Research and Innovation for a Zero Hunger World

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Professor Roberta Sonnino of Cardiff University has kindly sent us, at our request, a summary of her talk given on 16 October at a conference held at the  European Parliament: “Zero World Hunger by 2030 is possible”. The slides that accompanied her presentation are here.

Global initiatives such as the SDGs and the COP21 climate commitments have given us clear targets for creating more sustainable food systems that deliver healthy diets for all. And there has been some progress in the achievement of these targets in a not too distant past. Between 1990 and 2015, the total percentage of hungry people on the planet reduced by nearly half, especially in areas where governments have implemented policies based on poverty alleviation, food security and inclusive growth (e.g., Brazil).

In the last three years, however, there has been no positive trend on the anti-hunger front. Official figures by FAO are telling that hunger is on the rise again, due to a noxious combination of wars, urban sprawl, increased incidence of droughts and floods and resource (including land) scarcity. There is an urgent call for a reframing of the problem of hunger emerging from this bleak picture, and, of course, a call for the identification of new solutions to this ongoing crisis.


As a first step, it is vital for us all to understand that hunger, like all other forms of malnutrition, is not an isolated problem that can be solved through narrow, very specific forms of intervention. Hunger is always indicative of other underlying socio-ecological problems that often evoke other grand challenges of our time – climate change, loss of biodiversity, poverty, water scarcity. Researchers from Oxford have well represented the strong correlation that exists between food security and socio-environmental security – in other words, between levels of income and employment, the availability of flows and stocks and natural resources, and the ability of a population to feed itself healthily. It is not by accident that in 2009 G8 countries called food security a matter of national security: hungry places tend to be not just poor and environmentally degraded places; they can also be highly combustible places, as the 2008-2009 food riots have widely demonstrated.


Real progress in the global fight against hunger will depend on our capacity to fully understand and holistically engage with this complex picture. Clearly, we need research – innovative, multidisciplinary research that can cover the interconnections between the different drivers of hunger, analyse their context-dependent effects and eventually identify strategic points where intervention can be the most effective.


Critique in isolation will not generate change, especially when rooted in abstract and generic conclusions about the need for a systemic approach. The time has come, for the researchers, to move beyond the traditional “linear” process and try to embed a science-policy dialogue at each stage of their research projects. In other words, it has to be well acquired the relevance of “quadruple helix” models: research models (such as FOOD 2030) that bring together universities, industry, governments and civil society around a multi-stakeholder approach that emphasizes the co-designing and co-delivering of innovation breakthroughs.


Over the last year or so, it was possible to acknowledge FAO’s and the EC’s commitment to participatory forms of innovation. One important example of their efforts in this sense is their new focus on cities as agents and spaces of systemic food change. It is not surprising that some of the most innovative anti-hunger strategies over the last decade have emerged in urban areas, where both the symptoms and the causes of hunger are most visible and where visionary policy-makers and practitioners often have an opportunity  (in a relatively bounded context) to experiment and to address issues that are not yet mature on the national scene. In both the global North and the global South, we have witnessed in the last ten years the emergence of a range of innovative urban food practices – from the launch of more joined-up and integrated food policies to the establishment of mechanisms designed to enhance civil society participation in the food governance arena, to foster knowledge-exchange between actors and stakeholders and to promote trans-local collaborations.


What is surprising is that, while key global actors like the EC and FAO are striving to create platforms for incubating and nurturing these novel urban practices and ideas, national governments have too often remained silent and inactive. There is a risk here, the risk that we will soon have to witness the emergence of yet another uneven geography of hunger as a consequence, at least in Europe, of factors such as austerity cuts, a shrinking State, the tendency of food activism to be clustered around specific cities and the differential organizing capacity of civil society, for example.


In a tightly interconnected world, no country will be able to escape the nasty consequences of hunger. We will have all to bear its enormous human, environmental and financial costs, unless we learn to become proactive, rather than reactive. In practice, this entails a continued, sustained and expanded investment in innovative research (like the FOOD 2030 initiative) that encourages to move beyond silo-based thinking, to consider the trade-offs between different policy objectives and ultimately to empower the communities that are still fighting for the right of feeding themselves healthily. It also entails the mobilization of national governments as critical links between local and global policy actions in terms of regulation, legislation, investment but also knowledge flows. 


In conclusion, achieving Zero Hunger by 2030 is indeed still possible but it will not be likely without new and stronger forms of collaboration that cut across disciplinary boundaries, interest groups, constituencies and governance scales. It is indeed only through a concerted effort that we will be able to develop the kind of long-term, evidence-based and reflexive strategies that food innovations always need in in order to emerge, to travel and potentially to become cohesive enough to make hunger a thing of the past.

For further information please contact: Prof. Roberta Sonnino sonninor@cardiff.ac.uk