Past, Present and Future of Food Security

Notes from Food Security Conference

By Hannah Rowlands.

April 27th was the 2nd Annual Oxford Student Food Security Conference. Around 70 people attended this 1-day conference, with presentations from 9 researchers, covering a wide range of issues on the topic of food security, plus animated discussions after each session. The day ended with an interesting and entertaining keynote talk by Professor Doug Gollin.

Summary of Programme

Sara welcoming a delegatePanel 1: Food security and Environmental Change

Panel 2: Food Politics and Policies

Panel 3: Mixing Methods in Food Research: Ethnography to Econometrics

Keynote Speaker: Professor Doug Gollin

Panel 1: Food security and Environmental Change

"Navigating uncertain futures: CCAFS scenarios for food systems and environmental change in the global south"

Joost Vervoort giving his presentationDr Joost Vervoort, Scenarios Officer for CCAFS (Climate Change and Food Security) Programme, Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford

Joost's presentation introduced us to his work using multi-stakeholder scenarios to engage policy makers, private sector, NGOs (non-governmental organisations) and CSOs (civil society organisations), media and researchers in the inter-woven issues of food security, climate change and improved livelihoods in the developing world.

Joost explained how the scenarios are initially developed through participatory workshops with stakeholders in the region, such as East Africa, and are then quantified using existing agriculture-trade models - in this case, IFPRI's IMPACT model and IIASA's GLOBIOM.

"How much cropland is needed to feed 9 billion people in 2050? An agricultural model inter-comparison exercise"

Christoph Schmitz giving his presentationDr Christoph Schmitz, Researcher, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), Germany

Continuing the theme of agriculture-trade models, Christoph told us about his work on MAgPIE (Model of Agricultural Production and its Impact on the Environment) and AgMIP (The Agricultural Model Intercomparison and Improvement Project).

This inter-comparison highlighted both the differences between models and the sometimes strikingly different outcomes they produce, and also the similarities.

"Beyond climate, beyond yield: enhancing the adaptive capacity of Kenyan smallholders"

Tamma Carleton giving her presentationTamma Carleton, MSc Development Studies, University of Oxford

Tamma moved the discussion from global models and issues to a small-scale case study - that of Kenyan farmers and storage of potatoes. Her study highlights the tensions between adaptation to climate change and economic development.

She explained how the introduction of 3G potatoes, aeroponics and clean (disease-free) seeds in Kenya have increased yields impressively, but without storage for the additional potatoes, farmers are unable to benefit.

Tamma's research looks at how the introduction of simple storage facilities can help subsistence farmers cope with price volatilities for their potato crops. Her conclusion was that, in order for farmers to benefit, they need a combination of storage facilities, higher yield potatoes (eg. clean seed from aeroponics) and access to credit.


Discussion with Alfy Gathorne-HardyDiscussant: Dr Alfred Gathorne-Hardy, Research Fellow, "The Materiality of Rice" Project, University of Oxford

Alfy brought out three points from the previous presentations. Firstly, he noted how important local, field economics is, especially for the global-scale models.

Similarly, the economics assumption that people behave rationally is problematic. Several examples of seemingly irrational behaviour of individuals were mentioned, where farmers, for example, do not want to join forces with neighbours to share irrigation or storage facilities because they simply don't trust their neighbours.

He also brought up the issue of shocks, and how models are often not able to cope with non-linearities, and technologies, and the assumptions of continuous growth, especially in crop yields.

Break for Lunch

Delicious lunch!


Panel 2: Food Politics and Policies

"Food security in the Middle East: Past, Present and Future"

Justa Hopma, PhD Geography and Internationl Relations, Aberystwyth University

Justa's presentation focused on food security in Jordan and the current tipping point in the Middle East as to whether the region should be striving to be food self-sufficient or rely on imports.

According to economic liberals, market comparative advantage means the region should not try to grow its own food, but import it. But where does this leave local people and especially local farmers?

Justa's presentation also linked the issue of food security to the Arab Spring, where political change is tied in with social justice and a demand for respect and dignity.

"Feeding Dichotomies: Hunger and Politics in the Middle East and Africa"

Rebecca Farnum, MSc Water Security and International Development, University of East Anglia

Rebecca's presentation continued the focus on the Middle East, but was interested in the framing of hunger and politics in the Middle East and North Africa, compared with the framing of similar issues in Sub-Saharan Africa. Framing, here, meaning that people see what they expect to see when presented with information about an issue.

She pointed out that there is lots of work done on food and hunger in Sub-Saharan Africa, but not so much in the Middle East and North Africa.

