For this first conference of the 2010 autumn season, and my own first as Director, we went back for the first time in nine years to the staple of life: food. Much has changed since the 2001 conference on Sustainable Agriculture and many of the concerns then – consumption patterns, environmental concerns, trade distortions, the role of regulation, the need for more research – have intensified since. We also had this time a wider and more international group, though we could still have done with more developing country views, and the inclusion of the distribution/retail sector – as well as the farmers themselves! The underlying theme was how to feed the world’s still rapidly growing population. We were reminded that the projection of 9 billion people by 2050 was no more than that – a projection. The reality could be much bigger or smaller, depending on the accuracy of the assumptions. But if the 9 billion figure was right, while an increase in food production by 70% to feed them all was a more reliable estimate and a more feasible objective than the doubling so often (casually) referred to by politicians and pundits, even that would be a massive stretch. Meanwhile population was growing fastest in the countries which already suffered most from food insecurity.
The basic analysis was shared by all participants: world hunger was a huge and largely unrecognised scandal, with almost one billion not having enough to eat, and the trend still upwards. Malnutrition for 300 million children had devastating and irrevocable physical and cognitive effects. Much more action was urgently needed to address this now. We had to generate the same passion that had driven recent global health improvements. For the future, while production could no doubt be increased significantly, unless actual consumption habits in developed countries, and potential habits in big emerging economies like China and India, changed dramatically, particularly over meat and dairy products, feeding the world sustainably might well prove impossible. Scarcities of land, water and energy, added to the profound negative effects of climate change and environmental degradation, made the necessary increase in production in any case extremely challenging. Most participants seemed to think it could be done, but the list of conditions that would have to be met, in terms of diet, sustainability, environmentally sound practices, proper pricing and incentives, and effective use of science, was daunting indeed. Inertia and vested interests were blocking progress in many areas. And the necessary investments of billions of dollars every year were nowhere in sight, despite the $22 billion promised by the l’Aquila G8 summit of 2009 (though African countries were now beginning to put more resources of their own into agriculture).
All accepted that there was no ‘silver bullet’ solution, no magic institutional fix at international level, no purely agriculture-based solution to be had. Instead there had to be major progress in an interconnected way so that, for example, moving forward in food production did not lead to regression in water, energy or environmental sustainability. For example, greater use of fertilisers might make sense in some developing country contexts, but could not be relied on more widely, given future drops in oil supplies, crucial lack of phosphates and the pollution consequences. All agreed that there was no room for looking at issues in silos – only an integrated approach would do. Agricultural success should not just be defined in terms of production or productivity but also in terms of resilience and multifunctionality.
Against this unpromising background, we examined in greater depth a number of issues. On the supply side, there were still major productivity gains to be had from science, particularly in Africa, where yields had stagnated for years, but also in Europe and Asia compared to the US. GM technology could and, in the view of many round the table, should be part of the answer, but was only one of the potential methods of improvements in areas such as disease- and drought-resistance. The dramatic moves forward in eg rice could be replicated not only in wheat, but also many so-called orphan crops – staples such as cassava and sorghum. We also needed leaps forward in low water and low energy farming. Water might prove the most important limitation in the long run, even more than lack of cultivable land.
Most of the focus in our discussion was on how to help smallholder farms in developing countries become more productive, both to feed themselves and their families (around two billion people altogether) more effectively and to contribute to global food production. It was recognised that this was at least as much about rural infrastructure (roads, markets, stocking capacity, cooperatives, credit etc), governance and land tenure, as about technical improvements. Most of these farmers were women, and empowering them was a critical part of what was needed. But we still had to find ways of getting technology and resources to these farmers, as well as training and extension services, which had been neglected for 30 years. At the same time we also had to acknowledge that the biggest production increases would probably come from intensive large-scale commercial farming. Ways to reconcile and connect these two farming worlds were urgently required but not obvious. In this context, the issue of so-called land-grabs, where rich countries and companies bought up chunks of land in poorer countries to ensure their own food supplies, needed to be looked at dispassionately. The transactions might make sense in some circumstances, and spread good practice, but the nature of the transaction was what counted: were those selling, whether private or public land-owners, fully entitled to do so, and had those who lived on or farmed that land been involved?
