|Research evidence is key to informing policies on food security
Research is one of the key programmes supported by the Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN) and the first day of the Regional Policy Dialogue held in Malawi was dedicated for researchers to amplify the evidence of their research on food security.
The presentations by focused on the input vouchers system in Malawi, the use of the Household Assets Vulnerability Assessment (HAVA), previously Househould Vulnerability Index (HVI), water productivity, biotechnology, climate change and bio energy and how they impact on food security.
Strategies on how to promote food security in Southern Africa in the backdrop of the global food crisis was the theme of the 2008 annual Regional Policy Dialogue which brought together more than 200 delegates comprising farmers, government officials, the private sector, NGOs, donors, researchers and the media.
The four-day Policy Dialogue was held at a time when Southern Africa is grappling with food shortages and high prices of food which have triggered social unrest in some countries. FANRPAN is a regional multi-stakeholder network promoting effective food security policies in the SADC region. The network was established in 1997 in response to a call by Ministers of Agriculture in East and Southern Africa for evidence to support policy development and the harmonization of policy at regional level. FANRPAN coordinates food and agricultural policy processes in 12 Southern African countries through its regional Secretariat in South Africa.
Governments in Southern Africa are battling to ensure that every citizen has access to maize - a staple in the region - and at the same time protecting the maize market from unscrupulous traders. Researchers noted that maize was a sensitive commodity and in terms of food security, governments were touchy about the pricing of maize hence the controlled the pricing of this commodity.
The capping on maize prices, researchers said was a disincentive for producers. There is debate on whether governments can continue to provide subsidies given the scarcity of resources. Emphasis was made of the need for monitoring the progress made by beneficiaries of subsidies as well as improved targeting.
"We need to ask if the price of maize offered to farmers makes farming viable," said Isiah Mharapara, a researcher from the Agriculture Research Council (ARC) and the coordinator of the Zimbabwe FANRPAN node.
Researchers called on governments to review the prices for agricultural produce, especially maize. Without profit, farmers had no incentives to produce. FANRPAN has supported research on agricultural input subsidies in Malawi, Lesotho, Swaziland and Zambia. It will be extending the research to Mozambique.
"Why will government want to intervene in the produce markets," asked Dr. Joseph Rusike, arguing that governments were walking a tight rope on controlling maize prices without worsening the food crisis.
FANRPAN has developed the HAVA Index, a statistical tool that can be used to assess vulnerability at household level. FANRPAN in partnership with World Vision are using the tool in the World Vision development programme areas. The tool assesses the success of interventions for households and tailors support in accordance with the needs of household groups. The challenge of the network is to provide a platform for researchers to talk to government and for government to appreciate their role in informing policy development and implementation, particularly on food security.
The Policy Dialogue Session for researchers also provided an insight into a FANRPAN proposal for a programme looking at HAVA in tandem with the subsidy programme in Malawi. This is to ensure that intended beneficiaries of programmes supporting food security such as the input subsidy programme are reached.
"The HAVA tool enables us to be more aware of who is who when you make a policy decision," said Oumy Khairy Ndiaye, from the CTA, a FANRPAN partner. "This tool should be brought to the national statistical offices. If they have this tool, they can improve their statistics and it can be used at the national level before we take it to the regional level."
In the backdrop of the African Green Revolution, FANRPAN can take advantage of institutional arrangements it has in place to advocate for policy formulation and implementation. As a strong network, FANRPAN has the ideal platform to bring together researchers, government and the private sector to dialogue. The partnership between the public and private sectors can help free African farmers who find themselves trapped by the lack of correct information about inputs, lack of access to markets and have to work on poor soils with little uptake of agricultural technologies. It was the consensus of researchers that FANRPAN can partner with regional institutions such as the AGRA which is developing a policy agenda focusing on the seeds, soil health, market access, ext
Discussions underscored the impact of controlling the prices of maize but also of improving productivity. This can be done by putting in place policies that allow the private sector to provide inputs rural farmers at cost effective rates and allow the private sector to remain viable.
Biotechnology - technology based on biology and applied in agriculture, food and science to make or modify products or processes for specific use - has implications for food security.
Scientist, Dr. Wynad Van Der Walt, who gave a presentation on biotechnology, said South Africa had gone 100 percent on using GMO in agricultural productivity resulting in a food success story.. This was a result of the collaboration between the research community and parliamentarians who are responsible for policy formulation. It was recommended that universities should provide the evidence to inform policy and eliminate suspicions about the role of science in food security. FANRPAN has a research programme on Biotechnology.
Dr. van Der Walt stressed that biotechnology was here to stay and it was important for policy makers to act in unity in understanding the opportunities and challenges it offers.
Citing the experience of South African scientists who took a bold step to convince parliamentarians to pass GM legislation after thorough consultation during the formulation of the GM policies, Dr. van Der Walt said Africa cannot sit on the fence. He said the anti-GM activists have failed to bring evidence to bear that GM crops posed a threat to health and the productivity of other crops.
Researchers also underlined the importance of open and informed communication between researchers and governments to build trust which would facilitate the creation of policies that support food security as had been the case in South Africa.
"We have high food prices and high food insecurity," said Dr. van Der Walt. "We cannot wait for long term policy discussions. The urgency is now and all of us have an obligation to go out and communicate and counter the misinformation we face every day about GM crops."
While there has been a huge focus on land productivity in promoting food security, water productivity which looks at the amount of water used to produce crops was also a critical component in food security, said FANRPAN director of Research, Dr. Doug Merrey, in a presentation entitled Improving water productivity, Access and Utilization by the Poor in the Limpopo River Basin. He said the region had limited options for productive use of water.
"There is need to look at the benefits of river basins which are shared among different countries and countries need to come together and identify strong institutions that will optimize the use of water in river basins and find mutually beneficial investments," said Dr. Merrey, adding that the quality of water has also become a critical issues in relation to river Basin.