How do we change the way the world is fed?

Lisa Dreier
Managing Director, Advanced Leadership Initiative, Harvard University
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As we mark World Food Day this week, we are greeted by the news that 842 million people – about one in eight – are still chronically hungry. Although this represents an improvement on the figures from previous years, it is not enough, and it looks like we are at risk of missing the Millennium Development Goal of halving global hunger from 1990 to 2015.

This year’s World Food Day calls for “Sustainable Food Systems for Food Security and Nutrition.” Our challenge is to devise new approaches to produce more food for a growing population, while using fewer resources and providing better livelihoods for those who need them.

This type of change to the way the entire agricultural system functions can only come about when people work together towards a common goal. Governments, the private sector, civil society and farmers all play important roles, as do experts, international organizations and others. However, historically these groups have not pulled together, resulting in missed opportunities and inefficiency.

Thanks to a new generation of collaborative leaders, this is changing. Driven by pragmatism, they recognize that the challenges they face in agriculture cannot be solved by their organization alone. Government officials accept they will need co-investment and technology transfer from companies to meet their national development goals. Donor agencies realize that they will get more out of their scarce funds by collaborating. Companies recognize that civil society organizations can help them build relationships with the community. And farmer associations see that scientists and insurance companies can help them deal with the effects of climate change.

In addition to being pragmatic, this new generation of leaders is ambitious. They appreciate the urgent need to transform the agricultural sector using new approaches. They are committed, entrepreneurial and willing to take risks. They see competitors and antagonists in a new light – as potential allies – and are persuading their companies and organizations to work with these new partners.

Over the past four years, the World Economic Forum’s New Vision for Agriculture initiative has worked to engage and encourage such leaders. In countries as diverse as Mexico, Vietnam and Tanzania, these leaders are raising crop yields, increasing farmer income and reducing environmental impact. In Vietnam, a group of organizations worked with coffee farmers to help them increase their yields, gaining 14% more income while reducing water by 40% and carbon emissions by 54%. In the Indian state of Maharashtra, the state government encouraged a group of companies to engage over 140,000 farmers in their value chains.

The leaders of the partnerships we support are extraordinary individuals who are driving change in their countries. Many of them are facing similar challenges – related to infrastructure, water scarcity, smallholder farmers, financing or partnership-building. All of them are coming up with innovative solutions to these common problems. For example, leaders in Tanzania, Mozambique and Mexico are learning from each other’s efforts to focus investment around targeted agribusiness “clusters” and growth corridors. New institutions set up to facilitate partnerships in Ethiopia, Tanzania and Indonesia are serving as models for other countries.

To make the most of these innovations, and encourage the exchange of best practices and experiences, we have formed a Transformation Leaders Network. When they met for the first time in September, Network members from over 20 countries shared ideas, with potential solutions for common agricultural challenges flowing between Mexico and Tanzania, Indonesia and India, Vietnam and Ethiopia, and many more. The Network will continue working together and grow further this year.

The quest to establish sustainable food systems is a long-term one. We are conducting a real-time experiment as we seek to improve food production in a sustainable, inclusive way. Partnerships can serve as a laboratory to test new approaches. Like a global research network that encourages scientists to share information and build on each other’s results, connecting partnership leaders can speed up progress.

When we ask who will lead the transformation of the global food system, the answer is that we all will. We can do that more effectively if we exchange ideas, debate openly, and bring new voices and perspectives into the equation.

Lisa Dreier is Senior Director for Food Security and Development Initiatives at the World Economic Forum USA.

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