CIFAL Jeju interviews Prof. George Kent on food security in Asia for new training series

February 2013 - In preparation for its new series on creating resilience on food and nutrition security in Asia, CIFAL Jeju training centre for local authorities in Asia and UNITAR's Local Development Programme conducted a key informant interview with Professor George Kent of University of Hawaii, author of various books on the topic.

Professor Kent talks about current trends and challenges for food and nutrition security in the region the interview yielded a variety of key findings, such as the need to place food and nutrition security at the top of governance agendas and the need to create "Food Policy Councils" across levels of government in order to generate sustainable food and nutrition security in countries.

The rationale for Food Policy Councils model at various government levels can be summed up in seven points according to Professor Kent:

  1. Everyone is connected to a food system.
  2. Every food system can be improved, in many ways.
  3. Food systems will be improved only if we think about them and act to improve them.
  4. We think and act better together.
  5. We can help each other, if we talk.
  6. We have differences. We can deal with those differences only if we talk.
  7. Each of us can find our own roles in improving the local food system by working with a local Food Policy Council.

Professor George Kent has extensive experience in academia and development work on the topic of food and nutrition security. He is also the author of several books, including Ending Hunger Worldwide, Regulating Infant Formula and Freedom from Want: The Human Right to Adequate Food. He holds a privileged position in being able to equally examine Asian and American contexts, from the Pacific island perspective in Hawaii, comparing and contrasting the American and Asian policy and governance contexts around the topic. In summary, Prof. Kent has highlighted the need to give much more attention to the issue of food and nutrition security at the local level, particularly at community level, for a lot of knowledge is concentrated at national levels and this is not adequately decentralized in countries to fully achieve food and nutrition security. These suggestions and recommendations for scaling-up the local food policy councils model surfaced during the interview summarized below.

UNITAR’s Local Development Programme and its training centre for local government capacity building in Asia, CIFAL Jeju, chose to mainly focus this interview on exploring the rationale, needs and challenges in addressing food and nutrition security through a multi-governance approach, encompassing national to local approaches to addressing this topic. Initially, Ms. Sara Castro of UNITAR introduced UNITAR, CIFAL Jeju, and the rationale for developing a training workshop series on this topic. She noted that Prof. Kent was recommended by FAO’s Food for the Cities Programme for the key informant interview. The interview proceeded with the following questions in a conversational format.


Could you introduce yourself?

Professor George KentI’m retired after over 40 years of teaching at the Department of Political Science of the University of Hawai’i. My major areas of focus have been food and nutrition issues, particularly relating to children. I have worked with a number of UN agencies, mainly the FAO, and to some extent WFP and UNICEF. I am still teaching about food issues online at the University of Sydney in Australia and Saybrook University in San Francisco.

In looking at food security as an issue addressed by national governments, would you say that it is also important to focus on food security at the community/local level?

I don’t see any answers solving the problem at the global level without the local level. We should go about solving at the local level and multiplying local successes to achieve success at the global level. Strengthening local communities is an important part.

If so then, how would you say one can bridge the knowledge and planning gap between national and local governments for local planning responses to be more effective?

One of the major obstacles at the community/city and national level is, it’s very difficult to get food and nutrition on the agenda, which is important in getting to the technical questions. Most governments at most levels don’t have a distinct unit focused on food and nutrition, and so it falls between the cracks. I have been calling for a permanent unit at every level of government that focuses on food and nutrition, and analyzes the issue at different levels.

Why do you think national governments don’t pay enough attention? How much does the common challenge of a lack of financing play a part?

To answer that we need to look at food security. It’s useful to distinguish three types of food security concerns. First, is food supply for the general population for the long-term (long-term access). Second, is how to deal with short-term crises (i.e., natural disaster, armed conflict) that arise at the individual, family, and social level. Third, is the hunger problem, the food security problem faced by low-income populations.

These different types of food insecurity require different policies responses, but very often there’s a focus only on how we will supply the food to the general public, such as providing more support to the agricultural sector. National governments are more interested in producers than consumers. The first category tends to dominate the discussion because the US, for example, prioritizes them as producers. There’s a remarkable neglect of the food processing industry in these discussions, which has great impact on food safety and nutrients.

In looking at building the skills of local government officials or key local actors, in the Asia-Pacific region, how much should one focus on nutrition and diets within this type of workshop? Would you say that this is a key emerging or existing challenge for Asian cities and communities; and if so, how are changing diets impacting health?

In the processed food sector, many manufacturers of food are global corporations. Many of the Western corporations are looking at Asia as a market. For example, New Zealand is planning to focus on growing Asian cities. New Zealand companies are buying up dairies in Asia, setting up manufacturing facilities and making partners. The dietary differences between West and Asia will not continue for long.

What do you think are the three key pressing challenges in relation to food and nutrition security for Asia?

Disaster planning of some form, low income people, and the issue of governance. We need to stop thinking about food security solely as a global problem. We should see it as local problem and empower local agents, at community level.

Do you think that decentralizing knowledge, skills and planning around food security is a common challenge in the region?

Food and nutrition often falls into the cracks of governance at every level. Having units at different levels of government to address food security, through local food policy councils for example would be a solution. A food policy council should be created in every locality that is willing to have one and higher government levels should support that. In American Samoa, I was involved in promoting the model and an executive order was issued to create one. I also helped to start the Hawai'i Food Policy Council, which has been very active.

One of the main challenges we often hear from local governments in addressing topics such as this is financing, but other challenges are also very common, such as garnering political will to move forward solutions such as a food policy councils, or being exposed to rapidly changing food prices from global markets. With regard to the latter, would you say that it is better to empower local governments to become more food self-reliant (self-sustainable) and resilient to outside shocks, such as with urban gardens or other ways to build local good stocks, or is inter-dependence the way to go?

I made a careful distinction between self-reliance and self-sufficiency in my book, Ending Hunger Worldwide. Self-sufficiency is about producing locally what you need and working to minimize imports. Self-reliance is making your decisions locally and having control over local food decisions. In some cases it’s sensible to increase local self-sufficiency. But if McDonalds in Hawai'i acquires its supplies locally but the decisions are made in the US mainland, it’s difficult to see that self-reliance is attained. Political/decision-making chain would be primary, and then localizing the supply chain would be secondary.

How does one encourage the issue of food security without the issue of interconnectedness?

UNITAR is well placed in this regard. The less powerful local governments don’t have a voice. There’s a task of giving them a voice. Recently one of the islands of Hawaii was purchased by a billionaire to produce organic food for export. That will not do much to strengthen the local community. It’s a kind of plantation mentality all over again.

What is the better model? The Economic self-sufficient model? For whom?

Different models are for different countries. It shouldn’t be a choice between one or the other. My strategic thinking on this is to focus on ways to empower the weak. This is why I encourage creating local food policy councils, so that local people can make decisions in the context they’re embedded in.

Would you say that the multi-stakeholder approach is the ideal model for a local food policy council to work? How does a food policy council look like in practice?

I discuss the model in depth in a chapter of my recent book on Ending Hunger Worldwide. The manuscript for that chapter can be accessed at
http://www2.hawaii.edu/~kent/eh0100POLICYCOUNCILS.doc


Key publications by Professor George Kent include:

Freedom from Want: The Human Right to Adequate FoodGlobal Obligations for the Right to Food, and Ending Hunger Worldwide.

For more information on this interview and upcoming training contact Ms. Sara Castro, Specialist, Local Development Programme at sara.castro@unitar.org