Protect the Future to Prevent Going Forward to the Past: Food System Responses to Conflict and Climate Shocks

November 5, 2018

Dr. Lawrence Haddad

Dr. Lawrence Haddad is a 2018 World Food Prize Laureate.

One of the sessions as part of the Borlaug Dialogues for the 2018 World Food Prize was organised by FAO and the Alliance to End Hunger on the topic of Conflict, Climate and Hunger.

The session was prompted by the rise reported by FAO in the number of undernourished people (“hungry”) we have witnessed in the past few years. In 2017 it returned to what it was 7-8 years ago. We are going forward to the past.

The consensus seems to be that climate and conflict are responsible for these increases. The question posed at the session was: what can food systems and their actors do to respond to these threats?

On the mitigation side for climate, the choices we make about what and how to grow food and which food we choose to eat matter for water, land and energy use and for greenhouse gas emission. So food systems that measure these consequences will help make it easier to assess the environmental effects of decisions taken for commercial, political or health reasons.

On mitigation for conflict, we know that on average food price spikes cause conflicts. A study from 22 African countries and 70 markets shows that a 100% increase in food prices (which is not unusual) leads to a 13% increase in the number of conflicts (a big number). From another recent cross country study we also think that ODA spent on strengthening public services is associated more strongly than any other ODA component with a reduction in emigration. So food systems that can moderate food price changes (essentially making markets work well) and have clear, fair and enforced rules of the game (part of good governance) are likely to be more effective in mitigating shocks.

On the adaptation side, diversity is the secret sauce for the resilience needed to adapt to shocks. Diversity of crops grown and consumed; diversity of locations of food markets; diversity of technologies used, and diversity of actors engaged within food systems (large and small, public and private, national and international).

But adaptation responses can also be used to strengthen mitigation. For instance the largest social protection program in Africa, the Productive Safety Net Programme in Ethiopia could focus more on the consumption of nutritious foods such as fruits, vegetables, pulses and eggs which are all less greenhouse gas emitting. Technology can also help, such as rust resistant crops, and the breeding of crops that require less fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides as well as refrigeration, transport and storage technologies that help preserve the food that is harvested. Biofortified crops also add welcome diversity to the mix—here is a form of large scale fortification that is less vulnerable to disruption from conflict.

The real challenge of course is getting policymakers to think with a preventive mindset. Politicians do not get much credit for preventing things from happening. They tend to be judged on how well they deal with crises not on how well they do on preventing them. Prevention is particularly priceless for infants. Adults can often recover from shocks, but for infants, shocks not only interrupt development, they arrest it and stunt it. Infants who experience shocks carry the consequences long after the shock has subsided.

The last time the FAO hunger numbers increased was during the food, fuel and finance crises of 2007-8. The crises paved the way for several important responses from the food and nutrition community including the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) movement. The upturn in hunger numbers in 2017-18 is unfolding at a slower pace than in 2007-8, but we must not let that deceive us—while these undernourishment numbers will surely go down, the stunting increases they have already wrought will not go down so quickly. For many millions of infants the sad reality is that they are moving forward to the past.

What should be the big response this time?  The last response, in the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) era, was mainly from donors. In the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) era the response should be led by governments wanting to protect their citizens and the nation’s precious human capital from harm. They should be shock proofing their societies and economies by making greater investments in prevention. They should be protecting the future. Investing in broad based nutrition improvement and resilient food systems is a good place to start.