ACGT: FOOD

Written by Puvan J Selvanathan, Head, International Trade Centre Office to the United Nations, New York

Farmers are the genome of our food systems.
Since the earliest civilization farmers have built our economies by providing the most essential element to allow our societies to sustain themselves. Farmers fed the armies that delivered empires. Farmers fed the workers, engineers and architects that built the Pyramids.
Farmers provided the currency for taxation. Farmers fed the Industrialists in England as they had their Revolution – and the Revolutionaries in France as they abolished serfdom and created egalitarianism. As our numbers grew farmers produced more to thwart Malthusians, and as we have now become an urban species, farmers ensure that our service, information and green economies function without knowing where our food comes from – just that it is there when we need to eat. Like the DNA within every living cell, farmers shape the way we function, live and thrive.
As we entered the 21st century a moral debate raged on whether the human genome could be patented. Corporations and academics scrambled for the original ‘land-grab’, investing millions to sequence our genes and arguing that patent protection was the only way that necessary investment in new genetic treatments could be financed and developed.
Until the US Supreme Court rejected the idea in 2013 that the naturally occurring human genes were not patentable, several hundred patents had already been issued. If enforceable, such ‘property’ would mean that future generations might pay licences to simply exist as humans. The challenges that many farmers face today because of proprietary seeds and genetically-enforced cultivation practices is well-reported. On balance, we must recognise and cannot deny the fruits we enjoy from these same proprietary
systems - in the form of greater and more reliable yields in several crops, and in places on the planet where cultivation at significant scales was previously impossible. I take no position on these matters. They are what they are for myriad reasons that are well considered, both for and against, by people far more expert and passionate about the issues than I.

My thoughts go to the fact that we have collected data and information about farming for hundreds of years. As the tools to collect information have become cheaper and more sophisticated, the rate at which data is collected from farms has accelerated exponentially.
Everyday, terabytes of data are drawn from sensors and satellites littering farms, irrigation systems and cultivation equipment. Governments and universities have a lot of this data, some of which is available publicly for use in aspects of national planning and development. But the far greater proportion of data on our food systems is held privately and used exclusively for supply chain management, productivity improvement and quality control.
This extends into geographical information systems and is layered with weather, water use and other data to deliver powerful analysis that can influence pricing, financing and risk. The value, viability and lifecycle of farms today can be modelled with exacting precision in the same way as an oil reserve or a copper mine. Naturally, this information drives investment, marketing and risk decisions – and provides significant competitive advantage if used cleverly.
As ‘sustainability’ has been mainstreamed in the past ten years, a new realm of data collection has been opened focusing on the way in which farmers go about their farming.
This information is not about the farm, or what’s on it, or what it grows, but about who the farmer is and how they produce things. It is now necessary for farmers to prove that they are doing no harm – to the trees, the animals, their neighbours,
the atmosphere, etc. - and the only way to do so is to be‘certified’ to produce exactly what they have been producing for years before sustainability became fashionable.
Yes, this does encourage better practices to take root more quickly, but certification has become a barrier to the greater proportion of the world’s farmers to continue to participate as the trusted foundation of our food systems.
Once a beacon for global better practice, certification has become a toll to markets and a bottleneck for global sustainability.

If we want all farmers everywhere to be sustainable we must allow that to happen. Sustainable practices should be a way of ‘being’, not licence a way of ‘being policed’. This means three things must happen:
1. Farmers must be recognised. Currently the value of farmers to our society is limited to what they produce. We do not see that behind the commodities, quotas and prices are real people with families and hopes. Human dignity is a non-negotiable condition of societal sustainability. History is replete with instances of societies leaving entire segments behind by denying them the right to be seen or heard. Our future shouldn’t tolerate or propagate any prospect of continuing the invisibility of farmers in food systems.
2. Farmers must own their own information. Every piece of information gathered from a farmer is as much an investment of time and effort by that farmer as it is by whomever is collecting it. So every good practice and training course, every audit or certification report that may exist, and any piece of data that could further their own interests should be available for the farmer to share with anyone whom they think appropriate. If this information is valuable enough to be collected, then that is value that the farmers have built. The data is their property.
3. Farmers must have a platform to self-declare good practices. The importance of enabling farmers to tell their own stories about what they do cannot be overstated. We know that every farmer in the world cannot be certified, but they can easily volunteer what their customers may need to know if given a smartphone and connectivity. Peers and customers will vouch for honest and reliable producers, and expose liars and cheats. Sustainability practitioners lecture extensively about ‘reputation’ management – let farmers manage their own reputations. Why should certifiers be trusted any more than the farmers themselves? We are content to trust brands and labels in lieu of knowing exactly who is handling our food. Can millions of Volkswagen owners trust the labels that their car arrived with? Presumably all those vehicles were ‘certified’.

The next stage of evolution of our food systems is overlaying the possibility of connecting every farmer on the planet individually to every customer on the planet. The technology for this exists and we know it as social networking. Shall we not supplement the interminable stream of news and photos about our pets and parties with recommendations of exactly who is growing what we need to eat? The phenomenon of food channels that have swamped our televisions will expand to geo-locate not the nearest supermarket but the entire network of actors who deliver every ingredient to our kitchens. The same systems we use currently for tweets and snap-grams will map the genome of our food systems by sharing data from farmers about themselves and their practices.
In the Information Age data has significant value and farmers must derive the greatest portion of this value. In conjunction with adoption of the United Nations Global Goals for Sustainable Development in New York this September, the Blue Number Initiative was launched to enable farmers to do exactly this.


To learn more, please visit www.unbluenumber.org .

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