Supply was in any case not everything. Equal attention should be paid to the demand side of the equation. Developed country consumers, and indeed some in developing countries too, were eating too much, and too many of the wrong things in terms either of their health or global sustainability. Consumers in China, India and elsewhere might justifiably want to emulate the varied and meat-rich diets of the west, but the amount of cropland needed to sustain the numbers of livestock that would be required made this impossible. Nevertheless the west could not give others lectures about diet until it changed radically its own, without accusations of massive hypocrisy. Rising obesity, itself a form of malnutrition, was doubly unacceptable when so many went hungry. Eating culture could be changed rapidly– many people round the world ate very different things now from 50 years ago - but we needed to find the keys to influencing this culture in the right directions. Waste was also a huge issue, with at least 25% of food, and probably more in some countries, spoiled or thrown away. Even if reducing this would not automatically increase food supply for the poorest, it had to be tackled urgently. One firm recommendation was for more research into how to reduce waste, for example simple devices to test food safety.
There was considerable debate on who should take the lead in changing consumer habits. Some argued that governments had abdicated their responsibilities in this area by failing to regulate effectively, for fear of political unpopularity. Others pointed to the problem of regulating in the face of uncertainty, when standards were not agreed, and good data was not available, and to the genuine political difficulty of restricting individual choice. The private sector made clear that they appreciated clear, sensible regulation when it was there. Some companies were moving themselves in more sustainable directions in many cases, driven by both cost and consumer lobbies, but too slowly. We needed to ensure a coherent approach across sectors, eg so-called omni-standards, which took into account environmental and energy concerns as well as agricultural ones. Simplistic trade-offs between sectoral concerns had to be avoided. Overall there was a sense that the private sector were too dominant as power brokers in this area, and needed to be held more accountable by governments and civil society; and that price considerations currently overwhelmed all other factors. The current food industry/system could be seen as an example of market failure in rewarding bad behaviour and distributing resources to the wrong places.
In this context we debated whether cheap food was the right policy target for global food security strategy. Cheap food in developed countries encouraged bad eating habits and waste, and did not help lift farmers in developing countries out of poverty. On the other hand, the increasingly numerous urban poor needed cheap food to survive, and many smallholder farmers and farm labourers relied on buying food themselves as well as producing it. Access to food, via its affordability, was at least as important in tackling global hunger as increasing production. We therefore needed targeted policies with differential effects on wealthy and poor consumers, able to reconcile the different interests of urban and rural populations. The focus should be on practical impacts, and the right incentives and indicators needed to achieve them. Provision of local foods that were accessible and affordable had to be part of this, as did improved social protection schemes and safety nets to help the poorest buy food.
While there was agreement that the recent price spikes were not a reprise of the 2008 crisis, not least since global stocks were in a very different place now, we thought it was likely that there would be a repeat of 2008 before long since the fundamental drivers had not gone away. The biggest factor behind past and future rises at global level was input prices, particularly of oil-related resources. We feared that, while we might be more alert next time, with better early warning, we did not yet have the tools to prevent or significantly reduce the effects of a repeat crisis. The multilateral system would again struggle to prevent a vicious circle of export restrictions. While the real role of speculation in 2008 remained controversial, there was no doubt that trading in agricultural commodities remained very susceptible to extreme volatility. Greater predictability was highly desirable at all stages of the value chain, even if care was needed before rushing into new and ill thought-out trading restrictions. There was not much support around our table for new global reserves, virtual or otherwise, given difficulties of price and market control, but recognition that this issue would be on the table again at the G20, in 2011 if not 2010.
Trade policies were discussed surprisingly little during this conference, but there was agreement that conclusion of the Doha round would be good for everyone, and that market distortions caused by inequitable trade policies still had to be addressed. Local production had to be encouraged, but national self-sufficiency was still not in itself a satisfactory or rational policy target, and preventing countries moving further in that direction depended on reliable agricultural trade. Meanwhile some of our experts argued that ending US and EU agricultural subsidies was not the panacea many thought, and could even have undesirable environmental consequences. But the large sums involved could certainly be much better used in other ways - and some particularly perverse subsidies could and should go immediately. It was also pointed out that the biggest subsidies for agricultural production still come from nature herself, in a totally unsustainable way.
We recognised that we could not just wait for the right or perfect policies to address global hunger, and had to do more to help the poorest and most vulnerable now. Part of this was the need to focus on quality of nutrition at least as much as on quantity of food. We needed to reinforce to public opinion that acute malnutrition was a killer, while chronic malnutrition had massive and lasting individual, social and economic consequences. The current situation was obscene and unacceptable, and could not be allowed to get worse still. While food and nutrition assistance could not solve the underlying causes of hunger, and could even be counterproductive for longer-term solutions if carelessly applied, by discouraging local production, the need for well-targeted emergency programmes was bound to remain for years to come. Political and financial support for these programmes therefore had to be maintained and indeed increased.
