The meeting at FAO a few weeks ago is bringing to the fore a structural weakness of international forums, in the development of long term strategies for food and water security; the neglect or misuse, under pressure of short-term tactical political aims, of institutional, civil society and corporate memory and more specifically its political dimension. The importance of why and how we are where we are to day.

And yet, how to utilize such knowledge in setting out a “vision of hope” for humanity’s food and water security might be crucial. Established wisdom suggests that those who pay no attention to history are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past, or worse even make bigger mistakes. The apparent surprise of global institutions with the current crisis is very worrying.

This article looks at aspects of such institutional, civil society and corporate memory and its effective management as a vehicle in shaping a ‘vision of hope” for global food and water security. Although it views the three parties separately, its underlying focus is the combined product of their interactions.

Demographics is the discipline least influenced by short term aims of interested parties. Projections made at the end of last century are fully validated today. What is perhaps missing is stronger emphasis on the linkages between food and water security.

It is worth mentioning that thirty years ago we predicted that:

  • today we would have 10-15% more food than 4 billion people did 40 years ago, and yet, we still have more than 800 million people undernourished.
  • demand for calories per head would be geometrically escalating with economic progress of large parts of the world such as China, India and
    Latin America.
  • towards the middle of this century, only 13 % of the world’s population would live in countries regarded today as developed and prosperous.
  • long-term prices trend would be firmly upwards.
  • land available for food production would be shrinking. No socially acceptable options would be left to us to safeguard food and water security but a strong and consistent positive trend in productivity.
  • the need to make optimal and long-term sustainable use of land and water resources on a global scale would become crucial to social stability
  • main factors affecting food security were seen as poverty, the decision of many countries to rely on a high degree of self-sufficiency, physical transportation deficiencies and finally, but most importantly, adequate supplies to meet demand.

We thus knew that we were facing a large looming threat to longer-term food and water security with grave repercussions on international socio-political and economic stability. We had also identified how narrow our options were. Nothing should be a surprise to the leaders of the world today. Why the crisis?

Interestingly, this threat was and even today is often erroneously perceived of concern only to specific parts of the globe. But as facts become more evident of a firm globalisation trend, there is a stronger awareness that it affects us all. A useful sideline but relevant example of global “rippling” is the current economic and social anxiety on oil pricing.

The key question is: “how each of the three partners, institutions, civil society and corporate has utilised projections of the early 90s and their cumulative experience of the intervening period in their role as contributors to shaping a strategic direction? Why such a poor performance?” It would be entirely missing the point if one were to apportion blame. The scene is as complex as it could be. Progress was undoubtedly made but inadequate and the threat remains and is larger and more imminent.

Aging international institutions have a complex participation but the parochial political commitment of member countries and heavy technical and bureaucratic nature of their staff results in a serious democratic deficit and lack of political credibility. In certain cases direction provided is seen as irrelevant and implementation takes a form of lip service. Institutional memory as a source of learning as to how to tackle the challenge of food and water security seems to have had very limited use; thus calls from everywhere for overhaul or replacement of the institutions themselves.

A simple example to highlight this point is the biotechnology position in FAO. In the middle of the 90s, during the World Food Summit, the threat of food security was clearly identified and commitments made. Fifteen years later (!), after numerous half-hearted initiatives, FAO finally provided direction on this important technological tool. Here are some relevant points agreed:

  • the technology holds great promise for agriculture in developing countries;
  • the benefits are being widely distributed among industry, farmers and consumers;
  • it should complement, not replace, conventional agricultural technologies;
  • while some benefits have been observed, environmental effects have not been detected in commercial production;
  • scientists generally agree that the transgenic crops currently being grown and the foods derived form them are safe to eat;
  • there is a need for effective science-based biosafety assessment;

Given the urgency why did it take so long? Why progress is so slow? What was the role of the interested parties? Why is
Europe still fighting tooth and nail?

Although FAO is seen as the archetype of international institutions in the area of food and water, others such as the World Bank and WTO have similar but perhaps less pronounced weaknesses. What appears common is the poor utilisation of institutional memory.

Civil society on the other hand is very broad, encompassing social tendencies driven by multiple agendas, varying in sophistication as well as ideals. Its importance was proven for the functioning of modern societies. However its mechanisms of more credible input to the debate are always tenuous and disputed. Civil society could be better heard, if the issues of its technical competence and accountability are improved. NGOs on a global platform are a relatively new, incomplete but sensational phenomenon. It is still a unique media magnet. Records of its contribution and methods of exerting influence to the global debate are crucial knowledge.

“Regulating” civil society inside broad rules of accountability can contribute to the equilibrium and harmony of the debate but requires leadership courage and serious effort. A rational trend is slowly emerging. Representation of real public interests as opposed to ideologies can now be seen on global scale such as consumers, natural environment, ethical issues etc. This partner is making better use of historical memory.

The corporate partner might be the easier to consider. It is crucial as a productivity improvements motor through targeted research. Society could better shape it to provide the technological means but it must be conscious of the limits to the rate of change avoiding structural collapse in sections of its wealth generating part. Corporate entities suffer from a number of burdens. Public policy often places heavy regulatory pressure that only large businesses could support. Inconsistent application of government standards creates an uneven playing field and acts as serious dis-incentive to players that follow the rules. A typical case of this is intellectual property protection. As a consequence
Enterprise veers to short-termism and risk aversion. Large and mature entities with entrenched positions dominate the debate. There is no effective support framework to promote and project small and medium size entities, a sure indicator of healthy regeneration potential. Only very few manage to find niches to be successful.

This partner tries to utilise its memory but oddly efforts are further mitigated by its nature. As the essence of its members is competition the sector positions are a common denominator of the members’ interests. True sector initiatives beyond these common positions are rare. Presence of enlightened and consistent leadership has been largely absent. Perhaps in light of what is happening in the wider world in recent years, many of the current corporate representation structures may require serious rethinking. Although economic criteria in performance should remain dominant, the history of last thirty years provides evidence that other parameters should also be looked at more seriously, including social responsibility and environmental sustainability. Corporate memory points to a need to establish strong communications channels with the genuine points of knowledge about the global challenge of food and water security.

In conclusion, global leaders in the debate on food and water security for the world should be more alert to the importance of historical memory, as a guide to avoiding the mistakes of the past or even making bigger ones. Perhaps more importantly they should be clearly accountable for the effective use of this knowledge. They will thus demonstrate their awareness and grave concern about the escalating seriousness of the challenges ahead and ensure a marked qualitative improvement of the process. It will bring savings of valuable natural resources and avert catastrophes.

Nobody doubts that the future is unpredictable but deeper study of historical records is the best anchored launching pad to continue our wandering in the darkness ahead. It would ensure that we make optimal use of our natural and social resources as well as technologies to lighten the darkness of the unknown and make for a bright future.

K.P.Vlahodimos Director General of the Global Plant Sciences Industry, retired June 2008

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