Learning from History to Tackle the Global Food Crisis

6 July 2023

Written by: vsimons

There is more food being produced globally than ever before and yet many people around the world still face malnutrition.

There is more food being produced globally than ever before and yet many people around the world still face malnutrition.

To tackle global food crises and help secure the future of food, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) and the Brussels Institute for Advanced Studies (BrIAS) have established an international collaboration drawing on expertise from around the world to address issues of hunger and food security.

Dr Matthew Hannaford, Senior Lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Lincoln, UK, is among the international academic specialists contributing to this effort. Dr Hannaford was invited to Brussels to present his research at the international workshop jointly hosted by FAO and BrIAS entitled ‘Re-imagining agri-food system transformations: Enlarging and enriching time horizons’.

Dr Matthew Hannaford, whose research examines environmental and climate history, said: “After a period of great optimism, food crises are once again on the rise. Indeed, in many countries progress on the Sustainable Development Goal of Zero Hunger, is deteriorating.

“Historians have long been writing about food insecurity and many have concluded that the majority of food crises in recent centuries have been largely human made. Yet it is rare that deep historical knowledge of past interventions in food systems informs foresight planning to help avoid repeating the mistakes and injustices of the past.

“We can begin to remedy problems by bringing historians and foresight planners together in the same room, which is what BrIAS facilitated. We aim to build on momentum through collective participation in the UN Food Systems Stocktaking Moment in Rome. This new global collaboration has broadened Lincoln’s renowned strengths in technological innovation in food production into the social sciences and humanities.”

Events such as the Covid-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have exposed significant vulnerabilities in the global food supply system, accelerating the need for innovative approaches to long-term food security.

While food production output already surpasses nutritional requirements and is continuing to rise, population growth, diet changes, environmental degradation, natural resource scarcity, military conflicts and climate change will threaten people’s access to food in many parts of the world.

In an original approach, focus will be directed towards lessons from history to evaluate the successes and failures of previous interventions under certain societal and agricultural conditions. This knowledge can inform the work of foresight planners in building scenarios toward food sustainability amidst uncertainty.

Through delving into archives and amplifying local voices, strategies can be devised with an emphasis on co-production to find effective ways forward.

Two pilot projects are planned to take place in Bangladesh and Malawi where teams combining academic and non-academic specialisms will work to make local historical information widely accessible and ensure their preservation.

Many archival records and the knowledge they contain regarding past food crises are at risk of deteriorating, which could hinder the overall effort to understand how to avoid increasing global malnutrition.

Dr. Rathana Peou Norbert-Munns, Climate Foresight and Scenarios Development Expert at FAO, said: “Food system transformation is central to meeting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by their 2030 deadline. as well as to meeting the targets and commitments established in the three Rio Conventions on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the Convention on Biological Diversity (UNCBD), and the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD).

“Although there is a broad consensus that food systems need to be transformed, there is much less agreement on how transformation should be undertaken across diverse types of food systems.

“Foresight planning is a robust process of coming to grips with those questions and elaborating plausible, measurable, and actionable pathways. BrIAS Fellowship 2022-2023 offered a unique opportunity to researchers to discuss how to integrate historical insights and future learning into a narrative of actions that start today.” 

For more information about the international workshops, visit: https://www.fao.org/brussels/news/news-detail/foresight-practitioners-and-researchers-can-learn-from-the-past/en