Home Economics & PolicyFood security A declaration of interdependence

A declaration of interdependence

For a real transformation of the agro-food sector and food sovereignty

by Thomas Schellen

Language becomes a tool of fools when it simplifies complex systems and developments into slogans such as democracy and revolution. One blatant case of language confusion that today dogs many discussions of food security in a worldwide context, is the depiction of hunger as a sudden global crisis that needs to be tackled with grand politics and tools of international diplomacy.

The alarmist use of terms like the “global wheat crisis” and “international food crisis” runs afoul of the contradictory evidence of previous complacency over food wastage, and threats of food insecurity around the world. Moreover, the sensationalist and political grandstanding seen in the past few months contains the danger of chasing quick fixes for politically useful food insecurity.

Fixes that remove artificial barriers to exports by warring parties and throw money at balance of trade disruptions can address the moment, but will in all likelihood fade in the next year. The politically and economically hyped wheat crisis of 2022, having turned into yesteryear’s narrative and exhausted national attention spans, will then distract from the need to tackle the deep-running climate, conflict, food distribution and utilization challenges which are entwined with the coming winter’s predicted famine in parts of Somalia. And that is without considering the persistent problems in equitable production of food in a world that is, according to United Nations’ (UN) projections, heading from being 8 billion strong at the end of this year towards a global population of 9 billion around 2037.

On a smaller scale, this dilemma of juxtaposed, unresolved, systemic problems and overemphasized temporary factors plays out as its own drama in Lebanon. When compared to fears over the availability of food, which appeared to have been aggravated by sudden new barriers to the importing of Ukrainian and Russian wheat (including speculative price peaks that railed global commodity food markets during this summer) and by the loss of the silos at Beirut port, the politics behind the domestic social safety net design, and the depreciation of the Lebanese pound, continue to be the major driver of food insecurity in Lebanon. These problems have been ignored either deliberately or incompetently but, in any case, recklessly.

Lebanon is a tiny but fertile country. The incongruence between historic reality and inflated problems of food insecurity today is another, more serious contradiction of note. Tiny countries can have huge problems in comparison to their demographic or geographic scale. But as long as they are properly run, tiny countries are good at developing solutions for their own problems.

Taking Lebanon as a system and man-made paradigm rather than a territory, this polity is equipped, or one can say cursed, with a governance system of questionable provenance. Today, the Lebanese governance system is rooted in an imperially and colonially malformed past, and in recent decades has deteriorated into a discordant anti-system of state organization.

Territorial reach is an important component to land and sea-based food production, however. Lebanon is an intriguing case of systemic behavior, but still a very small country. It is the 37th smallest among almost 200 countries, not counting unresolved or partly autonomous territories. Both aspects, the systemic and territorial one, have consequences for national food security.

When engaging in as much international discourse about food security as affected stakeholders, like how the public in Lebanon and Executive are doing this year, profound changes of food systems in national economies and a targeting of global food sovereignty have to be put on an emergency action agenda which also includes the management of increasing intra-national and international conflicts, as well as inequality and mitigation of climate risks.

Food, in this context, is both a crucial base for human sustenance and perhaps the most powerful agent of constructive transition available to mankind. But this transformational power has to be understood and used without ideological partisanship, beginning from the terminology attached to food and agriculture.

On a conceptual level, it defies conventional wisdom to speak of the revolution of anything in an agricultural context. It is a misnomer, but also seems unhelpful for thinking about the path of future agricultural transitions when past centuries’ ideological framing of scientific research have labeled long periods of gradual innovation and transitional development in the system of agriculture as “revolutions”, even though they are changes that are organic in every sense of the word. Consider the “first agricultural revolution” with its 20th century host of associated theories, the so-called Arab and British agricultural revolutions, or the last century’s “green revolution” that occurred under the increasing grip of corporatized cultivation of soil, and the degradation of diverse rural cultures of soil-based tribes and families.

Interacting with the seasons, the land, and nature’s inputs, plus investing the human labor needed for agricultural productiveness, is a fundamentally conservative act – in the sense of ‘conservare’, the Latin verb meaning “to keep safe” or “to preserve”. Revolution expresses the very different intention of rolling back a status quo perceived as failed; it is the act of turning everything and nothing around, whatever the cost and violence that comes with it.

