Vulnerability and resilience of Pacific Island food systems in the face of climate change

PAcificIslandFoodSysI’m grateful to an old Fijian friend of mine for linking me up with Dr Mary Taylor. She was a lead editor for an exhaustive 573 page book on the ‘Vulnerability of Pacific Island agriculture and forestry to climate change’. I caught up with her in Wales, where she now lives, but she spent 22 years working in the Pacific, 8 years in Samoa, and 14 in Fiji, where she was manager of the Centre for Pacific Crops and Trees (CePaCT), the regional gene bank. The book covers the Pacific Communities, agriculture and climate change and examines the vulnerability of staple food crops, export commodities, horticultural crops, livestock and forests to climate change. A key finding was that the traditional farming systems were best in terms of resilience. You can hear more in this interview:

Click here for a pdf of the book. Here are some further references:

  1. Mary Taylor, Vincent Lebot, Andrew McGregor, Robert J. Redden  2018 Sustainable Production of Roots and Tuber Crops for Food Security under Climate Change IN Food Security and Climate Change: Shyam S. Yadav, Robert J. Redden, Jerry L. Hatfield, Andreas W. Ebert, Danny Hunter (EDs)   Wiley Online Libraray
  2. Bell J and Taylor M. 2015. Building climate-resilient food systems for Pacific Islands. Penang, Malaysia: WorldFish. Program Report: 2015-15
  3. C. Cvitanovic et al. 2016 Linking adaptation science to action to build food secure Pacific Island communities Climate Risk Management (2016),
  4. Bell J, Taylor M, Amos M, Andrew N. 2016. Climate change and Pacific Island food systems. CCAFS and CTA. Copenhagen, Denmark and Wageningen, the Netherlands.
  5. Kaoh et al. 2016 More resilient cropping systems for food security and livelihoods in the Pacific islands. Acta Horticulturae DOI:10.17660/ActaHortic.2016.1129.8/
  6. Lebot, V 2013 Coping with insularity: the need for crop genetic improvement to strengthen adaptation to climate change and food security in the Pacific Environ Dev Sustain DOI 10.1007/s10668-013-9445-1
  7. A.M. McGregor, L.D. Tora, V. Lebot 2016 Planting breadfruit orchards as a climate change adaptation strategy for the Pacific islands
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Ireland’s bid to be a global sustainable food system leader – challenges at home and abroad

The Irish government just published its  ‘Food Vision 2030 – A World Leader in Sustainable Food Systems’ at the beginning of August. In July, I joined a webinar at which aid agencies Trócaire and Oxfam Ireland published their report ‘ Sustainable Food Systems: Steps Ireland can take to become a global leader’ assessing the Irish government’s ambition to become a champion of fair and sustainable food systems on the global stage. Here, the report’s author, Sinead Mowlds, outlines some of their key recommendations for Ireland’s policies at home and abroad.

Here’s a link to the video of the launch event for the Oxfam Ireland/Trocaire report and here’s a link to download their report.

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Four key words for the UN #FoodSystems Summit – power, control, risks, benefits.

There’s a veritable avalanche of reports, webinars and meetings around food systems at the moment. From the locally focussed National Food Strategy for England and Proposals for Sustainable Food Systems in Ireland (download report here), to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2021, to the pre-meeting for the UN Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) in September, the programme of events seems as packed as the Olympics – and just as difficult to follow everything that’s going on.

I joined a couple of webinars this week too, one organised by Chatham House and the Bharat Krishak Samaj (Farmers’ Forum India) on ‘Power Relationships Within Food Systems’*, the other by the Global People’s Summit on Food Systems on The People’s Track to Food Security, Genuine Development and Just Peace (Webinar on War, Occupation, and Sanctions) . While the Chatham House webinar was to feed into the UNFSS, the People’s Summit has been set up by those feeling disempowered by the way the UNFSS is developing to counter what they see as its corporate capture.

