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You Asked Us: Food security in a warming world – part 1

Last month, we hosted a webinar on the increasingly precarious global food supply chain. Here, one of our expert panellists answers your questions.

Dr Nazia Mintz Habib, Director of the Resilience and Sustainable Development Programme, University of Cambridge
1 September 2020

Among the many terrible consequences of the explosion in Beirut is the damage done to Lebanon’s food security. What can you tell us about the importance of infrastructure, such as ports and railroads, to ensuring food security?

The Lebanese experience reminds us again of the importance of having not only good infrastructure, but also solid regulatory frameworks. The cause of the accident was negligence on the part of officials responsible for the storage of dangerous chemicals. Weak institutions can crucially undermine even the best infrastructure – that was the case in Lebanon. Nevertheless, good food system infrastructure is key to food sovereignty and security.

Food sovereignty and security are different – both politically and in policy terms. Food sovereignty implies locally and ecologically appropriate models of production, distribution and consumption, where consumer power, social protections and climate justice are embedded. Food security is about access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food – regardless of the source and ecological footprint – that satisfies individual food preferences and dietary needs. 

In the case of Lebanon, the country was already suffering from poor food sovereignty. Historically, Lebanon’s productivity sectors, mainly the agriculture sector, have remained severely under-developed. The country is heavily dependent on imported food: in 2019, it imported 85% of its food at a cost of roughly US$20 billion. 

Due to restrictive monetary policy, food prices had already risen this year. The food security situation has worsened since the explosion, which destroyed the grain silos that stored the majority of the country’s wheat supply and badly damaged the port. Although there are global responses to relieve the immediate food crisis, given the political and economic situation, future food security is likely to remain challenging.

While the connection between food and infrastructure is often seen through the prism of investment, when it comes to shock events, it is resilience that matters most. Political and economic resilience is the ability to bounce back from shocks or crises repeatedly, without jeopardising socio-cultural stability.

Dr Nazia Mintz Habib, Director of the Resilience and Sustainable Development Programme, University of Cambridge
Dr Nazia Mintz Habib, Director of the Resilience and Sustainable Development Programme, University of Cambridge

While the connection between food and infrastructure is often seen through the prism of investment, when it comes to shock events, it is resilience that matters most.

Currently, Lebanon is facing severe deprivation and distress, which is having a multiplier effect on the political system. Without discussing the compounding effects of the Lebanese food security situation, to prevent things spiralling out of control, they require some room for redundancy and diversity.

No matter how much investment is made in building up and modernising infrastructures, redundancy and diversity should be part of the plan. In that way, even if one asset – in this case, the grain silo – is destroyed or breaks down, there are others to tap into. Similarly, where there is only one port, governments should negotiate with neighbouring states for access to their ports during crises. In the case of monetary policy, where there is a higher dependency of imported food, as is the case in Lebanon, there should be a provision to offer relaxed restrictions on the companies importing staples foodstuffs. This will help maintain some level of short-term normality in the food prices, while long-term food security strategies are drawn up. Infrastructure related to food production also could benefit from preferential valuation that rewards owners maintaining their assets ethically and responsibly, for critical use in agricultural systems. More innovative, performance-based valuation models would protect the value of the infrastructure.

Good food policy is about resilience, which ensures food security during the short-term, and offers bounce-back mechanisms in the long-term. The ultimate goal is food sovereignty. We have much to learn from the Lebanese experience.

Food security in a warming world

A rapidly growing global population, changing land use caused by urbanisation and an uptick in extreme climate events are all putting pressure on the global food supply chain. While pastoral systems across the world are vulnerable to these factors, the threat is most starkly evident in developing economies. It is bitterly ironic that crop cultivation contributes significantly to global greenhouse gas emissions: the very process of producing food threatens the long-term security of food production. How can the global food supply chain be futureproofed against geopolitical shocks and extreme natural events? Can production processes be optimised for higher productivity and lower GHG emissions? What is the role of technology in the challenge?

What can we do to train the next generation of agri-food workers – particularly those in high-climate-risk regions – to prepare them for the challenges of the century ahead?

It is a very important to know who agri-food workers are before we can answer the question of how they should be trained. Agri-food workers range from household farmers to food processing factory workers. I can immediately think of one area of training that will benefit them.  

The next generation of agri-food workers in the high-climate-risk regions will need to be trained in smart technology. Smart technologies like drought-resistant artificial intelligence, robotics and drones have already changed the way agri-food systems operate. Workers need to have access to tailor made capacity building programmes so that they can cope with variabilities more mindfully.

Mindful adaptation of technology allows innovations to be localised, which can build acceptance and appreciation of how tech can enhance processes and outcomes. One example that comes to mind is the adoption of mobile technology among farming communities in South Asia which led, over time, to the empowerment of women. Public and private sector organisations involved in the agri-food supply and value chains need to work closely with agri-food workers to help identify appropriate technological solutions. We need the right incentives in place to ensure true tech diffusion can occur. Where that happens, new applications and skills become embedded in the socio-economic reality of the place.