Creating a political momentum for global food governance

To feed the world's population in 2050, "the fine art of governance" is required, according to Jan Grossarth. With the help of the SEWOH partners, he has shed light on what this art includes and what challenges it encounters.

All 193 delegates of the United Nations agreed in January 2016 on the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are based on the MDGs and should be achieved by 2030 ©GIZ/Horst M. Vogel

Dr. Jan Grossarth

Dr Jan Grossarth is a freelance journalist and book author. His main topics are ecology, agriculture, food security and related social issues. After having worked as a senior editor at the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, he was head of communications at the Federal Ministry of Agriculture (BMEL) in 2019. Since 2020, he has worked as a freelance journalist for "Die Welt", "Jüdische Allgemeine", among others, and is a research associate in a project on bioeconomy at LMU Munich.

There has been some modest progress everywhere and in many thousands of local projects. But what if this won’t be enough in view of the global challenge? According to UN forecasts, Africa’s population is set to double by 2050, reaching over two billion people. Yet food imports on the continent are already exceeding exports, so it is not providing enough food for itself. Climate forecasts are predicting that in some African (and Asian) regions average temperatures will rise by 3 degrees or more. Moreover, deserts are spreading, with the prospect that development cooperation will be ineffective if it merely distributes resources under the watering can principle.


This indicates a real need for political coordination, both nationally and internationally. In fact, prioritising a global food policy should be just as urgent as a climate policy. This task, however, is made far more complicated by competition between the two UN goals of reducing greenhouse gases, on the one hand, and of increasing food production, on the other.


But while there is a clear way forward that would reconcile “production” and the “environment” (agroecology), while also achieving an increase in added value, we are faced with some major vagueness when we probe into the political efforts that are required for effective implementation. Instead of “watering cans”, we really need technical and political quantum leaps that will bring about (1) a sustainable increase in productivity, (2) a sustainable transformation of the global food system (does it actually exist, or are there perhaps several?) and (3) an increase in the purchasing power of the poor in the Global South. It would take billions in investment and, above all, political engagement.


There’s a real need for the fine art of governance, with the political coordination of different interests and a clear focus on a joint vision.


These vary significantly from one country to another, and also from one province to another. We may of course ask whether the global food supply and issues of the food system are actually treated as a high priority in many of the affected African and Asian countries. Local newspapers in sub-Saharan countries – always keenly interested in agriculture – tend to get bogged down in reports on harvests, statistical issues concerning the delivery of fertilisers, weather reports and the politically embellished claptrap of associations about a rosy future. In fact, is there any major openness in Africa's big cities to face up to their own issues of food insecurity?


Since 2017, the EnD SARS movement has been campaigning against police violence and poor governance in the country. The protesters organize mainly through social networks © Unspash / Tope A Asokere

On the other hand, it is equally true that in most industrially developed countries, global food security is given no priority either in politics or in the media. The causes and potential solutions are too multifaceted, and there is no “narrative of blame” that might mobilise the masses the way it mobilises them for climate change and for global environmental issues. But this is not how the media work, and certainly not the “social” media. For an issue to be newsworthy, it needs to be clear and simple. The same is true on the world’s stock exchanges where Green Finance is currently an important buzzword, but where the global food supply is treated as less important. Sustainable energies and sustainable mobility hit the headlines, but not investments in agroforestry plantations. Any political focus or coordination of this issue seems highly unlikely. But how could such a momentum be created?


Certainly not solely through the intense efforts of specialist politicians or indeed simply through the work of hundreds of scientists, citizens’ initiatives and one-world sales. It would probably require some all-encompassing media attention with extremely striking symbols, images and metaphors that drive home the magnitude of the impending disaster, while at the same time showing clearly that ordinary citizens will be impacted. The issue of combating hunger needs to be clearly perceived as a global issue, and for the Global North this means, above all, perceiving it as a human rights issue and an issue of migration.


Political momentum is a mystery: it often seems as though political momentum had a will of its own. Any historical events and images relating to an issue add up to people’s collective memories. Occasionally a further event occurs, which then triggers groundbreaking political decisions. One example is Greta Thunberg’s climate protest which preceded the European Green Deal, turning climate and sustainability issues into unprecedented political priorities. Suddenly a major target was on the agenda: climate neutrality of the EU by 2050. Restructuring of the economy. Under free market principles, but with all the legal leverage of the regulatory system. The images of polar bears perishing among the melting ice and all the climate conferences were not forgotten. Yet it was Greta Thunberg – an iconic figure – who helped this issue to achieve its large-scale breakthrough, cutting through all arguments and defensive barriers. It required passion, consternation, pleading and a childlike gaze that could not easily be ignored.


The Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg is known as the brain and the icon of the Fridays for Future movement, which promoted the issue of climate change to the top of the priority list of European countries © picture alliance/abaca

Can there be a Greta Thunberg of the world food supply? And what might she say? The faces of hunger and malnutrition have been the hallmark of non-political fundraising for many decades now. Adequate and healthy nutrition for all would take so much more. More crops, more growth and more trade. All in harmony with the conservation of resources. Should the Greta Thunberg of the world food supply say: “Transform the global food system”? Oh dear.


It seems as if development policy is caught up in the shackles of its own jargon, which is scientific yet always a notch too technocratic. Well, this isn’t going to produce much momentum. Rather, the momentum always comes suddenly and unexpectedly. In Germany it came in 2015, along with millions of Syrians, Afghans and Africans who suddenly migrated to Germany. All of a sudden, development policy became item no. 1 on the political agenda. The German federal government increased the budget of its Development Ministry “to combat reasons for migration” by 80 per cent. Then, the focus shifted more onto domestic policy.


If no permanent momentum can be created, it is nevertheless possible to ensure at least greater efficiency in the coordination of interests – through governance.


This means managing and controlling heterogeneous interests with a focus on a common goal. For this to succeed, intermediaries are needed – organisations that mediate, facilitate, interpret and clarify matters between science, policymakers, the economy, the media and civil society. When it comes to climate issues, this is the success story of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which sees itself not as a scientific institution, but as an organisation that gives a voice to science and adds impact and “non-partisan” legitimacy to political messages. The IPCC seems more agile than the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), which is influenced by a large number of state interests. In this role, the IPCC helped to put a “science-based” figure at the political centre of world climate policy: the 1.5 degree target. Yet there is no IPCC for a world food policy, nor any symbolical number. The 50 to 70 per cent increase in production, which – according to the FAO – will be needed by the middle of the century, is only known to experts. Both a world food IPCC and a world food one-point-five would be extremely helpful.


A billboard in Beijing promotes the China-Africa Summit. Around 50 African countries attended the summit in 2018 © picture-alliance/dpa

After the United States, Germany is the largest national donor of development aid – but can one country alone set the tone? Or is China being more effective with its grand, autocratically motivated method of industrialisation which it is pursuing in Africa out of its strong self-interest? China is investing billions in loans, building roads, railway lines and airports in large parts of Africa, using mainly its own workers. The rolling stock that moves along them is primarily crops and raw materials, heading towards China, in particular.


Western concepts of governance, on the other hand, are based on solutions involving numerous different parties. There are countless variations, and it’s not a matter of “one size fits all”. What all of them have in common is that they bring together heterogeneous interests under a single goal. “Similar to the previous terms – ‘political planning’ and ‘political control’ – ‘governance’ has become quite a catch-all in political science now,” says the sociologist Uwe Schimank from the University of Bremen. The purpose is to find order, to set priorities and to ensure coherence beyond the organisational forms of “hierarchies” and “markets”.


In other words, governance organises not just planned progress, but also creative progress.


It maintains autonomy in parts of society – law, economy, politics, culture and religion. It avoids the pitfalls of disintegration, caused by overburdening its participants, and it also avoids the pitfalls of excessive integration (with everyone focused on a “single goal”), a situation which – sociologically speaking – paralyses the specific strengths of parts of society.


One specific and crucial example is the issue of land rights and land policies. This concerns the question of property rights, rights of use and access rights, in other words: thorny issues of material distribution. If the various interests cannot be coordinated here, then all the various “watering can” activities will basically be pointless. Property rights, investment propensity and the development of agriculture and villages are all closely connected. An effective development policy requires secure access rights to both land and resources. As long as property and land use issues remain unresolved, technical progress cannot develop its full impact. The German policy advisor Alexander Müller, who has worked for the FAO and the UN in this area in many senior roles, says: “As long as land use rights are unresolved, the problems can’t be solved through block chain developments, either.”


Greenhouses, fruit plantations and vegetable fields near Agadir in Morocco. The country is one of the biggest fruit and vegetable producers in Africa © picture alliance /JOKER

The current situation is disgraceful: according to a study by the World Bank in 2015, three quarters of the world’s population have no legally secured land rights. For Africa, the figure that has been circulating is 90 per cent or more (World Bank 2013). As a rule, there are only verbal agreements or traditional rights.


There is a fundamental lack of land registers and of fully functioning land markets. All this would need to change as a matter of urgency. However, the various parties are not exerting any political pressure. Private foundations often have a technical focus on specific health issues, such as the fight against diseases like malaria, or a focus on certain sociopolitical issues, such as increasing school attendance. Although the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) is calling for a reform of land rights under a “Marshall Plan for Africa”, this point seems to be getting lost among so many others. And what about the level of motivation among the actual African governments? Is there any incentive for them to enter into a tough battle for precious land with influential landowners?


