Who are the global food security policymakers?


A myriad international governance bodies have a stake in food systems data and digitalization. While these discussions often recognize for both the benefits and dangers of data, they are pervaded by a dangerous belief that more data is always better.

Food and agriculture work cuts across almost every UN agency. When the UN Secretary-General created a High-Level Task Force︎︎︎ to respond to the 2007-2008 food price crisis, some 20 agencies and programs got involved. Some organizations have a mandate to focus on food (such as the FAO). Others, like UN Women or Unicef, have mandates that include one or more dimensions of food and agriculture as part of their work. This is not surprising: Food is fundamental to human well-being, and food and agriculture systems are integral to the culture and economic life of countries worldwide, from city-states such as Singapore to the desert states of the Sahel.

There are three core UN food agencies, all of them based in Rome:

  1. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), focused primarily but not solely on production, and not just on food but on all agricultural commodities.
  2. The International Fund for Agriculture and Development (IFAD), which operates like a bank and has a mandate to support rural development.
  3. The World Food Programme (WFP), which responds to humanitarian food emergencies.

FAO maintains many of the global food and agriculture statistical databases︎︎︎ in coordination with the World Bank, OECD, and other intergovernmental organizations. FAO is one of the leading organizations interested in data. In particular, ways to count and manipulate the resulting data is an important part of their work in tracking and forecasting the production and distribution of agricultural commodities.

Other influential actors in this multilateral space include:

  • One CGIAR︎︎︎ - The recently reformed and more centralized Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). These research organizations were created to study specific crops (potatoes, rice, wheat) as well as forests (at the Centre for International Forestry Research in Bogor, Indonesia) and social and economic issues (at the International Food Policy Research Institute, or IFPRI, based in DC but now with offices across Africa and Asia as well). They were independent but affiliated organizations that have now been brought under the control of a single governing board.
  • The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation - One of the largest donors in Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) for agriculture, although agriculture is only a relatively small share of total ODA spending. BMGF spends about $360 million per year on agriculture-related grants.
  • A range of universities, most of them based in the U.S. or the EU, together with a few academic centers in the global South. FAO and other UN intergovernmental organizations rely on a network of agricultural economists, rural sociologists, and others. There is a steady staff exchange between intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) and academia in mid- and higher-level policy roles (the highest levels are generally more political appointments).
  • The UN Committee on World Food Security, including the Steering Committee of the High-Level Panel of Experts (HLPE)

One of the principal ways global food system problems and solutions are framed is through the regular (annual or bi-annual) State of the World reports︎︎︎, coming from the Rome-based agencies (with FAO in the lead) and often produced in collaboration with other agencies in the multilateral system. They include reports on the state of forests, fisheries and aquaculture, food security and nutrition, food and agriculture, and agricultural commodity markets.

The OECD also publishes regular forecasts, particularly the Agricultural Outlook reports. The framing in these reports often reflects the priorities of the major donors (G7 countries + a handful of others, including Denmark, Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Switzerland) and, in turn, are influential in shaping how ODA is used. ODA is Overseas Development Assistance: the money governments spend on international cooperation. ODA is an important (if problematic) source of revenue for many developing country governments. UN agencies such as FAO rely increasingly on funding from bilateral donors (the G7 group) and private philanthropy, such as Gates Foundation, as their core budgets are whittled down. The effect is to limit the control exercised by the governing body over program activities because program funding is increasingly from “extra-budgetary” sources. This curtails accountability.

What is the role of digital technologies in UN approaches?

Many digital technology applications present themselves in these intergovernmental organizations’ varied agendas. Governments and public servants have launched digital initiatives across the UN system, some specific to agriculture and food and others linked to areas that include food and agriculture in their scope. The UN will not provide universal approval or rejection of the technologies from its many institutions. Instead, contradictory messages will likely emerge in the multilateral system as the distinct politics of different governing bodies among the IGOs makes itself felt.

Importantly, there is a fairly consistent focus in the agencies on women’s empowerment, the role (and voice) of youth, environmental protection, and employment creation. In most agencies, developing countries have an important voice in the governing body. More controversially, there is also a strong emphasis on partnerships with the private sector. Since the advent of the UN Global Compact︎︎︎ in the 1990s, public-private partnerships have been an essential part of UN operations. These partnerships are already an avenue for introducing digital technologies through development assistance programs. In 2020, the Secretary General of the UN published a Roadmap for Digital Cooperation︎︎︎.

This quote from the opening to the report shows the “both sides” arguments we can expect from the UN:

Digital technology does not exist in a vacuum – it has enormous potential for positive change, but can also reinforce and magnify existing fault lines and worsen economic and other inequalities.

