Sustainability: A First World Problem

Due to my old-school version of note taking—by hand and chronologically, in a little notebook—I unfortunately cannot recall the full context in which session staffer Stephanie Hanson of the One Acre Fund talked about sustainability, but I’ll give it the good old college try.  Ms. Hanson stated that the question of sustainability – with regard to agricultural development in developing countries – is a “First World question.”  She stated that it is unethical for us “First Worlders” to debate the sustainability of agricultural practices in countries where people are hungry and suffer from poverty.

Let me give you some context for this comment.  Ms. Hanson was the One Acre Fund’s representative for last Wednesday’s (10/15/2014) CFS side event entitled Linking Smallholders to Better Markets: Lessons from Working Models.  The One Acre Fund is a not-for-profit organization that serves smallholder farmers in “remote places” by providing them with agricultural packages or “service bundles.”  The One Acre Fund is a self-proclaimed (the organization’s founder is a former management consultant) business model that serves its “clients” (a term actually used by Ms. Hanson herself) with the following bundle of services:

  1. Distribution of seed and fertilizer,
  2. Financing for farm inputs,
  3. Training on agricultural techniques, and
  4. Market facilitation to maximize profits from harvest.

This four-part bundle includes the exclusive use of hybrid seeds, chemical fertilizer, and the promotion of monoculture production and export economies.  While they are now investing in a slightly more diverse array of hybrid crops, hybrid maize was initially the only seed provided in these service bundles.  This bundle is inherently unsustainable; it is producing a regime of farmers that are and will continue to be both fiscally and ecologically dependent on input-intensive agriculture.

A member of The Development Fund (Norway) asked outright why the One Acre Fund is promoting unsustainable practices. Ms. Hanson’s response was the previously mentioned comment on the unethical nature of the question.  Ms. Hanson followed up by saying that the One Acre Fund model was not a long-term solution and insisted that this model is strictly used to raise smallholder farmers out of poverty.  When asked about the One Acre Fund’s long-term solutions, Ms. Hanson failed to offer anything legitimate.

At the end of the day, this model is great – for a business.  Raising people out of poverty, however, should not be a business.  We in fact do need to think about sustainability when approaching poverty and food insecurity.   When intervening, organizations need to learn from mistakes made in the past and promote self-sufficiency for small-scale food producers.  The cycle of dependency needs to be broken and this most certainly will not happen with the current One Acre Fund service bundle.  Ms. Hanson mentioned that there is a lack of “competition” in terms of business models within the agricultural development arena and continued by saying that the One Acre Fund is working hard to develop alternative long-term strategies.  Because of their existing stake in many communities throughout the world, the One Acre Fund is well positioned to develop and promote a system that enhances the livelihoods of their clients in an economically and environmental sustainable way.

The CFS + Nutrition: A Sticky Situation

by Jace Viner //

The time had finally come, and before I knew it, I found myself tucked away on a seat on a massive jet plane. I’m squeezed in between the window and a director of food for some swanky hotel in Boston. We talk about why I’m going to Rome and his job, and the way the CFS and his company interact in certain aspects. Most of the conversation I was nodding my head in agreement, trying not to argue my point about how important supporting local food producers is, and he spent a lot of time explaining that Cisco makes it much easier to supply for a hotel full of guests. I was tired and nervous for my flight, so I didn’t spend much time entertaining that idea and quickly went back to reading. It reached the point in my flight where they were handing out strange dinners with everything wrapped in plastic, and though I knew it was too late to eat, I ate some pasta and sipped water out of a tiny plastic container – think about the way applesauce is packaged. Soon I was watching the lights of Ireland below create gold veins across the deep, green land, fell asleep as the sun rose on the flight into Italy, and boarded a train that sped me into a city where Italian words began to wash over my ears.

After a day of confusion, since all the streets appear exactly the same, I found myself seated in the first Civil Society plenary meeting, listening through an earpiece as people began to talk about all things food policy related. These people within Civil Society are absolutely brilliant – I have never met more passionate and intellectually inspiring human beings in my life! I quickly found myself to be completely overwhelmed by all this knowledge, and I am astounded by how much they know (where do they find the time to learn all of this?).

After a few larger body meetings, the group divided into specific workstream meetings, and I opted for the Right to Food and the Nutrition/Post2015 (ICN2) meetings.

The Post2015 Agenda and Nutrition meeting mainly discussed what was happening in the ICN2 conference across the lounge. The Second International Conference on Nutrition (ICN2) finally met with Civil Society (CSM) to negotiate a political declaration and framework for action, but these negotiations were mainly stalled by the US and Canada. Flavio Valente reported that the most critical paragraphs have been deleted because a consensus between governments and non-state actors could not be reached. Instead of debating until an agreement, they simply decided to disregard crucial paragraphs. These paragraphs regarded issues on national sovereignty and the right to development because countries agreed these topics are not linked to nutrition; the US then blocked the definition of cultural foods “due to trade.” Negotiators also spent hours discussing what the nature of the framework will actually be – a document of government declaration or a technical document? Finally, they decided it was simply a technical document, so it is not fully endorsed by governments.