Here, governance primarily means establishing certain commonalities of interest. Who might be taken on board? What might be the interest of a traditional elite in setting up a land register or the interest of a village elder who is worried about losing power? Farmers and their organisations would certainly be on board. And when it comes to different departments, alliances on this issue may also have an impact on climate policies and gender equality policies. After all, the resolution of land rights correlates closely with more sustainable and therefore more climate-friendly management. This was the result of a 2018 meta-study carried out by Daniel Higgins et al. from the International Fund for Agricultural Development. According to the study, the formalisation of land rights also leads to improvements in the legal position of women. One vision might be to provide economic investment incentives through an improvement of the land right issue, while at the same time improving climate protection and achieving gender equality. The latter would also lead to a drop in birth rates.


Governance is based on shared visions, and those visions should prevent the many actors from getting tangled up in the minutiae of their interests and their worries about losing out.


This problem was also mentioned by the World Bank in 2013 when it wrote: “Efforts to improve land governance are often paralysed by technical complexities, institutional fragmentation, entangled interests and a lack of shared vision.”


After Namibia's independence in 1991, land reforms were passed that were supposed to lead to a more equitable redistribution of wealth and resources. But until today, the land issue is still a problem of national concern © GIZ / R.Bäcker 

Once a vision has been formulated and communicated, cooperation ideally unfolds its fullest impact. A 2021 paper by sustainability researcher Nicola Favretto from the University of Leeds lists the various success factors: cooperation, building on existing alliances, taking the historical context into account, neutral facilitation, transparency and the use of digital tools such as the software Sensemaker. After all, “sense” is by no means always unanimous, and governance is not a harmonious circle of chairs. We can look at two examples of conflicts that arose after participatory decisions were made. In Zimbabwe, there was an increase in the number of wild elephants after the designation of a protected area, whereas the income of the local population declined. In Ghana, the designation of protected areas caused conflict between the population and local officials. If, however, there is a culture of dialogue, it is also possible to discuss compensation.


In many cases, if a land ownership issue is controversial, then there is at least the option of formalising the rights of use. In Zambia, for instance, this is often precisely what needs doing, says Nsama Chikolwa, a local SEWOH project partner. And in Uganda, the land use issue is even more controversial compared with sparsely populated Zambia, as the country has a population density of 213 per square kilometre. This is quite high compared with other African countries, as Uganda also had over 1.4 million refugees in 2020. Moreover, land investors are buying large areas of land, whereas the amount of Ugandan land that is formally registered and officially listed amounts to less than 10 per cent. As long as this is the case, people have no option but to get their land use rights testified by neighbours or village elders.


In one project, GIZ and local institutions are working to promote formal land ownership rights and land use rights. The governance strategy of the project is to first inform local civil society, but also land investors and the population itself about the issue and the legal situation and to familiarise them with the FAO’s Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security (VGGT). Conducting numerous interviews, experts have been determining the current land use patterns in the villages, writing them down and surveying the relevant plots of land. It’s a start. Even such simple land documents enable farmers to obtain small loans for investment in their land, says GIZ. Similar projects exist in Peru, where around 30 per cent of the country’s indigenous communities still do not have any formal land rights.


Self-help groups are an important part of nutrition governance. They are the basis for social and political empowerment of female smallholders © GIZ/Nitya Agarwal

Multi-sectoral involvement also characterises projects to improve food security – with the participation of government ministries, private business and the local population. Felix Pensulo Phiri from Malawi, a SEWOH partner and civil servant in the Ministry of Health, speaks of a “new mindset” that now dominates through such modern governance principles in the food policy projects he is involved in. For several decades, he says, the only thing that happened was the cultivation of more maize and the promotion of higher-yield varieties and the necessary fertilisers and pesticides – “to feed the people”. Since 2004, however, the government has been putting its food policy on a broader footing, setting up various committees.


One outcome is apparently that everyone is learning from the perspective of others, changing the general mindset.


This is happening simply because shareholder-focused companies are suddenly involved in specific projects on human rights issues. The example from Malawi shows that political action is not limited to government action. The SEWOH initiative also included corporations such as Bayer and BASF on various local projects. Participants from several organisations expressed themselves positively about the experiences gained through this cooperation. “Everyone had to deliver something, and everyone had a constructive role,” said one of them. Subjective testimonies of this kind may sound like “soft” performance criteria in the face of “tough” challenges. Yet without motivation nothing would work at all. And the entrenched, knee-jerk antagonism between political parties, the economy and industry, has already frustrated a good deal of problem-solving motivation in the Western world.

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