Promoting Dialogue on Sustainable Food Security: An Interview with Matthew Fielding

Marisa Tsai

Matthew Fielding is the Communications Manager at the Swedish International Agricultural Network Initiative (SIANI). Established in 2008, SIANI aims to enhance collaboration among international development actors with a focus on reducing poverty through sustainable agricultural production. Matthew has worked in the environment and development field as a researcher and project manager for over seven years and has conducted research on issues ranging from smallholder agriculture and soil health to mobile data systems development and education.

Food Tank had the opportunity to speak to Matthew about his work with SIANI and their efforts to involve diverse voices in discussions on global issues including food security and sustainability.

Food Tank (FT): SIANI works to create “sustainable food security and nutrition for all”. How does SIANI go about that?

Matthew Fielding (MF): SIANI is a communications platform financed by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) that brings together people and institutions connected to Sweden who are working on agriculture and food security issues. Sustainable food security and nutrition for all is our vision, so everything we do, we try to ensure is helping us make progress towards this vision.

We take new research, knowledge, skills and information on agriculture, food security, poverty reduction, and development, and package and share it with key audiences around the world. We frequently sponsor discussions and learning events in Sweden; we hosted an event at the Global Landscapes Forum in Lima in 2015, and were active at the GLF in Paris as well; we have lead events at the annual Committee on Global Food Security (CFS) meetings in Rome and are planning one at the moment on antibiotic resistance in livestock; we led a learning event at the Agriculture and Rural Development Day at Rio +20 if you remember that far back.

We also take on larger initiatives, such as the World We Want and the Sustainable Development Goals, and facilitate the participation of our members in these dialogues, asking, what role can the Swedish resource base (who we loosely define as those with a connection to Sweden through nationality, funding, partners, projects etc.) play? We visualize it as a cycle – sharing nationally produced knowledge in the global arena and taking global dialogues and working with them on a regional level, then taking those outcomes back up to a global level.

FT: Can you talk to us a bit about your expert groups? How are they chosen, what is their role, and what issues do they cover?

MF: Our expert groups bring together people focused on a specific topic to contribute to a holistic understanding of the topic. For example, we’ve convened groups on landscape restoration, biochar in Africa, urban livestock, and links between food security and energy access, or even urban livestock. Each group includes people from at least two different sectors (academia, business, NGOs, or government). The goal is to create an environment that can foster new insights and questions. The group members volunteer their time and other contributions, and SIANI covers the facilitation and logistics and organizes events and outputs, such as policy briefs.

FT: What has been the biggest challenge for SIANI so far?

MF: We’ve been very fortunate to have very successful events and a good response on social media (e.g. @SIANIagri on Twitter), and as I am sure you have found with Food Tank, the more successful you are, the more demand you have for new and interesting content. As a platform with limited resources, this can be a challenge and this is why we work to empower members, expert groups, and themes to develop and generate their own content, which we can then publish through the SIANI communications channels! In this way, we ensure quality is high, information is new, and the best people are producing it. We’ve gotten some excellent and thought-provoking contributions to our blog especially.

FT: What has been the greatest accomplishment for SIANI?

MF: We’re a very small operation – four staff, all part-time, plus our steering committee and members – and yet with these partners we’ve managed to build a really robust body of work, and shared it quite widely: from policy briefs on a variety of topics from agroforestry, to climate-smart agriculture, to land degradation, to a book on gender and agricultural development in Africa. Through our events, we’ve also been able to foster connections between the global North and South, and promote mutual learning and collaboration.

FT: Who can become a member? As a member, what is their role in SIANI?

MF: Anyone can become a member. The SIANI platform is open and free. We are keen to engage with people connected to Sweden and the Nordic countries as well as those who are working on agriculture and food security issues in a development context from around the World. That’s the whole idea: to engage and share.

The role of the members is to drive the platform. All of our activities originate from an email, conversation, recommendation from our members. Members also play a key role in our annual meetings. These are open events with presentations from members who have been engaged in particularly inspiring and interesting work and discussions to reflect on what we’ve done well, where we could improve, and how members could further contribute to the platform.

FT: What are the advantages and disadvantages of a member-based organization?

MF: The greatest advantage is that we benefit from a broad range of perspectives, and lots of new ideas and insights. The biggest challenge is to maintain continuity. Sometimes there can be big shifts, year to year, in where people want to see SIANI working. To strike a balance, we try to maintain multi-year streams of work, while also representing the changing demands of the members. I feel we make a pretty good job of it. For example, five years ago we started a workstream looking at soil carbon, and every year since we have organized an event on the topic – which clearly remains of great interest to both the climate and agriculture communities.

FT: You also lead research projects at the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), which hosts SIANI. Can you tell us a bit about your research?

MF: I have a split role between communications and research work. My SIANI role exposes me to a lot of interesting questions and issues, and that has informed my research: it has influenced the proposals I write and projects I work on. So, for example, it has led me to work on information and communications technologies, land tenure and climate change adaptation, bioenergy and, most recently, manure management and climate change mitigation. My two roles fit very well together.

One of the most interesting things I’ve done through SEI – and which was definitely inspired by my SIANI work – is a massive online open course (MOOC) called Food and Our Future: Sustainable Food Systems in Southeast Asia. We were able to bring together a great team of educators from Asia and Europe, and had more than 5,000 learners. It’s an amazing experience to interact with people from such a wide range of backgrounds in a single forum: lots of great questions and insights and examples from all over the world. It was a ton of work, mostly on the fantastic team I had supporting me, but we hope to do it again perhaps focused on another region.

FT: What events or projects has SIANI been involved in recently? Anything you are particularly excited about?

MF: Perhaps the most exciting initiative we have engaged with recently is that of the development of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) in humans and livestock during which we worked together with the Swedish Government on a series of events to raise the profile of the issue. Sweden is pushing the AMR agenda in the U.N. and it was exciting for us to take part in the development of the international policy on this topic.

The campaign started last September with the visit of the F.A.O. Director-General Graziano da Silva to Sweden and continued throughout the year with events here in Sweden, at World Water Week, and it will be a central topic in the upcoming CFS Meeting at FAO HQ. We also published a series of online resources on the topic, including a summary of our recent seminar, “We need to reduce the use of antibiotics in livestock-Can Sweden lead by example?” and a collection of key resources and information on current initiatives and good practices.