2017 Global Food Security Symposium: Key Takeaways


From March 29-30, Senior Development and Communications Associate Alyssa Palmquist attended the  2017 Global Food Security Symposium: 'Stability in the 21st Century' in Washington, DC. The two-day symposium brought together thought leaders, civil servants, entrepreneurs and farmers to discuss the most pressing food security challenges in the world today. Hosted by The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, the symposium brought together "top visionaries from every sector to generate the productive dialogue and actions necessary to ensure strides in global food security and agricultural development."

The recommendations of the council are included in its new report: 'Stability in the 21st Century: Global Food Security for Peace and Prosperity'. This report makes the case that global food security is in the best interest of the United States, both in terms of national security as well as economic growth. The independent task force - led by Douglas Bereuter, President Emeritus of the Asia Foundation and Dan Glickman, former US Secretary of Agriculture - has put forward four key recommendations for US policymakers:

  1. Make global food and nutrition security a pillar of US diplomatic and national security engagement;
  2. Prioritize public research investments to unlock innovation;
  3. Productively partner with committed companies to amplify the power of the private sector to transform food and nutrition security; and
  4. Ensure efficiency in assistance programs and build countries' capacity.

[caption id="attachment_3758" align="aligncenter" width="2546"] Source: https://digital.thechicagocouncil.org/stability-21st-century[/caption]


Food Security = National Security

The symposium held panels to discuss each of these recommendations, kicking off with 'a food secure world is a safer world'. In the context of rapidly growing populations, with today's 7.4 billion people expected to reach 10 billion by 2056 (UN DESA World Population Prospects 2015 Revision), we have both a moral and strategic imperative to design food systems that reduce waste and provide equal access. Currently, we produce enough food to feed 10 billion people and yet 1 billion go hungry with 165 million children suffering from malnutrition before age five. Moreover, a shocking 40% of all food produced on the planet is wasted, contributing to 4.4 billion metric tons of CO2 production each year.

"We don't tolerate 40% inefficiency in anything except the one resource we need to sustain the human race" - John M. Mandyck, Chief Sustainability Officer, United Technologies Corporation

[caption id="attachment_3755" align="aligncenter" width="4032"] Ed Luce of the Financial Times moderates a discussion on the intersection of food security with national security[/caption]

Our current systems are largely driven by quantity, consolidation and profit rather than quality, sustainability and environmental stewardship. As a result, entire populations are going hungry due to socioeconomic factors that exclude them from the global supply chain. As I write this piece, the United Nations reports that 20 million people in Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and Nigeria face the very real threat of famine.

Food crises like these contribute to mass migrations, price shocks, and even serve as catalysts for violent conflict. While Gardens for Health works to shift the paradigm of malnutrition away from short-term handouts towards long-term solutions, we also recognize the importance of life-saving measures in crisis situations. Furthermore, the panel referenced the strong correlation between food insecurity and global unrest including black markets, drug trafficking or even disease outbreaks due to weakened immune systems.

[caption id="attachment_3756" align="aligncenter" width="2544"] Source: https://digital.thechicagocouncil.org/stability-21st-century[/caption]

In the end, the panelists agreed that "diplomacy and development have to keep pace with defense", and anticipated strong bipartisan support for sharing agricultural expertise with smallholder farmers globally. And, as Ivo H. Daalder - President of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs - emphasized,

"there is no way in which we can address these or any other crises without the involvement of the NGOs that are there on the ground."


Economic Growth, Investment and R&D

The next several panels focused on the role of food security in economic growth, asking 'what can be done to make economic transformation more inclusive?' As demographics shift from rural to urban and the percentage of unemployed youth rises, we must ensure that policy remains responsive. The relationship between local government and NGOs becomes even more important in this context, providing a critical framework for investment. Our partnership with the Rwandan Ministries of Health and Agriculture has provided both a platform for advocacy as well as a resource for affecting impact on a national scale. Buy-in from all levels - from the household to the government - is critical for continued success.

[caption id="attachment_3759" align="aligncenter" width="2330"] Source: https://digital.thechicagocouncil.org/stability-21st-century[/caption]

The panelists also discussed the importance of commodities trading to build resilience in global food markets. This resiliency will be even more critical as we face unprecedented challenges related to global climate change. Deforestation and droughts are rising threats in Rwanda as well as Sub-Saharan Africa, and moving to resources other than wood for cooking fuel will be an important first step. Intra-Africa trade must also keep pace with international imports. Connecting smallholder farmers to national and international markets creates a stable policy environment that is then more attractive for outside investors. As Thomas Jayne, Professor at Michigan State University, said "we need to come back to the foundations of support for smallholder agriculture."

We also discussed the importance of women's empowerment for economic growth. Bineta Diop - Special Envoy on Women, Peace and Security for the African Union - underlined how women are the most vulnerable to systemic shocks and yet the most ready to organize when given the chance:

"In Africa, more than 70% of women are engaged in agriculture, yet do not own any land or make a profit."