We looked hard at the sensitive issue of biofuels and agreed that it was too simplistic to say they were good or bad. All depended on the context and the local circumstances. Bioenergy, a better term, certainly had a role to play as one element of multi-functional agriculture. While large-scale energy crops had so far been promoted for energy security, not sustainability, reasons, there was a real potential for integrating biofuels into food production – double/triple cropping was possible in some places – and for decentralised energy production at village or even household level eg using biomass. Second generation biofuels might involve less trade-offs with food production and also be much better for greenhouse gas mitigation, but investment and research in this area were in the early stages. Care was also needed about the concept of using ‘marginal or unproductive land’ for these crops, since much of this in developing countries belonged to poor farmers who would lose out. It was a more appropriate concept for developed countries.
On the environmental side, agriculture was both a culprit and a victim of climate change, as a big source of greenhouse gases but an industry hit particularly hard by its effects. As a general proposition, the whole food industry needed to become much less dependent on fossil fuels at every level – production, processing, distribution and marketing. If it could not do so, the mitigation burden on other critical sectors such as transport and the built environment would be so much greater. At the production level, fossil-fuel-intensive agriculture needed to be replaced by knowledge-intensive and even labour-intensive agriculture. Part of this had to be achieved through finally pricing in environmental costs properly - and not just carbon. The goal should be ecosystem resilience, not just carbon mitigation, since otherwise other key areas such as biodiversity, water availability and local pollution could suffer. In any case, if productivity was prioritised at all costs, the environmental risks would be very high. Part of the answer here was again changing consumption patterns since these were what drove intensive agriculture; business as usual in consumption would render mitigation targets completely unattainable. The issue of the unsustainable role of livestock and livestock products as global food needs increased was crucial but still largely ignored in policy-making. Nevertheless livestock emissions meanwhile could and should be reduced immediately. Urban agriculture had huge potential, not only to increase local production of fruit and vegetables, but also in using waste productively and shortening supply chains.
We noted that, in all these areas, there were big gaps in our knowledge. More and better research was needed, as well as consolidation of existing basic data. International promises about more funding for research, particularly in the public sector, had not so far materialised. More public-private partnerships would help, building on already successful examples. Particular areas of interest for research were waste, pricing mechanisms, incentives for consumption shifts, bioenergy, and how soil carbon and ecosystem goods could be measured and costed. At the same time there was a strong view that we did not have the luxury of waiting for better research before acting in key areas. The best should not become the enemy of the good. Action was needed now. We therefore needed a ‘do-learn-do’ approach.
We also turned our attention to the prospects for international cooperation. Sustained high-level political attention was critical, and the G8/G20 process was a vital part of that. Food needed to stay high on the agenda for future G20 summits, as a genuine subject of discussion and agreement, not just a consumer of ink and paper. However the G20 was a group, not an organisation, and implementation capacity/follow-through was inevitably poor.
The rest of the international architecture was extensive but fragmented. The actors could be divided into different groups:
- Benefactors – those who had something to offer but wanted to see results (the major donors, GAFSP, WEF etc)
- Governors – those who sought to control/regulate the process, such as the Committee on Food Security and the UN General Assembly
- Supporters – the institutions that served the system such as the Bretton Woods Institutions and UN agencies (WFP, FAO, IFAD etc).
- Galvanisers – civil society, the media, NGOs etc
We recognised that this typology was crude, and that it was unclear where the developing countries and big emerging economies fitted in, but it nevertheless usefully brought out the diversity of the players and their governance systems. A revitalised Committee on Food Security might be able to play a key role in future, for example in finding the right balance between policy and market solutions, and tackling issues like biofuels and land tenure, but this still had to be tested. Meanwhile the main conclusion of this part of the discussion was that there was no simple institutional fix. Rather the aim should be to use all the available channels and agents to create a conducive climate of opinion which would stimulate positive actions on multiple fronts. Despite the institutional imperfections, we felt that the prospects for international cooperation were in fact reasonably good. But one critical need was to develop accepted benchmarks for progress and results. If we could not measure what we were achieving, we could not manage the progress effectively.