The UN is not blind to the pitfalls of the digital revolution, but there is no staying outside of it – the question is how to manage what it brings. The UN is likely to be one source of more general analysis on potential downsides, particularly for more vulnerable communities (for example, those who lack internet access or a mobile device), or on the energy and water demands to power digital tech. The UN will also be a forum for discussion on the need for, and pitfalls associated with, government regulation and inter-governmental cooperation on issues such as data privacy and the creation of standards that facilitate the sharing of information across borders.

How do intergovernmental organizations define the problem they are solving?

The UN agencies are bound to different mandates and answer to different governance structures than the OECD (whose membership is for industrialized countries – in effect, the richest economies as measured by GDP) or the BMGF, which is a private foundation governed by a six-person board that includes both Bill Gates and his ex-wife, Melinda French Gates, as well as the foundation’s CEO, Mark Suzman.

There is an important common reference point for these actors in the international food security community: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, comprised of 17 interconnected goals called the Sustainable Development Goals︎︎︎ or SDGs. The second goal, SDG 2 (often called the zero hunger goal) commits governments to end extreme hunger, improve nutritional outcomes, double small-scale producer incomes and limit environmental harm from agriculture by 2030.

As far as it goes, it is a useful common agenda for what policy should aim for.

Other goals, however, have proved persistent and influential and continue to inform assumptions and objectives for how this community views their role. The kinds of questions they are asking concerning food security challenges include:

  1. How will we secure an adequate food supply for a global population expected to reach or exceed 10 billion in the face of climate change and biodiversity loss?
  2. How can we reduce food insecurity measured on calorie availability per person? (The rhetoric in the written texts is increasingly sophisticated and includes questions of nutrition and distribution, but the models and projections that inform the quantitative measures still focus on staple grains and calorie counts). 
  3. How can governments ensure development, defined as stimulating broadly-based economic growth that, among other things, reduces dependence on agriculture as a way to provide employment? (Because agriculture is seen to yield low returns to investment).
  4. How can we improve forecast and prediction systems? (i.e. how can we count more things and count them better?)
  5. How can we reduce the environmental harm caused by agriculture, including the extension of farmland and the harm done through intensive systems that deplete soil and water resources?

Specifically, on data and digital technologies, there is a strong assumption that decision-makers lack adequate data on a range of topics of critical interest to food security, and a need to improve both data quality and quantity. The BMGF has led a push in the UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS), inter alia, to put data on governments’ agendas, and a report has been commissioned from the High-Level Panel of Experts to the CFS this year. There is less generalized concern that the volume of data now available through certain kinds of technology risks distorting what decision-makers are concerned with, and how they understand what is important. Data scientists overwhelmingly warn decision-makers against using their data and analysis without context and checks for accuracy. This injunction is often ignored, and policy-makers use their conclusions for specific ends without the accompanying caveats.

Questions that are rarely asked but that are absolutely vital include

  • Who will pay for the technology? Not only for its introduction but for its maintenance, repair, and updates?
  • How will the technology help overcome or further exacerbate social and economic differences?
  • What are the risks if the technology fails? Who bears that risk?
  • What are the benefits of success? Who will gain? What might the dynamic changes created by those benefits be? (For example, higher farm productivity has historically led to lower farmgate prices as supply expanded more rapidly than demand. How will the costs of such shifts be distributed?)
  • How will the new technology be powered? What demands is it expected to make on natural resources such as freshwater?
  • Who will control the use and diffusion of the technology?
  • What scope is there for adaptation to local conditions?

In the discussion of data to date, there is a rather naïve sense in the UN reports that more data will inform better decisions as if the politics and power questions could be minimized or even wished away if only more were known about a given situation. Yet the same data provide different kinds of evidence, in turn leading to different conclusions. For example, poverty is highly concentrated in rural areas. This is a global phenomenon. Does that mean policymakers should push people to leave rural areas for urban settlements, where social safety nets are easier to provide? Or should they invest in better services in rural economies in a bid to relieve that poverty and limit the strain on existing urban centers? Or is there something about another area of policy altogether, such as taxation, that needs to change to remove a pro-urban bias? Policy is ultimately about making political decisions and trying to shape dynamic change, and for that, evidence can only take you so far. Values, and an understanding of how change happens, will also be central, as will debate and local experience.

SOPHIA MURPHY is the executive director of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP). Sophia is a food systems and international economy expert with 30 years of professional experience, including as a board chair, program director, policy analyst and published writer. A policy expert and advocate who has focused on resilient food systems, agriculture and international trade, Sophia has worked primarily with civil society organizations, as well as with government, intergovernmental organization and universities.

More on Sophia and IATP’s work here ︎︎︎