“We need to put food systems high on the political agenda”

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Interview with Leonard Mizzi

Leonard Mizzi, Head of Unit at the European Commission, Directorate-General for International Cooperation and Development, highlights the critical role of integrated action and collaboration in order to address the challenges raised by the latest global report on food crises.

Leonard Mizzi discusses the drivers of global food crises and the action required to address them

Leonard Mizzi discusses the drivers of global food crises and the action required to address them

© FAO

Over the past 3 years, this global report has consistently shown that more than 100 million people are suffering from acute hunger each year. Why, in this day and age, do so many people still lack food on such a large scale?

From media coverage each day, it is clear that food crises are not a novelty. Unfortunately, it still happens, and it happens because of a multitude of reasons; they may be man-made, due to conflict, and sometimes it is also because of climate change. What is unprecedented is the complexity of the multiple drivers of fragility contributing to food crisis; climate change is the major cause, but there is also changing demographics, conflict, poverty, inequality, migration pressures, and pressures around rural-urban pressure points. The food crisis is just the tip of the iceberg and is the extreme manifestation of the vulnerability of populations due to complex and varying crises.

Many of these factors are not likely to get better, in the short-term at least, so how will this report be of value to decision-makers in designing and implementing better strategies to overcome these challenges?

This report is global, evidence- and consensus-based. We want to convey that prevention and response to food crises must be based on timely, reliable, complete and locally-owned information. The ambition now is to work and coordinate better together at global, regional, country and local level to tackle the root causes of food crisis through the Global Network against food crises. The network has three dimensions: firstly data, information, and evidence-based analysis; secondly, strategic investments and programming for food and nutrition security along the so-called humanitarian/development nexus; and thirdly, going beyond the food dimension of crises by having a fully integrated approach, thus including responses to other drivers of fragility such as the peace and security dimension.

So what more would you like to see happening in terms of action, are you hopeful that better coordination will happen?

We are hopeful because the world cannot continue with the business-as-usual approach. We should not have a systemic problem every time there is a disaster, especially when an extreme climate event hits, and this will happen more and more in the future, with catastrophic impacts that, if not addressed, will be even more problematic in years to come. The recent example with what is happening in Mozambique, with the anomaly of two simultaneous cyclones – Idai and Kenneth – is a case in point.

I think what we are seeing is rallied action of the key players from all angles of the nexus – from the humanitarian side, the development side and the peace side. The action should involve processes that are locally-owned and state-driven, but also guarantee better coordination among the donor community whereby the Global Network against Food Crises (GNFC) can play a key role. All this requires a new way of thinking, a revamped approach of working, and I think the momentum is there because there is important steer from us as the EU with our member states. We hosted the Global Event ‘Food and Agriculture in times of crises’ on 2 to 3 April 2019 in Brussels. What we tried to achieve with this event was to bring together the like-minded who are involved and interested in the GNFC to actually say, “Look, this is what we achieved today and these are the gaps, let us work together so that we address these gaps and make food crises history.” The event was attended by three EU commissioners in charge respectively for development cooperation, humanitarian aid and crisis management and agriculture and by the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy / Vice-President of the Commission. This reflects the complexity of the issue at stake.

You mentioned the disaster situation in Mozambique, within a few weeks they have suffered two major cyclones. Do you see the future as bleak or do you see glimmers of hope?

It is clear that the impact of natural and man-made climate shocks will vary by geographic location, but risk will be especially high across vulnerable areas, for example in certain parts of sub-Saharan Africa. The evidence shows that food systems are increasingly under stress and that large segments of populations remain highly vulnerable. So, new and innovative initiatives such as the GNFC fostering better coordination and efficiency are essential. You cannot tackle food crises with just a ‘silo’ approach, one needs to have a food systems approach that is also territorially based, meaning that it needs to look at interlinked drivers of fragility and complex dynamics, such as south-south migration, south-north migration, rural-urban tensions and tensions around land-tenure issues and access to resources. If one does not try to systemically tackle these in a more holistic way, then one will still have future hotspots of food crises.

Do you see examples of where we are achieving this in terms of the food system?

Food crises are not a novelty and there are many examples of responses in the recent past. What is required is a more systemic approach in terms of forecasting, anticipation, prevention and building more resilient societies so that they can bounce back and recover quickly from any shock. We can help through research, by adapting food systems to climate change, having a more nutrition-based approach, targeting the most vulnerable, looking into land tenure systems, insurance schemes and forecasting. The challenge is a global one, but solutions need to be locally owned and tailored to specific circumstances. Examples are plenty: Ethiopia with its country-owned Productive Safety Net Programme focusing on social protection of the vulnerable segments of the population; or, inversely, the Democratic Republic of Congo which has an untapped agricultural potential but still faces a dramatic recurrence of acute food insecurity due to a combination of man-made and natural climate shocks.

Finally, if you had one key thing that you wanted to say to get people to sit up and listen, what would that be?

Several worrying trends pointing at the risk of unprecedented crises are evident. However, solutions exist and should be pursued. The EU wants to be a leader of change, a leader of direction-giving and a leader to put resources and efforts where needs need to be prioritised. Sometimes we speak a lot about agriculture, food systems and nutrition, but we need to put food systems high on the political agenda. We sometimes forget that agriculture and rural development are at the core of vast regions and has a key role to play to ensure the well-being and development of societies, especially the most vulnerable parts of the world in Africa, Asia, Central America and crucially, in Small Island States. We want to provide a human rights-based approach to policymaking by empowering women and young people by creating vibrant rural communities. That is also why we are promoting private investment and private sector engagement in agriculture. It is only through a blend of public and private sector investment that we can create the right framework conditions for young people to construct a prosperous livelihood in rural areas.

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