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Donal Brown: ‘Consumers expect food to be very cheap, and that is not sustainable’

The associate vice president of the Programme Management Department of the International Fund for Agricultural Development highlights the powerful role that consumers have in changing the situation of rural areas

Donal Brown
Donal Brown during the interview.Angélica Gallón

Why do we no longer value food? Why are we so unwilling to pay more for products that will clearly be healthier for our body? How does our relationship with food, and the prices we pay for it, directly affect the living conditions of millions of people who live in rural areas? According to reports from the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), 80% of the women, children and men living in extreme poverty in developing countries live in rural areas. What has led us as a society to keep this population, on which 30% of the global food production depends, marginalized?

Donal Brown, associate vice president of the IFAD’s Programme Management Department, issues a strong warning: we need to consider other food systems that are not only sustainable over time and respectful of the planet, but, above all, that make us appreciate all the processes and the work that it takes to bring fresh, healthy food to the table.

Question. What do we have to change as a society to solve the paradox that keeps the millions of people who grow our fresh food in poverty? Why haven’t we been able to give them the dignity they deserve?

Answer. We are in a global situation in which consumers expect food to be very cheap, and that is not sustainable. It is not sustainable for the planet to keep producing food as we are right now. The environmental degradation of the food production system that we currently have destroys the soil and its fertility. In the short term you can use more fertilizers and inorganic products, but that was never sustainable, and it will not be sustainable in the next 15 years. That is why we have to start talking about food systems, not just about food. We have to find a new system.

Furthermore, we are facing a profound lack of knowledge and a devaluation of what it means to produce these foods. We have to return to the times when we valued food and were willing to pay for it, and that’s where we connect with producers. If we pay a fair price for what they grow, then they will not live in poverty.

Q. You strongly emphasize that rural areas must be made attractive. Why do you think this can bring about a change for the rural areas of our countries?

A. We are not going to keep people in the countryside unless we make rural areas more attractive. If they don’t have good internet access and they can’t get information regarding what’s a good price to sell their products in the city, then they have to depend on an intermediary, who is the one who keeps all the profits that should go to the growers. So rural areas need infrastructure, social and economic infrastructure.

Another important element to consider is that the food system starts with the production, but then there is everything that has to be done in order to get that food to the consumer’s plate. Most of the profits in the food system come from processing and marketing. If the farmers are excluded from these links in the chain, they will never have proper compensation. If you can organize some growers into a cooperative, they can have their own processing plant and reap the benefits. Young people might not want to plow the land, but they may want to work in a processing plant, so they become part of the entire process, not just the production. That is why at IFAD we focus a lot of work on the value chain, on adding value to food.

Donal Brown during a visit to the community of San Juan Cuauhtemoc in the state of Puebla, Mexico.
Donal Brown during a visit to the community of San Juan Cuauhtemoc in the state of Puebla, Mexico. Cortesía

Q. After decades of experience working with rural areas around the world, what would you say are the projects that really have an impact and are really worth funding?

A. First, before focusing on the projects, you have to focus on the government’s policies, because if the policies are not right, the projects will face big problems. A project will be successful if it influences the government’s policies. Second, when you design a project you need to know what the exit strategies are, because in order for anything to be sustainable over time, you have to understand what you are doing, and what you need to do so that, once the project is gone, its effects on the territory endure.

Another front that is very important in rural areas is making sure that you are building the best and most appropriate infrastructure. Even though the project is focused on agriculture, you may realize that the real problem is that farmers don’t have access to financing; you may be focusing on technical issues, which may be easy to solve, but if a farmer cannot acquire credit to invest or doesn’t have a road to haul their food, what you do on other fronts won’t matter. An additional and very important factor is involving the beneficiaries in the project, because if they don’t feel ownership of that project, they will not value it. On the other hand, if it’s their project, they will continue it, even after it’s over. You need to have that level of ownership, and that is achieved by understanding what their priorities are, whether it is better for them to build a road or a local market.

Finally, you need projects that are inclusive. People have an idea that agriculture is for men, but that is quite wrong. Many women are producers, and they are invisible in Latin America, Asia and Africa, so we need women to not only be part of the projects, but also of the decisions about those projects.

Q. You talk about how decisive it is to work with government policies. From your perspective, what is the state of those policies today? How willing are governments to address these issues?

A. For many years we tried to get governments to take the sustainability of the food system seriously, and it was a losing fight. However, with Covid-19 and the global supply chain crisis, governments became serious about food, as it was not an issue that affected only Africa; it was everyone, Mexico, the United Kingdom, we all had problems getting food. So we are in a very interesting moment. We are witnessing a good period of governments focused on this.

The big elephant in the room is climate change, but, again, there’s a growing acceptance that you can’t have a food chain without acknowledging what’s happening with the climate. Small producers in rural areas produce 30% of global food; they are the most vulnerable, because they basically depend on water for their production. The big chains will adapt, but if you can’t count on the production of that 30% because they are not able to adapt, then we will be in serious trouble.

Q. How do we make consumers more aware of the role they play in recognizing and paying the right price for the food they consume?

A. We have to work on educational campaigns that show what bad food does to people’s health. Those foods may be cheap, but they are not healthy. If a tomato looks very good, it’s because it is full of pesticides. The tomatoes that don’t look so pretty might be the best, and they may have the best prices, because no one wants them. People have to know that. Since the Covid-19 crisis, we started to see a great movement towards local markets and towards investing more in quality food. We have to strengthen that. If people have no idea where their food comes from, you can’t ask them to pay for certain processes they don’t know about. Tourism has also been a great ally, because the more the reality of these areas and local productions is seen, the more willing the consumer is to support them.

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