mean that we have to reduce our meat consumption just a tiny bit? Is it possible to stop diverting food crops to fuel sources even if it means limiting our energy use—and thus water use (and vice versa)?

Too much of our agricultural production is large-scale, industrial production that only considers agricultural goods as tradable commodities. Food is integrally connected to our health, our environments, and our cultures, and a real focus on sustainable agriculture needs to take into account those multiple roles.

Feasible solutions for feeding the world’s increasing (and mostly poor) population have to prioritize the livelihood needs of the rural communities, including their access to land, water, and food as well as their access to other infrastructure needs. Without such prioritization, even if the world was to produce several times what it produces today, people would go hungry. Look at the United States: despite being one of the largest agricultural producers in the world (with highest per capita food production), the number of hungry people in this country has been increasing.

Achieving this would, however, involve major policy and even paradigm shifts: it would mean prioritizing the cultivation of crops that are both culturally appropriate and nutritionally adequate, as well as climate resilient, and establishing decentralized food reserves and food distribution systems that ensure that every citizen has access to food. It also means recognizing and building on farmers’ knowledge of their local ecosystem and culture to support production methods that improve their incomes and health.

Do you agree with global trade policies and international corporations shaping agricultural production around the world?

Internationally, even the most well-meaning among those influencing the direction of agricultural policy tend to place emphasis on increasing production and on marketing the crop. In the process, they miss the fundamental causes of food insecurity, especially in rural areas, which are home to the majority of the food insecure populations. Without paying attention to the question of equity and without reigning in the predatory capital that seeks to make profit at every opportunity, global agricultural production will help satisfy greed, not fulfill need.

How do you think developing regions, such as sub-Saharan Africa, can improve food security without compromising natural ecosystems and local communities?

In many parts of the world, agricultural productivity is low, but has the potential to increase substantially. For example, according to a recent GDAE paper, in Mexico the majority of small and medium-scale maize farmers are operating at less than 50 percent of potential. Yield gaps—the difference between current yields and attainable yields using available technology—are estimated at 43 percent on rain-fed land, compared to just 10 percent on the country’s larger irrigated farms. But bridging this gap is particularly challenging for many African regions where soil fertility levels and water access needs to be improved. However, with appropriate community-community exchanges these regions can learn from others how to build soil fertility and water access even as they conserve precious local biodiversity and end up closing the yield gap.

Do you think current agriculture and food policies in the U.S. adequately address food production concerns around health and the environment? How can this be improved?

No, they don’t. Moreover, through its foreign policy, the U.S. has been exporting not only the industrial agricultural system that has played a major role in today’s environmental crisis, but also the obesity epidemic, as has been argued by my colleagues in IATP in a paper that was published earlier this year.

At IATP we are engaged in working with various actors in the food chain—producers, consumers, food procurers, and institutional food suppliers—engaging in discussions about and policy advocacy around the multiple benefits of supporting a healthy and fair food system that is good for the environment and the health of producers, workers, and consumers. IATP is not alone in advocating for such changes in local and regional food policy. Internationally we work closely with allies from other countries to bring about this change in international governance regimes around water, climate, trade, and food security.

But much of this change will come in response to the combined demand from consumers, farmers, and agricultural workers for a healthier, environmentally just, economically fair food system, as markets and politicians respond to these demands from their constituency.

What approaches to global justice in terms of agriculture and trade would you like to see the IATP adopt over the next 25 years?

IATP is now 26 years old. We began working with our allies around the world in challenging the overproduction and dumping of agricultural commodities that destroyed family farms here and elsewhere in the world. We have also been engaged in helping build a fair and healthy food system here in the United States, and are working with farmers’ organizations and NGOs doing similar work elsewhere.

Working in solidarity with our friends, we hope that we can challenge corporate control of the food system (including the control over means of production, such as land, water, seeds, and labor), that is helping destroy the environment and also sending close to a billion to bed hungry. We also hope to help share our understanding of the interconnected nature of the world, that our production (and consumption) of food and other items can affect livelihoods of communities elsewhere in the world both positively or negatively. Mindfulness of this in our daily practices of production and consumption will help to ensure global food justice.

For more information on IATP, click here.

Catherine Ward is a former research intern with the Worldwatch Institute’s Food and Agriculture Program. 

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