Food Diplomacy and its Application in Global Social Economic Development

By Shadrack Agaki

Economic development is centred on the harmonious relationship between different sectors and the actors involved. Diplomacy, on its part, seeks to foster the collective pursuit of shared interests and prevent violence from being employed to settle conflicts. 

Food has been and will continue to be the foundation of human and economic development. Without food, societies and empires crumble. Without healthy, safe, and nutritious food, the current global system would be upset, resulting in chaos and signalling the failure of the UN’s aspiration to save successive generations from the scourge of war and upholding the fundamental faith in dignity and worth of a human. 

Traditionally, diplomacy has been understood in the context of war, but the changing nature of global issues such as the prevailing crisis in the food systems permits a new conceptualisation and understanding of various forms of diplomacy, including food diplomacy.

Food systems

The food system refers to all activities and actors working in various production, processing, distribution, and consumption of food at the local, national, regional, and global levels. A defective global food system points to the failure of various parts and functions globally, giving rise to many ills such as food inaccessibility, affordability, and availability – an apt description of the current crisis.

In his book, Food Fix, Mark Hyman extensively explores the negative impact of the food system on people’s health. Eating unhealthy food has resulted in a rising number of obese and malnourished individuals because of insufficient nutrients. He links it to ultra-processed foods whose nutritional content has been compromised to maximise profit.  

Economically, monopolistic tendencies have continued to negatively impact smallholder and rural farmers whose high cost of production cannot effectively compete with global prices of products produced on a large scale by multi-corporations that benefit from economies of scale. Socially, the food systems crisis has led to extreme cases such as suicide incidences in India due to crop failure, as pointed out by Raj Patel in his book Stuffed and Starved. 

Consequently, food insecurity should be deemed the highest level of human indignity that every state and non-state actor must seek to alleviate. The current and future threat posed by the defective food system demands establishing a framework to guide the world out of the dilemma. To this end, it is encouraging that different actors are currently engaged in the conversation on transforming the food systems. 

Introducing food diplomacy

In December 2019, having understood the challenge, the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres appointed Dr Agnes Kalibata of Rwanda as his Special Envoy for the 2021 Food Systems Summit to help coordinate the global food system transformation process. This appointment signals the entrenching of food diplomacy into mainstream diplomacy. 

However, it should be noted that the conversation on transforming the food systems is mired with divergent views and opinions such that would realise little meaningful solution if the scenario continues.

For instance, on the global stage, there are accusations that national and transnational corporations that are keen to enhance profits have hijacked the food systems transformation process. The food sovereignty movements claim that since these corporations are focused on making profits, it would be difficult for them to offer healthy, safe, and nutritious food that is culturally appropriate to different communities.

Worth noting, the neoliberal paradigm under which the current global system is founded acknowledges the importance of business enterprises and profit-making. It is the reason current food security conceptualisation relies on the neoliberal paradigm approach. 

Food sovereignty

However, those advocating for food sovereignty opine that the neoliberalists have created the current defective food systems. They, therefore, call for a better form that includes empowering smallholders and the poor to have a more significant say in what food they produce without undue influence from multinational corporations.  

Given the failures of the current global food systems, there is a need to realign processes and methods to ensure that all people have access to safe and nutritious food that promotes healthy and sustainable livelihoods. 

For this goal to be achieved, several factors and actors at the local, national, regional, and global level must work harmoniously. This brings into fore the essence of food diplomats.

Enhancing food diplomacy

Food diplomats like Dr Kalibata shine a spotlight on what needs to be done going forward if the food security debate has to bear better results. The Envoy, working with the UN system and critical partners, provides leadership, guidance and strategic direction towards the Summit, aiming to maximise the co-benefits of a food systems approach across the entire 2030 Agenda and meet the challenges of climate change.

She is responsible for outreach and cooperation with key leaders, including governments, and other strategic stakeholder groups, to galvanise action and leadership for the Summit. She supports the various global and regional consultative events focused on food system transformation, planned during 2020 and 2021.

Despite the opposition from some quarters on Dr Kalibata’s appointment due to her association with international agri-food corporations, the spirit by the UN Secretary-General is laudable. It opens the doors for the introduction of food diplomacy.

Taking cues from the global stage, regions and countries must embrace the idea of food diplomacy. As the foundation of human and economic development, governments must put concerted effort to institute policies that promote sustainable production, distribution and consumption of safe and nutritious food. On the other hand, this process will require proper management and coordination of actors and relations, a function that food diplomats will better perform.

With globalisation and the attendant devolvement of actors and issues such as food insecurity that have adverse implications on global systems, states and regional governments must be compelled to introduce diplomatic offices concerned with food issues.

Since research has placed access to healthy, safe and nutritious food at the centre of the development of the health workforce that drives successful agri-food production and manufacturing processes, establishing a diplomatic food office is imperative. 

Nevertheless, it is essential to note that little success could be achieved if a deliberate effort is not put to harmonise the policy silos. To this end, food diplomats should ensure holistic development of policies aligned with international agreements and facilitate regional and local innovative and sustainable production, distribution, and consumption of healthy, safe and nutritious food.

Through dialogue and negotiations, food diplomats must also strive to ensure better working relationships among all actors from the government, multinational corporations to local communities. They should ensure that their views and interests are considered in policy formulation to avoid conflicts that will derail economic development.

Shadrack Agaki is an international food system policy analyst. He is also a communication & political advisor to West Mugirango Constituency MP

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