The Hidden Value of Words

by Grace Burchard //

When I first walked into the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, I was unsure of what to expect. I had never been to a formal policy debate, so my nerves were high, my heart frantically pounding blood through my system to allow my brain to take in the surroundings. The first thing I noticed about the Food and Agriculture Organization building was the complexity of it. Each room had the name of a different country, and the hallways seemed like a maze, making footsteps frantic to find the room that you intended to be in.

The complexity of the building is mirrored by the complicated vocabulary used in the reports and voluntary guidelines debated in the Committee on World Food Security (CFS). This debate is attended by hundreds of people, each representing their country’s or organization’s viewpoint on the reports presented. When I first heard the language they used, it seemed like a dialect that required a booklet to understand the background of certain phrases and words, what they actually mean in food security and nutrition.

For example: there is the multi-stakeholder approach that many organizations wanted to endorse in the High Level Panel of Experts (HLPE) Report on Sustainable Fisheries and Aquaculture, one of the two main topics brought up in the 41st Committee on World Food Security. At first, this approach seems helpful, in that each group gets an equal right and power when negotiating their proposals into the report. However, this is not realistic. A small group of indigenous people does not have the same amount of power and influence as a large international agency such as the World Trade Organization. The imbalance of power is not addressed in the Committee on World Food Security, leaving the smaller groups such as La Via Campesina fighting for the equity that they deserve without making significant headway. Because of this imbalance of power, the idea of trade is often put over the human rights of the small groups endorsing cultural equality and environmentalism.

Another phrase that is shrouded in hidden meaning is ‘Climate Smart Agriculture’. Again, when first analyzing this phrase, it appears to be to the benefit to many groups, having a goal that is oriented to help prevent the disastrous side effects of climate change. But instead, this agricultural approach harms the environment, endorsing technologies and the use of genetically modified organisms that can withstand the future changes in temperature and weather (rain, amount of sunlight, etc.). “Climate Smart Agriculture uses cynical and insidious language” states Juliette Majot, the President of the Institute for Agriculture & Trade Policy. “The Civil Society Mechanism needs to push governments to strongly define the difference between agroecology and climate-smart agriculture so society can understand”.

Another debate, this one between members of the Civil Society Mechanism, is about whether to clearly define and defend important words such as agroecology in documents, or leave out the definition so the documents will be passed more easily. The danger of not defining a word is that readers may assign their own meaning. Whatever the outcome of the documents presented at the 41st Committee on World Food Security, the debate is far from over.

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