It’s these two webinars that prompted this blog about what I see as four key words to use when looking at what happens in our food systems and the UNFSS: power, control, risk, benefits. First, power. As was said in the Chatham House webinar, talking of food system transformation without addressing power relations is pointless. Power is almost always absent from economic textbooks which tend to ignore the respective bargaining power of parties involved, said Olivier De Schutter, former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food.

That these four words are key words in thinking about food system transformation came out of my writing with Tony Worsley The Food System – A Guide, published in 1995, when food systems were little talked about compared with today. What struck me is that it is human agency, individually and collectively, through the exercise of social, political, cultural, military, technological and economic power, in different times and places since the agricultural revolution that has created the food systems we have today. It is action by humans that has driven the loss of biodiversity, created today’s climate change and underpins inequality. Too often when you hear discussions about how food systems work they are abstracted from the reality of who drives what.

The question to ask the UNFSS and the other summits is who or what institutions are empowered or disempowered by what is proposed – now and in the future? What outcomes may be locked in or out?

The next question is how do different kinds of power enable different actors to enhance or diminish their influence and control of over different aspects of the food system? Such controls range from farming practices to cultural norms, legal regimes, such as those on trade rules, seed laws and intellectual property, to the direction of research and development, gender relations and whose knowledge is included and counts.

The other two words concern who and what carries the risks involved from the actions taken or not taken to transform food systems, and who get the benefits from them, now and in the future.

The need for change is clear but it needs to be a just change. Olivier De Schutter argued one essential requirement was to address the ability of major actors to translate their power into policy. Here, he said, the WHO’s work on tobacco provides an example where big companies are not allowed to be involved in shaping the rules.

This point is reinforced by some interesting Australian research I just came across. Three Researchers from the Menzies Centre for Health Governance at the ANU’s School of Regulation and Global Governance (RegNet) examined what regulatory governance conditions are necessary and sufficient for food policy success for nutrition outcomes. The authors identified two regulatory governance pathways that are sufficient for policy success in relation to population nutrition and each requires either:

  1. A combination of minimal industry involvement; government-led policy with mandatory regulation; use of international best practice instrument design, and comprehensive monitoring and enforcement.
  2. A combination of minimal industry involvement, best practice instrument design and comprehensive monitoring.

* There are recordings of the Chatham House webinar, the Sustainable Food Systems in Ireland launch and The People’s Summit video on their respective websites, just follow the links. There is also a short video explaining the Australian research on their website.

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Clean drinking #water and safe #sanitation are essential parts of healthy #food systems

Screenshot 2021-07-02 at 12.37.23While COVID-19 has focussed attention on lack of clean water for millions people to wash their hands, clean water and proper sanitation are also essential for healthy food and farming. Here, Rick Johnston from the World Health Organisation explains the key findings from the WHO/UNICEF report ‘Progress on household drinking water, sanitation and hygiene 2000 – 2020’. While there has been some progress towards achieving universal access to basic water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) service there is still a long way to go for everyone to have access, and for untreated waste water to stop contaminating agricultural production. Without much greater effort the chances of meeting the Sustainable Development Goals for both water and food are slim.

You can read the press release about the report here and download the full report here 

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Safeguarding biodiversity for food and agriculture needed urgently

Global biodiversity is severely threatened, including that which we depend upon for food, as the 2019 landmark report on the State of the World’s Biodiversity for Food and Agriculture showed. The Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (CGRFA) at the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation is the only permanent intergovernmental body that specifically addresses biological diversity for food and agriculture and has over 170 members. Here, the Commission’s Secretary, Dr Irene Hoffmann  discusses what this biodiversity is*,  what it means for food and agriculture, its gender dimensions and what needs to be done to address this dramatic decline.

She explains the need to include the associated biodiversity important for the plants and animals we use and the relative lack of knowledge about much of this. Biodiversity differs between small farms (<2ha), which account for 80% of farms but only occupy about 12% of the global farmland, and large farms (>50ha), which have 70% of the farmland.

