Why cheap food may be damaging the environment

“Any environmental issue involves looking at who the stakeholders are and what are the relationships among them. If you don’t deal with the relationship problem at the root, then you will fail in the end”

– Dr Michael Schluter at the Caux Dialogue on Land and Security 2015

This pithy quote caught the theme of the Caux Dialogue on Land and Security well. The event brought together a group of practitioners, researchers and senior policy makers in a reflective environment for a conversation in which the dynamics of land and security were explored in depth. The dialogue contrasted the positive and negative feedback loops between political and environmental factors in land degradation, poverty and conflict.

One of the exciting good news stories shared at the event came from northern Ethiopia, where there have been major results on land restoration and on building social cohesion that together put the region in a much better place to withstand the current trials of a failed wet season.

However, the dialogue recognised that work in those geographical areas experiencing social and environmental fragility is not sufficient alone. The world is interconnected, not just through the migrant flows when things don’t work out – a striking reminder though that is – but also through the vitally important but less visible ties of global trade.

Trade in food arguably represents the most important set of relationships determining how society at large is connected with the farming community – who are, after all, the world’s front line environmental managers. As Stockholm Water Prize Laureate, Prof Tony Allan, explained:

“We are living a contradiction. We are addicted to cheap food. But we do not realise that asking farmers to produce under-priced food means they cannot provide the ecosystem services which we also need them to provide. Low food prices make it impossible for farmers to attend to the environment”

Food prices link everyone on the planet with farmers. So if there are problems with regulation of land and conflict affecting farmers in Africa, or problems closer to home as a result of farmers lacking incentives and resources to control polluted or excessive run-off into rivers, then reorganising society’s relationships with farmers is key.

The scope of the dialogue was broad – but it’s hard to think of a topic of which it is truer to say that it affects us all… The report, keynote speeches and some of the great presentations at the event are available here.

Brendan Bromwich is a water and environment consultant and was one of the speakers at the 2015 Relational Thinking International Conference.

Photo: Caux Palace – Switzerland (By Airflore on Flickr)