Five Questions with Barbara Ekwall of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization

From by Michael Halper
Five Questions with Barbara Ekwall of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization

Food Tank, in partnership with the George Washington University, is hosting the 1st Annual Food Tank Summit in Washington D.C. on January 21-22, 2015.

This two-day event will feature more than 75 different speakers from the food and agriculture field. Researchers, farmers, chefs, policy makers, government officials, and students will come together for panels on topics including food waste, urban agriculture, family farmers, farm workers, and more.

Food Tank recently had the opportunity to speak with Barbara Ekwall, Senior Liaison Officer at the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, North America, who will be speaking at the summit.

Food Tank (FT): What will your message be at the Food Tank Summit?

Barbara Ekwall (BE): The first message will be that policies matter. There are two ways to eradicate hunger, and they are inextricably interlinked. One way is to increase food production, in particular in order to be able to feed a population of 9.3 billion by 2020. This can be achieved through increasing efficiency in agricultural production, intensification, irrigation, improved seeds, research, etc. The other one is to look at the way society is organized. Because today, the planet already produces enough food to feed every person with safe, nutritious food. But we need to pay more attention to policies, regulatory frameworks, programs and services. This means to address governance challenges, to insist on human rights and women’s empowerment, and to strengthen capacities for people, especially the most vulnerable, to be agents of their own development.

My intervention will address three policy areas and recommendations:

1) The role of family farming in alleviating hunger, promoting economic growth, and protecting the environment. The message is that family farmers are efficient producers, and that they definitively belong to the future.

2) Food loss and waste, which is an indicator that food systems are not working as they should. About 1/3 of all food produced for human consumption is thrown away, and so are the resources that were necessary to produce it. The message is that reducing food loss and waste is an efficient and easy way to improve food security and reduce environmental stress. Moreover, it makes sense economically.

3) Soils are often and erroneously taken for granted and have up to now been overlooked in policy-making.  Yet, we largely depend on soils: they are the basis for healthy food production, host one quarter of the world’s biodiversity, store and filter water, and help mitigate and adapt to climate change. Today, about one third of our soils have already been degraded. Soils are not a renewable resource so the preservation of soils is essential for food security and our sustainable future. Soils don’t have a voice: the International Year of Soils 2015 wants to correct that.

(FT): How are you contributing to building a better food system?

(BE): I work for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, an organization that has a main objective to eradicate hunger and improve nutrition, to contribute to economic and agricultural development, and to preserve natural resources for food and agriculture. As a knowledge organization, we are a center of excellence that provides freely accessible and state of the art information, analysis, data, tools, and research on food and agriculture. FAO furthermore serves as a forum for dialogue and standard-setting on issues related to food and agriculture, and the organization provides technical expertise to countries to develop policies, strategies and programs. Our strategy is to promote food security and nutrition; make production in agriculture, fisheries and forestry more sustainable; help develop rural areas, contribute to efficient food systems, and strengthen resilience. I am proud to work for FAO.

(FT): What are the biggest obstacles or challenges you face in achieving your organization's goals?

(BE): Some of the big challenges are well known: climate change, stress on natural resources, competition of agricultural production between food, feed and fuel, urbanization, population growth, change of eating habits, etc. I would like to address another type of obstacles, or rather good practices that need to be adopted to overcome these obstacles and which can considerably contribute to increased efficiency of development efforts and greater development impact.

One of them is to listen to those who are suffering from poverty and malnutrition when designing, implementing and monitoring actions that impact their livelihoods. Those people know what they need and most often than not they - not we - have the solution. They, not we, are the ones who need to be actors of their own development. Listening to the silent voices is a challenge: it means empowerment, capacity development, changing behavior and discriminatory practices and, not the least, being accountable towards those we serve. Meaningful participation and transparency are part of this good practice.

Another good practice relates to coordination and partnerships. Development efforts today are too fragmented, yet, no-one can do it alone. Dialogue across sectors and between stakeholders is still limited, global decisions don’t always produce planned results at the local level and local messages have difficulties to make themselves heard at the table where policy-making takes place. Closer coordination, collaboration and partnerships that are mutually supportive are essential to get an equation where one plus one is more than two.

My organization is firmly working to address the two sets of obstacles: Governance is a cross-cutting issue in FAO’s new Strategic Framework, and the number and quality of partnerships has increased considerably during the past few years.

(FT): Who is your food hero and why?

(BE): There are many people who serve as inspiration for me. One is Olivier de Schutter, former Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, with whom I have worked closely in my former position as coordinator of FAO’s work on the right to food. He was successful in bringing human rights thinking closer to practitioners and decision-makers in food and agriculture, and showed ways for the practical implementation of the right to food.

Then, there are people like Santaben Pruthvi Shia Chauhan in the State of Gujarat in India, with whom I have spent a couple of days during an immersion programme. As a young widow in rural India, she faced and overcame seemingly insurmountable obstacles related to her social and economic status. She is poor and struggles to feed herself and her family. She owns a small portion of land that she uses to produce food, works occasionally as farm labor on other people’s farms, sells milk, repairs pumps, trades in food items, manages a community savings cooperative, and is actively contributing to promoting the status of other women through her participation in SEWA, the Self-Employed Women’s Association. Her energy, her values, her fighting spirit, her solidarity with others and her trust in her own future make her a hero in my eyes. Few people will ever hear about her, but it is heroes like Santaben, at the end of the day, who will bring about positive change and improve the lives of those who are hungry today.

(FT): In 140 characters or less what is the most important thing we can all do to help change the food system?

(BE): With more than 805 million people suffering from chronic hunger and malnutrition in a world that produces more than enough food for all, more attention needs to be paid to how society is organized. To start with, we should focus on the poorest groups and make agriculture, trade, health, education and other policy areas work for them. As a minimum, we should ensure that actions taken do not affect these groups in a negative manner (do no harm). In this context, I would highlight governance as the most important issue, meaning inclusive participation, empowerment, rule of law, transparency and accountability. Imagine the number of people that could be lifted out of poverty and malnutrition simply by ending discrimination!


The event is SOLD OUT, but interested participants can sign up for the live-stream HERE. Or JOIN US for dinner and a reception to celebrate Food Tank's two-year anniversary on January 21st at 5:30pm EST. This event will also sell out fast, REGISTER NOW.