The depth of the discussion over the two days underlined that food security was a highly complex area, with tentacles reaching into many other areas of complexity such as energy policy, the environment, international equity, and individual choice. Simple conclusions and recommendations were therefore unsurprisingly in short supply. However that did not mean we were short of ideas, under the vigorous stimulation of our Chairman. The overwhelming sentiment was the urgency of action, together with the need to ensure that the dots of agriculture, nutrition, energy, land and water scarcity etc were joined up as far as possible. In other words: get on with it. ‘Do-learn-do’ was the watchword. It might even be ‘Ready-fire-aim’! The pressures on the only planet we had were already too great for time to be wasted. And we had good examples to follow: the CAADP programme in Africa was starting to motor and many local initiatives and projects showed real promise. Action was needed from the top but many of the solutions were likely to come from the bottom.
We therefore concluded that we needed to create an army of advocates and activists who could get behind a number of ‘banners’, representing things we knew we needed to do, as we all marched towards the future:
- One planet – no space for waste
- Put the farmer first: build his/her skills
- Prioritise nutrition
- Invest in asset creation: infrastructure, markets, partnerships, secure land tenure, crop insurance …
- Agree benchmarks to measure results
- Welcome diversity and local solutions, including small scale irrigation and energy
- Focus on resilience and ‘continuability’
- Price carbon and other environmental goods and bads now
- Change consumption habits
- Squeeze that gap – inequality kills
Despite a degree of cautious optimism about the future, one big question haunted us: ‘Was Malthus right, but just 200 years early?’ Some of the other unresolved questions may provide material for future Ditchley conferences, not least on consumer habits and how to change them, and what kind of life culture we are really aiming for. Meanwhile I am reflecting on the conference’s advice to turn Ditchley’s own fields from livestock to crops …
This Note reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference. No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.
Chair : Professor Sir Gordon Conway KCMG DL FRS
Agricultural Ecologist; Professor of International Development, Centre for Environmental Policy, Imperial College London (2009-). Formerly: Chief Scientific Adviser, Department for International Development (2004-09); President, Royal Geographical Society (2004-09); President, The Rockefeller Foundation (1998-2004); Vice-Chancellor, University of Sussex; Chair, Institute for Development Studies (1992-98); Representative, Ford Foundation, New Delhi (1988-92).
Dr Colin Chartres
Director General, International Water Management Institute, Sri Lanka (2007-). Formerly: Chief Science Advisor, National Water Commission, Australia; Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, Australia.
Mr Hugo Verbist
Alternate Permanent Representative of Belgium to the United Nations’ Rome-based agencies FAO, WFP and IFAD; Vice-Chair of the Committee on World Food Security.
Dr Pedro Arcuri
Coordinator, Embrapa Labex Europe Programme, Montpellier, France (2009-). Formerly: R&D Deputy Director, National Dairy Cattle Research Centre (2004-08); Brazilian Agricultural Research Institute (EMBRAPA).
Mr John Knubley
Deputy Minister, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (2009-). Formerly: Deputy Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs, Privy Council Office.
Ms Annette Hester
Senior Associate, Canadian International Council (2008-); Senior Associate, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington DC (2005-). Author. A Member of the Program Advisory Committee of The Canadian Ditchley Foundation.
Dr Tassos Haniotis
Director, Agricultural policy and perspectives, Economic Analysis, Perspectives and Evaluations Directorate, Directorate General for Agriculture and Rural Development, European Commission. Formerly: Head of Unit, Agricultural Trade Policy Analysis.
Mr Lars Fogh Mortensen
Economist; Head, Sustainable Consumption and Production, European Environment Agency (2003-). Formerly: Deputy Centre Manager, European Topic Centre on Waste and Resource Management (2001-02).
FAO/UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
Dr David Dawe
Senior Economist, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Rome (2007-). Formerly: Senior Food Systems Economist, Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, FAO, Thailand (2005 07).
Mr Edward Heinemann
Senior Research Coordinator, International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD); Manager and main author, IFAD’s Rural Poverty Report 2011.
Ir Henk de Zeeuw
Director, RUAF Foundation (International Network of Resource Centres on Urban Agriculture and Food Security); Senior Advisor, ETC Foundation.
Mr Willem-Jan Laan
Unilever (1995-); Director, Global External Affairs, Unilever NV, Rotterdam; Chairman, WTO Agriculture Working Group, Confederation of European Business; Vice-Chairman, Food and Agriculture Committee, Business and Industry Advisory Committee to the OECD; Vice-Chairman, Trade and Competitiveness Committee, Confederation of the Food and Drink Industries of the EU.
OECD/UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
Dr Joe Dewbre
Senior Economist, Development Division, Directorate for Trade and Agriculture, OECD, Paris (1989-). Formerly: Senior Economist, Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics, Canberra (1982 89).