Rebecca starkly brought out the dichotomy between how "hungry Africans" are presented, especially in the Western media, compared to "angry Arabs" in the Middle East. But this dichotomy is not just in the media - it also exists in the academic and NGO sphere, and has a direct impact on the type of foreign aid provided to these regions.

"Governing Food Security Globally: Stakeholders’ Opinions"

Codrin Paveliuc-Olariu, Post-doctoral researcher, University of Liege, Belgium

Codrin put forward a proposal for a global food security policy. He feels that most food policies don't look far enough into the future for food security.

Codrin has written a blog about the conference, which includes the slides from this talk.


Discussant: Dr Joost Vervoort

The discussion continued the theme of framing of the discourse, and the need for multi-stakeholder meetings where people can listen to each other's discourses.

Panel 3: Mixing Methods in Food Research: Ethnography to Econometrics

"Constructing maize for freedom: the evolution of the Tortilla Discourse in Mexico"

Alexandra Littaye, DPhil Geography and the Environment, Oxford

Alex gave us a presentation about the recent history of maize in Mexico. Her research is about the Slow Food movement, and it was interesting to hear how the "Tortilla Discourse" in Mexico connects to Slow Food.

Alex explained that the "Tortilla Discourse" is about how corn was seen, historically, as a cause of Mexican backwardness, that people should be eating wheat, which was seen as superior by Mexico's elite.

The 1940s to 1950s saw a large diet shift in Mexico from maize to wheat, although the introduction in the 1950s on hybrid maize subverted the image of maize, which was seen as a symbol of modernity.

the NAFTA agreement in the 1990s led to increased yields and the price of maize increased. This badly affected rural farmers and has led, through the action of civil society, to movements such as Slow Food, which presents, for example, blue maize as having added value because it is grown by smallholder rural farmers.

"Hunger Games: The public distribution system, food security and child malnutrition in Orissa, India"

Mihika Chatterjee giving her presentationMihika Chatterjee, MPhil Development Studies, Oxford

Mihika presented her meticulous research on the Public Distribution System of food, mainly rice, for the poor in India. Her research has focused on Koraput in Orissa, a region known widely for its poverty.

"Food security and the capabilities approach: an anthropological perspective"

Serena Stein, PhD Anthropology, Princeton University

Serena's talk discussed the application of Amartya Sen's capabilities approach to food security.

Serena's research focuses on urban food security in Mozambique.


Discussant: Dr Catherine Dolan, University Lecturer in Marketing, Culture and Society, Saïd Business School, Oxford

Keynote Speaker: Professor Doug Gollin

Doug Gollin giving his keynote talkDoug's talk was, in his words, an economist's view on food security, looking at the links between production and distribution of food and global food security.

He asked: what is disctinctive about food and agriculture, compared to other economic commodities? Agriculture produces raw ingredients for food, which is vital for human life. Agriculture also uses physical space in a non-trivial way.

We should remember that, when people talk about a "global food market", that in reality markets for food are segmented, heterogeneous and not well integrated globally, especially in developing countries. Poor infrastructure, for example in Uganda, means that the global food price is really not that relevant to rural farmers, as they do not have strong links to the global food market. However, this does not mean that they are untouched by it.

The global market is not really frictionless, and there are physical obstacles that prevent this picture of a frictionless market being correct. One can also see cultural and political limits in a similar way to these physical obstacles, preventing food security for some people.

Doug then went on to talk about science and research for food security - an encoruagement to the students in the audience to continue working in this field. He said that producing food does matter, and that some market failures are due to a lack of the right kind of technological seed research.

Compare this, however, with social science research. We need an improved understanding of the cultural, social, and economic dynamics of this heterogeneous food system. This will lead to change within institutions, and changes to incentives and policies. It can also lead to new ideas and narratives for future food security.

He finished by pointing out the new research tools and opportunities available today: better data and ICT, improved access to fieldwork, and a change in attitudes to research in the developing world.

You can download the slides from his talk here

Food Security Conference 2014?

The Organising Committee: Adam, Serena, Tamma, Sara, CoryCongratulations to the graduate students (Adam, Serena, Tamma, Sara, Oday & Cory) who organised the conference this year - it had a great turn out, and some really interesting presentations and discussions.

We hope you find a new generation of graduate students this academic year to help run it again next year - if you are reading this and would like to get involved, please get in touch with the Student Forum.

If you do run another conference next year, the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food will be here to support it again!

Photo Credit: Photos taken by Serena Stein

Share this article