Dr Hoffmann also discusses the links to three interconnected meetings in 2021 – the Climate Change Summit (COP 26), the UN Food Systems Summit and the Convention on Biological Diversity and its post 2020 Framework. She also explains the relationship between the CBD, which covers all biodiversity, and the CGRFA, with a Global Dialogue and High-level Segment on the Role of Food and Agriculture in the Global Biodiversity Framework planned for 6-7 July 2021

* You can download some frequently asked questions about biodiversity for food and agriculture here, find more details about the related global instruments here, download the FAO Strategy on Mainstreaming Biodiversity Across Agricultural Sectors here, download the ‘State of knowledge of soil biodiversity – Status, challenges and potentialities’ from here, and download a list of the CGRFA members here.

See also:

Pilling, D., Bélanger, J. & Hoffmann, I. (2020). Declining biodiversity for food and agriculture needs urgent global actionNat Food 1, 144–147.

Pilling, D., Bélanger, J., Diulgheroff , S., Koskela, J., Leroy, G., Mair, G. and Hoffmann, I. (2020) “Global status of genetic resources for food and agriculture: challenges and research needs : Global status of genetic resources for food and agriculture”, Genetic Resources, 1(1), pp. 4-16.

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COVID-19 reveals foodsystems weaknesses and lessons for its transformation says IFPRI’s 2021 Global Food Policy Report

CoverTransforming Food Systems after COVID-19’ is both a big challenge and the title of the Washington, DC-based International Food Policy Research Institute’s (IFPRI) latest 124 page report. Here, John McDermott, who has directed the CGIAR Research Programme on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health at IFPRI in for the past 10 years, explains some of the key findings.

There are links to a range of tools and resources in the report (p18&19, see below) and you can hear the launch event here. The report’s 6 chapters look beyond the pandemci


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Civil society must collaborate in a long food movement for sustainable food systems by 2045

LongFoodMovmtCivil society needs to collaborate together in a Long Food Movement to build sustainable food systems over the next 25 years argues a new report from The International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food) in collaboration with the ETC Group‘A Long Food Movement? Transforming Food Systems by 2045’. In this interview Pat Mooney, lead author of the report explains more:

The report maps out two very different futures for food systems, people and the planet. It argues that if the current “agribusiness-as-usual” continues then the keys of the food system will be handed over to data platforms, private equity firms, and e-commerce giants, accelerating environmental breakdown and jeopardizing the food security and livelihoods of billions.

This can be different if the initiative is reclaimed by civil society and social movements – from grassroots organizations to international NGOs, from farmers’ and fishers’ groups to cooperatives and unions if these movements succeed in collaborating more closely – to transform financial flows, governance structures and food systems from the ground up. United, civil society could force a shift of up to USD 4 trillion from the industrial food chain to food sovereignty and agroecology through such a ‘Long Food Movement’ by 2045 argues the report. This includes USD 720 billion in subsidies going to big commodity production, and as much as USD 1.6 trillion in healthcare savings from a crackdown on junk food. The sum total of these actions could cut 75% of food system emissions.

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UK government consultation on regulation of genetic technologies in England presents one-sided case and fails ethics test given its potentially profound consequences for the future of #food and #farming, says Food Ethics Council

I’ve been a member of the Food Ethics Council since 2000 and today our executive director, Dan Crossley, has written an open letter to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs expressing concerns about the consultation on genetic technologies that closes tomorrow (March 17th). This issue is of global concern so I’m publishing our open letter on my blog to share it more widely. 

“Public consultation on the regulation of genetic technologies

The ‘public consultation on the regulation of genetic technologies’ has potentially profound consequences for the future of food and farming.

I am writing to do two things. Firstly, to express concerns about the consultation process itself. Secondly, to propose two tests that we would urge Defra to apply before moving forward with any decision about weakening regulations on gene-edited GMOs, as we believe the consultation fails to address some critically important questions. Note – we will publish this as an open letter on our website.

I am Executive Director of the Food Ethics Council, a registered charity whose mission is to accelerate the shift to fair food systems that respect people, animals and the planet. I hope that we share a vision of a world where everyone eats well and global hunger is a distant memory; where farmers and food producers make a decent living, animals are treated humanely, and the biosphere is nurtured in all our actions.

