To achieve food security, we need to talk about politics and power in the food system

I’ve previously written about the focus on agriculture to meet food and nutrition security and the same argument holds for the agenda at the 2013 AFC conference. However, if we take it as given that there was very little discussion on what happens in the food system outside of the agricultural sector and that there was even less discussion on nutrition — even what species it is that farmers are growing/rearing or fishers catching — then there is still much to discuss.

Africa – viewed from outside

As a starting point, having the conference in Africa enabled many more views from the continent’s perspective to be aired, which made for some interesting highlights. Firstly, Prof Rukuni made the poignant remark, “I did not know that I was poor until somebody told me.”This reliance on external appreciation of African agricultural problems combined with external solutions became a common theme that was not necessarily critiqued during the conference, although there was a strong emphasis on Africa proactively taking the agriculture agenda forward and not relying on foreign assistance (especially through CAADP).

Women and agriculture

FANRPAN’s Dr Sisulu also pointed out the looming elephant in the room — gender. Although after her most speakers mentioned the importance of women in agriculture, the structural barriers preventing women from engaging on an equal footing with men across spheres (not just in agriculture) was never, in my view, adequately addressed and requires much further room for discussion at a high level platform such as this.

Farmers and the language of climate change

The next important emphasis that arose from the conference discussions was the critical role that farmers themselves play as the implementers of CSA. It was agreed that there were not enough farmers that were being engaged to share their knowledge and experience. Similarly, when it came to the science of climate change there was the long-held view that scientists do not know how to translate their science into a message that allows farmers to respond. A point raised from the floor and followed through by Dr Sisulu was around the translation of climate change not merely into ‘layman’s’ terms, but into vernacular. This comment resonated with me as earlier in the year a colleague at the Food Futures Networking Conference had mentioned that when returning to his native Nigeria, he was asked to give a presentation only to find out that they wanted it not in English, but in the local vernacular. His struggle to find words in his mother-tongue for the work that he was doing struck him deeply and he emphasised the need for more thought to be put into translating complex phenomena like climate change into terms with which people can identify.

Land tenure and climate

The final important aspect that struck me as an issue that was insufficiently dealt with was that of land tenure for farmers in Africa in particular. Not just from the equity and social justice perspective, which is extremely relevant — especially in a country like South Africa—  but the comment from the floor was more about the lack of incentives that farmers have to make investments in CSA when the land that they’re working isn’t even theirs.

Adequately addressing these issues requires not just the mere implementation of a discrete CSA solution — although Dr Campbell shared some hopeful Success Stories — but requires more fundamental engagement with the political economy of power within the food system. This is a much harder conversation to have, but if we are to achieve food security for the 9 billion people we expect to share the planet with by 2050 then it is of utmost necessity. The Roadmap to a Climate Smart Alliance (pdf), expected to be launched in September 2014, is expected to form a platform for dialogue — let us hope that it will also enable us to have these less comfortable discussions where there is not always a win–win.

We have also launched a Youth Platform where we hope to engage with young people around the world on these issues. Please get in contact if you would like further information: email