Food sovereignty 

For the purpose of a better discussion on the integrated future of agriculture, in a global system of human physical and mental sustenance on the level of a species that has created the Anthropocene, let us discuss what might be called planet-wide food sovereignty; the world-encompassing achievement of food security with all that it entails, implemented by a global network of interdependent national food systems.

Then let us discuss democratic food sovereignty. Drawing on definitions devised earlier in this century, this refers to the right of peoples to define their own food system and agriculture: the system of producing and making accessible culturally rooted and ethically accepted food on the level of a clearly defined national or sub-national realm, while maintaining respect for nature through the use of ecologically and economically sound, sustainable methods.

Thinking of the more than six million people who have made their home in this country, let us propose that Lebanon needs a micro-to-macro “agroconservalution” aimed at food sovereignty. This is to declare that a solution in agriculture and in food system construction on the famously fertile Lebanese soil would never be a revolution, but more of an incremental series of interconnected innovations and system building.

The neologism proposed here is not seeking to enter the dictionary as much as it wants to be a reminder for the harmonization of conservation (“conserva”) and revolution (“lution”), or actually innovation in a holistic management of everything, “agro”.

A Lebanese food security solution would be microeconomic; from an entrepreneurial ground-up sense, with digitally advanced startups and initiatives that are found along the entire food value chain, from inputs to production, to testing, packaging, branding, marketing, distribution and equitable social access. For better micro interaction with the supply side, Executive calls to elevate building awareness for agro-food entrepreneurship among the public.

Even more importantly, we ask for higher awareness and attention from economic and policy decision makers. From the rise of freekeh as a Lebanese superfood, to the potential for biomass utilization, there are many emerging subsectors of the agro-economy which warrant such attention.

In suggesting an effort among the private sector for improving awareness and market access, Executive calls on retailers, especially leading supermarket chains, to promote domestically produced processed foodstuffs, and donate prominent shelf space and awareness campaigns to small local producers and quality food processing startups.

The new food security solution has to be macroeconomic in equal measure. This could be achieved, if the state, as partners in a new real economic focus, was achieving regulatory and supervisory diligence, and finally providing strategic support to food security by governmental entities that work in a synergistic concert.

Instead of asking for another internationally funded and conducted study, or presenting projects with high corruption risk, or devising the third or fourth iteration of an agricultural strategy that is overflowing in the right words and underwhelming in presenting budgetary possibilities and all numerical assessments, a homegrown consolidated environmental, cultural, agro-industrial, and agricultural strategy is in order.

The insufficiency of public systems underlying food safety and upholding food security targets was evidenced this autumn by the cholera outbreak. It made for an epidemic that was avoidable, considering cases were heaviest among population groups who could least protect themselves by using simple means of hygiene and uncontaminated water because they cannot access such luxuries.

To sum up the idea of “agroconservalution”, micro and macro solutions such as above would be constituent components of global food sovereignty in alignment with the understanding that nations’ contributions to international peace are not achievable by striving for preeminence with economic, military or political means, but by seeking to contribute to global self-sufficiency at a time of new challenges of planetary proportions.

On the national scale of Lebanon, a new key performance indicator of “agro-conserva-lution’’ would be agro; in the sense of comprising agricultural, agro-industrial, and food industry stakeholders in hospitality, delivery, and humanitarian services. It would conserve; rebuild and improve soil and social and economic structures of an historic small-holder rural system and the famed Lebanese culinary tradition and healthy diet. It would change; radically from the roots up – innovate primary, secondary, tertiary, and vocational agro-sector education, rural inclusiveness, access to finance, social safety, interaction with markets, and most of all the legislative approach and real-economy mindset of the state.

The change and innovation trajectory from the short term onward would include continued expansion and diversification into specialty production segments from wine and goat’s cheese, to healthier alcoholic beverages and high-in-demand organic fruit and vegetable preserves, to herb and spice mixes. It would be a fitting dream for a country that has nothing to lose but the abysmal dysfunctionalities of its previous governance and economic systems.

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Thomas Schellen

Thomas Schellen is Executive's editor-at-large. He has been reporting on Middle Eastern business and economy for over 20 years. Send mail

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