Concerns about the consultation process and framing

While we welcome the principle of open consultation, we are keen the UK government learns lessons from previous consultations on genetically modified organisms. GMOs including gene-edited GMOs, are highly contested areas, with contested science and different, often competing, views. We want meaningful, constructive engagement and a whole food systems approach, from ‘field to fork’.

The consultation is presented in a one-sided way, which is not desirable or appropriate, as it feels to lots of civil society organisations like a fait accompli. This is likely to lead to further polarisation. It also excludes a number of important aspects of the technology, as well as moral perspectives. Much of the consultation document uses technical language that is not appropriate for a non-specialist audience. For these reasons, many will be put off taking part in the consultation. We want to encourage active participation of as many people as possible (in their role as food citizens) in government consultations of this kind, as I’m sure you do.

Defra’s consultation document states that “GE has the potential to make producing abundant, healthy food part of reducing the environmental impact of a growing global population. It could fine tune and speed up the natural breeding process targeted towards environmental gains in England and help us reach climate and biodiversity goals. It could also help us produce pest and disease resistant crops and disease resistant or resilient livestock to help us adapt to the changing climate. And in many cases, the potential to reduce inputs into agricultural production will also indirectly reduce carbon emissions.

This begs questions, both about supporting evidence for the claims of potential benefits and about potential concerns or risks, including concentration of corporate power and ownership over food production, contamination and ‘off-target effects’, which do not appear to have been appropriately considered or presented in the consultation document. The absence of information about existing technologies and processes (e.g. biodiverse agroecology) that already achieve, if not excel in realising, similar outcomes confirms the apparent bias. If the consultation is (as we hope) genuine and Defra is truly undecided about whether to weaken regulations, then surely it should not be presented only with claimed benefits.

Two tests the ‘regulation of genetic technologies’ consultation needs to pass

In our view, there are (at least) two critical tests the consultation will need to pass in order for the exercise to have been meaningful. We do not believe the consultation currently looks set to pass these tests. However, in the spirit of wanting constructive engagement, we set these out below, together with selected key questions that we believe it is important to address. Our two tests are:


Related to these, below are a selection of important questions to address:

  • What is the scientific evidence underpinning the consultation? Please can Defra publish supporting evidence so it is available to all interested parties. What evidence is there for claims of benefits made? And what evidence of risks?
  • What science substantiates the highly contestable proposition that gene-edited GMOs possessing genetic changes “could have been introduced by traditional breeding” and that “the safety of an organism is dependent on its characteristics and use rather than on how it was produced”?
  • If approved, what measures are there to ensure the technology is regulated effectively and only used within a specific set of approved uses that deliver public goods?
  • What are ‘other techniques’? The consultation refers to gene editing and ‘other techniques’. Defra must be clear, specific and explicit on which other techniques, as different techniques are likely to have different outcomes, which may or may not be acceptable.
  • How do gene-edited GMOs fit into the broader food system, i.e. given that agriculture does not exist in isolation?
  • If the weakening of regulations is approved, how will this impact the UK’s ability to trade in food (and agricultural products) with others, particularly the EU where much of our current agricultural production is exported to?
  • What is the ethical justification for genome editing in UK agriculture (and food systems more broadly)? The consultation document does not specify the ethical framework within which the final decision will be made. Where is the full ethical appraisal? If that does not yet exist, will that ethical analysis be done before any final decision is made about whether to approve the weakening of regulations?
  • What impacts would the weakening of regulations achieve in the balance of power – including between large corporate agribusinesses, primarily owned by those in the Global North, and smaller farmers, especially (but not only) in the Global South?
  • Who will have the economic and technical means to benefit from these regulatory changes, and crucially who will be disempowered?
  • What estimates have been made about the effect of weakening regulations on the benefits that might accrue to corporations, the academic establishment that owns many of the patents and industrial producers, at the expense of biodiversity-enhancing farmers and other ‘food citizens’?
  • How can we make the regulatory framework more democratic and independent of corporate and research interests?
  • If regulations were weakened, what estimates have been made of the extent to which this would, given the evidence of recent history, further lock the UK into industrial farming models, and thereby risk undermining the claimed environmental wins through these technologies?
  • What are the opportunities foregone by weakening regulations on gene editing processes and gene-edited GMOs and their products?