Negotiators decided to keep the original text. For example, delegations decided not to change the term ‘small-scale farmers’ to ‘small-scale producers’ leading to more exclusion, Valente stated that “arguments [were] always falling on deaf ears.” Since the CSM was invited to participate, they were grouped as non-state actors, along with the Private Sector Mechanism (PSM). A CSM-like mechanism is necessary in Changes proposed by the CSM were taken as “good suggestions,” but such a conference since civil society is most affected by malnutrition and hunger, but not with such a conflict of interest. The CSM insists on no medical nutrition solutions, and to make people and the right to adequate food (RtAF) at the center of attention. CSM argues that nutrition should be a discussion of the Committee on World Food Security (CFS), and that this conference is only leading to more separation and division of food and nutrition. The CSM is requesting that governments coordinate this process, with a multi-stakeholder platform with a safeguard to protect conflicts of interest (this is currently not in place); policy coherence, in order to include human rights, the right to food, and food security along with nutrition; coordination with the CFS, but governments decided not to include the CFS in the conference.

If you don’t embed nutrition into the model of production, you don’t have nutrition! The current food system is excluding nutrition, which is a major cause of malnutrition and obesity, due to the lack of food, ultra-processed foods, and cheap foods. The ICN2 also disregards the link of gender inequality and poverty to malnutrition. This is mainly due to the influence of large corporations from key countries (hello, US and Canada) on decision-making, causing a deregulation in favor of transnational corporations, along with a corporate market in malnutrition. We must reclaim these public institutions, disempower large corporations, and reclaim our power as civil society in order to fight for nutrition, the right to food, and food security – these are all basic human rights that should not be up for debate!

Words and Power: Language on Human Rights

by Kristen Dunphey //

Being a first time observer of the Civil Society Mechanism and the Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) Committee on World Food Security (CFS) has been a mind boggling experience. After about twenty minutes in a CSM plenary I came to the conclusion that very little would be accomplished.  And I couldn’t imagine how anything could be accomplished when CSM was thrown into a pool with a high number of member states as well as the Private Sector Mechanism.

When you take into account the quality of words used in these documents, however, stakeholders stand to gain or lose much more then what meets the eye. Additionally, contention comes not only from the specific words chosen, but also the order in which they are read.  Tuesday night (10/14/2014), for example, in the Friends of the Chair negotiation on the Right to Food Decision Box nearly two and a half hours were spent debating the use and arrangement of the four words human rights-based approach.  This is the boiled-down version of events;  for those human rights gurus out there, there is obviously way more to this argument then I am about to go into.

Let’s quickly examine these two statements:

  1. Human rights-based approach; and
  2. Approaches that respect, protect, promote and facilitate  human rights

They seem pretty similar in meaning, right? Not entirely.  When you pick each statement apart there is a vast difference between the two.  While both statements contain the relevant buzzwords, the structure of each has a different significance.

A human rights-based approach is a framework that policy makers can use to ensure the development of policies at the national level that are consistent with internationally agreed basic human rights.  Alternatively, the phrase approaches that respect, protect, promote, and facilitate human rights both recognizes basic rights all humans command, but also validates that other means can be utilized to recognize these rights.  The latter of the two statements in the eyes of many is a watered-down version of the former.

So herein lies the question – what makes one statement better or worse than the other?

A human rights-based approach guarantees that all policies are developed within the human rights framework and that all basic human rights will be respected, protected, and fulfilled.  The alternative only ensures that the concept of human rights has been acknowledged.  There is nothing that definitively glues these policies to human rights.

It has been argued (and I will not name names) that a human right-based approach is not the most efficient way to employ policies and that there are other ways to ensure that human rights are being protected through policy.  I’d argue that policy development especially when it comes to human rights should not be inherently efficient.  Obviously quick and efficient policy making would be ideal, but I fear that rights and thoughtful deliberations will get cut for the sake of efficiency.  There is a reason that policy makers deliberate and argue over the meaning of a single word and even the arrangement of several words.  Intense debate, particularly over things like human rights, is necessary to ensure that all stakeholders are protected and represented in established policy.  Alas, this does not always happen.

Synthetic Biology in the CBD-COP12


by Michelle Pazmiño //

The “new and emerging issue” of Synthetic Biology is said to be misunderstood by many stakeholders of the Convention on Biological Diversity. It is defined by the Convention as: “the use of computer-assisted, biological engineering to design and construct new synthetic biological parts, devices and systems that do not exist in nature and the redesign of existing biological organisms, particularly from modular parts.” Yet there is no singular agreed definition for it and this could trigger confusion and disagreements during negotiations in the international arena.

Read more…

Lost and Wasteful

by Khristian Mendez //

I spent most of the day yesterday with the Civil Society working group of Food Losses and Waste. We left the building at 11pm, carrying behind us the dread of a horrible round of negotiations. We lost a few battles, in favor of wasteful systems.

Read more…