At Gardens for Health, we work every day to empower women to make informed decisions about what they grow and eat. We also actively engage with men, bringing them into the conversation to create shared understanding and buy-in. Making agriculture profitable will be key to not only engaging youth, but also building equality between rural and urban populations as well as between women and men.

[caption id="attachment_3760" align="aligncenter" width="2346"] Source: https://digital.thechicagocouncil.org/stability-21st-century[/caption]

Finally, we discussed the importance of R&D in global agriculture. Tim Brosnan, Chair of the Small Foundation, stated "[there is] no point in providing finance if you don't provide technical assistance". Connecting smallholder farmers to technology will unlock new levels of potential, profit and sustainability. Innovations like farm management systems and automated lending are already starting to revolutionize farming on the African continent, and will play an even more important role as populations grow and climates change.


The Future of Farming: Agriculture in the 21st Century

Closing out the day was a discussion on how to engage the next generation of farmers in the agricultural sector. We discussed the importance of transitioning from 'farming to live', to 'farming to make a living', and whether the youth bulge should be viewed as an asset or a liability. Alaa Murabit, High-Level Commissioner for the SDGs, put it best when she said:

"we need to have a cultural revolution about what farming is and what opportunities it provides."

New advances in technology paint a promising picture for the future of farming, but we must focus on making agriculture profitable while also responsive and sustainable. We must make the farmer 'lifestyle' attractive to today's youth by investing in rural areas. Otherwise, we risk becoming complacent about where our food comes from when in reality we are all connected to a global food chain that depends on inter-generational transfers.

[caption id="attachment_3761" align="aligncenter" width="4011"] The stage is set[/caption]

Liz Schrayer of the US Global Leadership Coalition makes the case for farmers: it makes economic sense, promotes national security, and is truly noble work. "If we're going to invest in lifting the poor in the world," she says, "we have to invest in agriculture." Today's young farmers challenge the status quo by choosing a path that isn't a traditional first choice. Yet, they stand at the forefront of solving some of the most pressing challenges related to national and international sustainability. Globally, we must build efficiencies in a sector that already makes up the majority of national GDPs. At home, we must reconnect with where our food comes from. At all levels, we must recognize the critical role that agriculture plays in each of our lives, and do everything we can to advance research, partnerships and long-term solutions.

Full videos from the symposium can be viewed here.

Solution Sessions

The day before the symposium, several solution sessions were held to discuss specific topics in greater detail. Videos of each solution session can be viewed here (select 'March 29'). These sessions offered valuable perspective, opinions and expertise in their respective areas. Whether it was recognizing voices on the other side of data, or discussing how big data represents the state of food security worldwide, these are all important conversations we need to be having. Today, when 20 million people face the immediate threat of starvation, we must recognize that in many ways direct food aid is a sign of failure. The tragic paradox of Africa is that the hungriest people are most often the farmers, and coming together collaboratively to not only identify solutions but commit to putting them into action is one step in the right direction.

"We are never as far away from hunger as we think we are...a stunted child anywhere is a stunted child everywhere" - Voices from the Field

[caption id="attachment_3762" align="aligncenter" width="2542"] We must act now, and we must act collaboratively. Source: https://digital.thechicagocouncil.org/stability-21st-century[/caption]

A quip that many referenced throughout the symposium, but which remains highly relevant, is that 'we can't build a peaceful world on empty stomachs.' By bridging the gap between health and agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa, GHI connects smallholder farmers with the resources they need to combat childhood malnutrition in the long-term. With full stomachs, children can focus in school. With sustainable incomes, families can afford to keep children in school. Food insecurity is the root cause of so many other socioeconomic disparities, not only in Rwanda but anywhere where food insecurity persists. One family at a time, we are working to eliminate those disparities. We hope you will join us.

To stay updated on these important conversations and more, follow the new blog series A Food Secure Future - part of the council's Global Food for Thought platform. Our own Country Director Anne Wanlund contributed her thoughts on 'Elevating the Smallholder Voice and Making Aid more Accountable for Improved Food and Nutrition Security'.

Read her full piece here!

Additional reading:

  1. Rethinking Development and Health: Findings from the Global Burden of Disease factsheet and full report published by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. Identifies risk factor clusters for health, highlighting dietary factors as the number one related cause of death and disability worldwide.
  2. Gallup World Poll 2014, in collaboration with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization publication 'Voices of the Hungry', a project that 'collects cross-culturally comparable information from adults worldwide to help gain global and country-level estimates of food insecurity severity.'
  3. Exciting new technology from Body Surface Translations that looks at 'automatic anthropometry' to reduce human error in taking height and weight-for age measurements. They use 3D scanning to produce automatic anthropometry integration into National Health Database systems.
  4. The Paradox of Progress: a report by the National Intelligence Council. 'The achievements of the industrial and information ages are shaping a world to come that is both more dangerous and richer with opportunity than ever before. Whether promise or peril prevails will turn on the choices of humankind'.
  5. Book: 'Food Foolish: The Hidden Connection between Food Waste, Hunger and Climate Change' by John Mandyck of United Technologies Corporation.
  6. Book: 'Our Hungry Planet' by Niamh King, Vice President for Programs and Strategic Content at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs (forthcoming).