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)

Grounding sustainable development: a focus on trust in the Caux Dialogue on Land and Security

The establishment of the Sustainable Development Goals and the International Year of Soils in 2015 give cause to focus on the foundations of sustainable development.  How well are we managing the water and soils we depend on to produce the food we eat?  And, perhaps more fundamentally, who is responsible for the world’s soil, and who should be funding its wellbeing?  These questions about sharing risk and reward from natural resources are fundamental to the conceptualisation of sustainability.

The global food trade is worth in excess of five trillion dollars a year so there is a strong argument for ensuring farmers are sufficiently funded to manage land and water well.  Or is this wishful thinking, given the market’s insatiable appetite for lower food prices?

Where supply chains are short, there are times when the consumer is enthusiastic about funding farming in this way: think local organic farmers’ markets.  But where supply chains are long, complex, costly or just too mundane (think canned beans), then the competition for lower prices may drive the environmental costs out of the equation.

There is an issue of relationships here.  What is our relationship as consumers (those who eat food!) with producers – a.k.a. farmers?  It would be fair to say that in a diverse urbanised economy we are not as well connected as we were and that there is something regrettable about this given the critical importance of food, and of the natural environment, to our wellbeing.

If this is important at home, how about the global perspective?  Africa is increasingly engaging in the global trade of food.  And as it scales up its agricultural production, how can we ensure that the global competition for cheap food doesn’t come at the expense of Africa’s soil and water?

Given the role of land in conflict in Africa, this becomes an important question of security as well as of land, trade and livelihoods.

It is these converging dynamics that will be discussed in the Caux Dialogue on Land and Security this summer.  The issues all have considerable relational significance – trade, good governance and conflict are all functions of relationships.  Dr Michael Schluter of Relational Research will be opening the event alongside Rear Admiral Neil Morisetti, the UK’s former Climate and Energy Security Envoy.  One day will be given over to focussing on the interface between land, trade, food and water.  Scale-up of land restoration and building trust to enable collective action are themes for the other two days.

Conferences at Caux have a long history of building trust in the context of international affairs and in business.  The discussions began as a reconciliation process, high in the Alps, in the aftermath of the Second World War. The stunning views from the restored Belle Époque hotel provide a fine context for reflection and thoughtful dialogue, then as now.

For more information, and to register to attend the Dialogue, which is held in Caux between 10 and 14 July, see http://landlivespeace.org/

Brendan Bromwich is on the Steering Group of the Caux Dialogue on Land and Security. He will be speaking at the Relational Thinking International Conference in Cambridge in September on  reviewing the UN’s Work on Environmental Governance and Peace building in Sudan.