Food reform in the face of rapid social change

“If I was a Minister of Agriculture, I’d sit in the Minister of Trade’s office and work together on developing a clear plan, commodity by commodity.”

The words of Tom Kehoe, Deputy Director Africa Agriculture, discussing the challenges involved in implementing reforms to Africa’s continental agri-food policy under the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) framework.

He was not alone in emphasising the fact that production considerations are only one part of the wider picture. Several colleagues on the panel convened at AGRF 2020 to discuss the priorities and challenges involved agreed with him.

Harry Hagan, Group Head, East and Central Africa and Prosperity at the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, recommended a virtual whole-government approach. As he explained, ministries responsible for factors ranging from finance and standards to tax and customs all have a key role in helping to meet the fast-changing needs of consumers, markets and society in the face of rapid population growth, urbanization, rising incomes and changing dietary habits.

There was also broad agreement that reform includes country-specific solution design. As Dr. Holger Kray, Practice Manager for Agriculture and Food Security at the World Bank, put it, “Establishing a free trade area is not a moment in time where things happen automatically – countries will need to make a major effort.”

Dr. Abebe Haile-Gabriel, Assistant Director-General and Regional Representative for Africa at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), emphasized the importance of country-level action underpinning a continental and regional framework. “This will take real leadership and commitment,” he said.

But he had a stark warning for the audience. “Africa today is significantly off track in achieving its hunger goals, even without the impact of COVID-19,” he said. “We need to ask ourselves why we are not delivering against SDG2 or the Malabo Declaration. Business is being done as usual, which means we cannot reach the targets. Investment is needed in agriculture.”

Ted McKinney, the US Under Secretary of Agriculture for Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs, took a much more optimistic approach, stressing the fact that US agriculture is highly efficient thanks to the use of new technologies including genetic engineering. “We used GMO technology on my own farm to whip the Fall armyworm,” he said. But he also highlighted how protectionist policies around the world, particularly in Europe, can make uptake unattractive. “The word is that if just one such seed gets to Europe they’ll reject your products,” he added.

Mr. McKinney was keen to emphasize that decisions on how Africa should progress were for Africa to make on her own behalf. “We’re here to help, not to dictate,” he said. “You’ve been dictated to for too long. So please be bold in your decision-making – and plan, plan, and plan again.”

So it is right that Dr. Haile-Gabriel provided the session’s clearest view of the way ahead, when he gave five recommendations for successful reform. “First, to take a food system-based approach,” he said. “Next, implement a transformational approach across all stakeholders. Third, build resilience into what is currently a vulnerable system. Next, focus on technology and digitization. And finally, enhance mutual accountability for actions and results.”

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