Mr George Alagiah
BBC (1989-); Presenter, Six O’Clock News; Presenter, GMT (formerly World News Today). Formerly: Foreign Correspondent.
Mr Philip Bloomer
Campaigns and Policy Director, Oxfam GB; Chair, Oxfam International Campaigns. Formerly: Head, Make Trade Fair Campaign, Oxfam International; Head of Advocacy, Oxfam GB.
Mr Mark Buckingham
Corporate Affairs Lead, Monsanto UK and Ireland.
Mr Alex Evans
Non-Resident Fellow, Center on International Cooperation, New York University. Formerly: Special Adviser to the Secretary of State, Department for International Development (2003-06).
Ms Tara Garnett
Director/Coordinator, Food Climate Research Network, and Research Fellow, Centre for Environmental Strategy, Faculty of Engineering and Physical Sciences, University of Surrey.
Professor Tim Lang
Professor of Food Policy, City University, London (2002-); Commissioner for Natural Resources and Land Use, Sustainable Development Commission. Formerly: Director, Centre for Food Policy, Thames Valley University (1994-2002).
Mr Jonathan Lingham
Food Group, Department for International Development (DFID). Formerly: DFID Representative and Head of Office DFID Sudan; Deputy Head, Middle East Programmes, DFID.
Mr Philip New
CEO, BP Biofuels, BP plc, London.
Dr Katherine Riggs
Deputy Director, EU Food Policy, Foresight and Food Security, Food Policy Unit, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
Professor Sandy Thomas
Head, Foresight Team, The Government Office for Science, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (2006-). Formerly: Director, Nuffield Council on Bioethics (1997-2006).
Dr Camilla Toulmin
Director, International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), London (2004-). Formerly: Director, African Drylands Programme, IIED (1987-2004); Researcher, Overseas Development Institute (1986-87).
Dr Hania Zlotnik
Demographer; Director, Population Division, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, United Nations (1982-).
Dr David Nabarro CBE
United Nations Secretary General’s Special Representative for Food Security and Nutrition (2009-); Senior United Nations System Coordinator for Avian and Pandemic Influenza, United Nations, New York (2005-) (on secondment from WHO). Formerly: World Health Organization (1999-2005).
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
Dr Molly Anderson
Partridge Chair in Food and Sustainable Agriculture Systems, College of the Atlantic, Bar Harbor, Maine; Principal, Food Systems Integrity. Formerly: Oxfam America; Tufts University.
Ms Mary Bohman
Economic Research Service, United States Department of Agriculture, Washington DC (1997-); Director, Resource and Rural Economics Division.
Ms Lila Buckley
Senior Researcher on China, International Institute for Environment and Development, London (Oct 2010-). Formerly: Weidenfeld Scholar, Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford.
Dr Jason Clay
World Wildlife Fund (1999-); Senior Vice President Market Transformation, World Wildlife Fund, Washington DC. Formerly: US Department of Agriculture; Lecturer at Harvard and Yale Universities.
Mr Whitney Debevoise
Arnold and Porter LLP, Washington DC (1979-); Senior Partner (2010-). Formerly: US Executive Director, World Bank (2007-2010).
Ms Suzanne DiMaggio
Director of Policy Studies, Asia Society, New York. Formerly: Vice President, Global Policy Programs, United Nations Association of the USA.
Ambassador William Garvelink
Deputy Coordinator for Development, Feed the Future Initiative, USAID (2010-). Formerly: Ambassador to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (2007-10).
Ambassador Patricia Haslach
Deputy Coordinator for Diplomacy, Office of the Global Hunger and Food Security Initiative, US Department of State. Formerly: Assistant Chief of Mission for Assistance Transition, US Embassy, Iraq (2009-10).
Mr William Howley
Group Vice President, Environment: Forestry, Energy and Ecosystem Services, Winrock International, California. Formerly: Founding Country Office Director, Winrock International Brazil.
Dr Ioana Kornett MD
Technical and Scientific Director, Action Contre la Faim. Formerly: Médecins Sans Frontières; Aide Médicale Internationale.
Mr Peter Nagelhout
Economist, National Center for Environmental Economics, US Environmental Protection Agency.
Mr Paul Larsen
Director, Multilateral and NGO Relations Division, World Food Programme (WFP), Rome (2008-). Formerly: Chief of Staff, WFP, Rome (2007-08); Deputy Head of Mission, Embassy of Norway to the Russian Federation, Moscow (2002-07).