We are making a short submission to the consultation separately. However, in the absence of answers to the tests and questions above, it is very difficult to make a full and reasoned response.

We believe in bringing ethics to the centre of our food systems. It is imperative that the ethical criteria against which a decision is made are fully articulated, gain consensus support and ultimately are met. Ethical justification must weigh benefits against harm and who (or what) will gain the benefits and who (or what) is excluded and at risk of harm.

Before moving to any decision to weaken the regulations, we would ask you to respond to, and consult further on, the serious questions we raise about the ethics – and the potential effects and impacts – of new genetic technologies.

We would be grateful if you could write back to explain how you intend to meet our tests. We look forward to hearing from you.”

Please do explore the Food Ethics Ccouncil website to see the wide range of issues we cover, from food citizenship to meat, livestock and dairy to food and poverty. The Council works to accelerate the shift towards fair food systems that respect people, animals and the planet.

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Food in a Changing Climate – an Australian perspective from Prof Alana Mann

SN_FoodChangingClimate_CVRAustralian Professor Alana Mann discusses some key themes from her recent book ‘Food in a Changing Climate’ in this wide-ranging conversation. She believes Australia could be seen as a case study in what can go badly wrong if you are naive about climate change and our food systems. She also says drawing on indigenous knowledge of what works in the difficult environment there and elsewhere could also help in facing the challenges to food systems from climate change.

Alana argues for the rejuvenation and strengthening of local and regional food systems that have been steadily eroded in the name of economic ‘efficiency’. She draws on case studies from around the world in her book to illustrate how the commodification of food has made us particularly vulnerable to climate change, extreme weather events, and pandemics such as COVID19. She says these shocks reveal the danger of our reliance on increasingly complex supply chains – dominated by a decreasing number of mega-companies – for our food security.

Here are links to some of the things she mentioned in her interview: Bruce Pascoe’s book, Dark Emu Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident?; Graham Riches book, Food Bank Nations; website for FoodLab Detroit  and a Ted Talk by Devita Davison of FoodLab Detroit; websites for FoodLab Sydney; the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact; and, Food Sovereignty. Here are links to some media reports on the issues discussed in the book re: almonds and plant-based protein and meat replacements

Alana Mann, Food in a Changing Climate, Emerald Publishing, 2021.

You can hear an interview with Graham Riches entitled ‘First world hunger – surplus food for surplus people?’ here and read a guest blog by him entitled ‘Corporate Charity undermines the human right to adequate food and nutrition’ here.

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Pharma, food and innovation – time for a rethink, says Prof Graham Dutfield

Rules on patents and other forms of intellectual property as well as other legal requirements in licensing agreements increasingly enmesh changes across food, farming, medicines, biodiversity and more. These are changing the meaning of property so that seed you might buy, for example, is not yours to do with as you wish. Here Prof Graham Dutfield reflects on why a broader understanding of innovation, and a rethink of these legal frameworks, is needed if all those who could be able to benefit from innovations will be able to do so.

The focus of his work over several decades has been on the governance of technology, knowledge and property in the context of such major global challenges as public health, food security, biodiversity conservation, ecosystems management, and climate change. He continues to engage in the struggle for the rights of indigenous peoples in relation to their knowledge and genetic resources. What we see as normal today has a history and is the result of the interplay of different interests and forces. His most recent book is ‘That High Design of Purest Gold: A Critical History of the Pharmaceutical Industry, 1880-2020‘, which may also hold lessons for the direction in which food system developments are heading.

That High Design of Purest Gold: A Critical History of the Pharmaceutical Industry, 1880-2020. World Scientific, 2020 – for 30% discount use this code when ordering: WSPHARMIND30 (valid until 30 April 2021) Book launch Youtube link:

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