Michael Hauser • Opinion

Human Security and how it impacts transitions to sustainable agriculture

Human security and agricultural development are interdependent. Building resilient food systems decreases human insecurities and aids transitions towards sustainable agriculture.

Across Africa and Asia, I travel and work in regions that are politically, economically or ecologically fragile. For obvious reasons, farmers in these environments work under stress. And stress changes decision-making patterns dramatically. Despite global improvements in quality of life, poverty and despair are pernicious problems. Millions of people are vulnerable to food shortfalls during part of the year. Women lack equal opportunities to make a living. And basic human rights, including the right to food, aren’t guaranteed. When stress becomes chronic, decisions skew to address immediate needs.

ICRISAT’S research in the Sahel or the Horn of Africa aims to improve farm and food system performances by providing knowledge and tools to organisations that offer farmers (and in drier areas, agro-pastoralists) market information, improved sorghum or millet varieties, and options to sell some of their produce on markets. Many of our primary clients – smallscale farmers, youth and women – whose protection and empowerment is at stake, struggle with versions of insecurity. Expecting them to adopt new farm technologies or engage in unfamiliar schemes to produce for domestic and international markets represents a risk for them, the risk of the unknown. Is it a wonder then that such development interventions often fail or don’t perform as anticipated? This question raises a larger one: what is human security?

Human security is a state free of fear in people and communities. It’s both a precondition for and an outcome of human development. Hence, human security is central to sustainable development and the Agenda 2030. In fragile regions, human security has implications for agriculture and the production of food. When developing, implementing and evaluating agricultural support programs, therefore, a human security-centred approach is essential to success.

In 2012, in support of the Millennium Development Goals, the General Assembly of the United Nations recognised that human security is key to development. The same is true for the Sustainable Development Goals, the SDGs as a whole, and specifically for achieving food and nutrition security through sustainable agriculture – a key component of SDG2.

When working toward sustainable agriculture and food systems, one must be aware of factors contributing to human insecurity. These factors alter individual and collective behaviour, and can lead to populations from striving to merely surviving. Examples include:

  • Ongoing economic turmoil and a protracted food crisis such as currently in Zimbabwe
  • Natural disasters such as floods in Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia during the 2019/2020 season
  • Violent conflict North-Eastern Nigeria and the Horn of Africa
  • Unresolved gender disparities within communities and households; despite improvements, girls and women remain disadvantaged
  • Epidemics and human health challenges, including Malaria in the lower parts of Kenya, and neighboring countries
  • Fragile post-conflict arrangements with usual internal displacement in Myanmar

The complex interplay of these factors often results in an innovation ecology in which human insecurity issues dominate. In such sudden or protracted crisis situations, investment and spending priorities of people change, and medium to long-term investments such as building sustainable farms becomes less of a priority.

Human security has wide reaching effects on our work:

  • It influences the adoption of improved crop varieties by farmers
  • It explains priority setting within households and communities
  • It affects labour productivity and the ability to work on farms

Along with many other researchers at the CGIAR and at ICRISAT I’ve been working towards a coherent framework to consider human security an essential contextual factor when developing natural resource-related solutions for use with our strategic public, private and civil society partners. Yet, this framework is implicit and we ought to make it explicit, considering cross-cutting factors such as nutrition and gender.

Through our research, we contribute to human security through measures that increase farm and food resilience. Examples include:

  • Mitigating climate risk through improved access to weather information
  • Creating instruments to support social capital development and improve decision-making in areas with scarce water and land resources
  • Developing social business and value chains that make essential foods affordable to people with little income
  • Managing flash floods in Afar in Ethiopia through physical, biological and social innovation
  • Studying the resilience of informal seed systems and seeking ways to improve them

As much as we already support human security implicitly through our research, I’m equally convinced that a more explicit structured and theory-led approach to human security helps CGIAR research better reach its target audience and goals. This framework should consider ways to prevent human insecurities, improve resilience to unavoidable insecurities and develop instruments to engage more effectively in the case of conflict scenarios.

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