What kinds of collaborations lead to increased food security? Anne Radl wants to hear your success stories.

David Hume

An economist, a lawyer and a community activist walk into a plant laboratory… it sounds like the beginning of a joke – one with a punchline that relies on the listener knowing that these three people have fundamentally different, irreconcilable ways of seeing the world.

But at the October 8 launch event of The Humanitarian Centre’s Global Food Futures Year, held at the Sainsbury Plant Laboratory at the University of Cambridge, economists, lawyers and activists (and many others) came together to mark our year-long focus on food security.

Camilla Toulmin speaking at the launch of Global Food Futures Year. Image: (cc) Mustafa Beg, @24by36

Camilla Toulmin speaking at the launch of Global Food Futures Year.
Image: (cc) Mustafa Beg, @24by36

Opening up her keynote speech, Camilla Toulmin, Director of the International Institute for Environment and Development, said following the food price spike five years ago, every organisation, company and pundit has offered answers for achieving global food security. “While everyone has different answers, let’s start with our common dream – a future in which there is food security for all.”

We ask readers to share ideas and experiences that will help us pursue this common dream, through events to come in the Global Food Futures Year. (More info and comments field at the bottom of this article.)

Making working together work

This is not the first global food security initiative to ask people from different backgrounds to forge joint plans and priorities for moving forward from a fragmented past.

Only recently featured on this blog, Johns Ingram and colleagues’ paper on Prioritising the most important research questions for the UK food system showed that when a group of experts from diverse ‘world views’ put their minds to it, they can agree on a set of research questions to pursue that are as informed by Marx’s “proletarian revolution” as they are by Borlaug’s “green revolution”.

The Global Food Futures Year is building on the will to make working together work. The year’s events were designed through participatory planning meetings, with stakeholders from a range of backgrounds.

Delegates debate the issues. Image: (cc) Mustafa Beg, @24by36

Delegates debate the issues. Image: (cc) Mustafa Beg, @24by36

Consistently, participants stressed that they wanted to move beyond the same tired arguments that go round in the media (two letters: G, M); they wanted to grapple with complexity and hear contextual perspectives from around the world, and mostly, they wanted the opportunity to connect with new people who could challenge their approach and provide complementary expertise.

Taking on this feedback, the Humanitarian Centre is working with key partners to produce a series of interactive events to tackle complex challenges of food security, like ‘marketplaces’ and ‘hackathons’, that create an open forum in which it is space to experiment with new and different working methods, in new and different collaborations.

A network approach to a complex problem

The Humanitarian Centre’s key partners were introduced through four minute ‘flash presentations’, which focused on network approaches to change, including:

  • The new Cambridge Global Food Security Strategic Initiative and The Global Sustainability Institute, which play convening roles across University of Cambridge and Anglia Ruskin University, respectively, in integrating research from across departments and communicating it for impact and use
  • The Gold Standard Foundation – a Geneva-based non-profit foundation supporting over 1000 projects with NGOs and businesses worldwide to reduce climate change-related emissions while working towards food security
  • NIAB International, which asks whether NIAB Innovation Farm’s successful model of creating a neutral platform for plant scientists, farmers, business and policy-makers to come together to test agricultural innovations could be as successful in African contexts
  • Afrinspire, a grassroots development charity which (among other things) works with a host of local partners, from local development agencies to local women’s groups, to implement more effective, appropriate and sustainable farming solutions on the ground

The growing willingness to participate in collaborative, networked approaches like these and the Global Food Futures Year (or indeed, like the Global Food Security programme) may reflect our heightened awareness that global challenges such as food security are inextricably interconnected to other problems worldwide – like climate change, poverty and gender inequality. Networks that convene different skills and experiences may be the only way of organising and addressing problems that are rooted so deeply and so widely.

Embracing the inevitable politics

Our enthusiasm for network approaches may also spring from a recognition that change will not happen without an engaged critical mass. Hence, Toulmin used her keynote speech to point out that all the technological advances in the world won’t make a breakthrough without the political will for, and local ownership of, innovation and change.

Toulmin’s keynote address was challenging – politics are always challenging – but not so challenging that anyone was giving up and going home. Attendees even asked if we might not rally after all to take another crack at the GM debate. (We will!)

So with the rest of the Humanitarian Centre’s Global Food Futures events still to come in 2014, we ask readers of this blog to share your ideas and experiences, so we can learn from them in shaping the events:

What are some successful examples of projects, collaborations, events and communications that are holding interdisciplinary, mulitsectoral initiatives together, moving us beyond caricaturish and tired debates, and towards our common dream?

Please use the comments field below to tell us!

Add your comment.

About Anne Radl

Anne Radl is the Programmes Manager at the Humanitarian Centre, a unique network that tackles some of the most complex aspects of global poverty, such as food security. It does this by creating cross-fertilisations between Cambridge’s world-class minds, harnessing the expertise of our community. It brings together otherwise disparate specialists in technology and business with development practitioners in the field and students to come up with effective solutions.

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