Alternative discourses around the governance of food security: A case study from Ethiopia

A summary of our new paper in Global Food Security, available here.

By Tolera Senbeto Jiren

Many existing studies on food security focus on either global scale discourses or on local level practices, or pay little attention to other sectors that are closely linked with food security, such as biodiversity conservation. For instance, questions related to how the global discourses play out locally, how local approaches could be scaled-up to national and global level discourses, and how food security approaches influence the environment remain largely unaddressed. Beyond the normative contribution, addressing these questions helps to avoid incompatibility in problem framing and solutions to food security at different governance levels, to identify pathways towards a sustainable outcome, and to harmonize the goals of food security and environmental management.

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Fig A: Scoreboard. The statements at the top (+) represents the most important statement for the stakeholder, with a value of +4. The statement at the bottom (e.g., 9 in the above picture) represents the least important statement for the stakeholder and assumes the value of -4.

In our recently published paper, we addressed these questions, that is, we uncovered how existing global food security discourses play out at the national and sub-national level, and how different food security approaches might influence biodiversity conservation in an empirical case study in Ethiopia. Because the concept of food security is intricately interdependent with biodiversity, we first defined food security— slightly broadening the definition provided by the World Food Summit in 1996—as universal access to sufficient, safe, and culturally acceptable food, without negative effects on biodiversity.

For this study, we applied the Q-methodology by following five key steps:

1) Framing the concourse— we first identified global food security discourses from various sources, and our search produced four competing global food security discourses that relate to Green revolution, Agricultural Commercialization and efficiency optimization, Food sovereignty, and Resilience.

2) Generating Q-set—we prepared eight distinctive statements (see Table 1 in the paper) around each of the four discourses, which were later ranked by the stakeholders.

3) Selection of stakeholders, P-set— we purposively selected 50 stakeholders with diverse perspectives regarding food security, from multiple policy sectors and governance levels (see the supplementary material of the paper).

4) Q-sorting— we translated the 32 statements into Afaan Oromo, individually laminated the Q-set (statements), and stakeholders ranked all statements on a previously prepared scoreboard (see Fig. A above) according to their perceived importance (see Fig. B below). The scoreboard represented a quasi-normal distribution with ranking from +4 (most important) to -4 (least important).

5) Analysis and interpretation— multivariate analysis through principal component analysis (PCA) followed by the varimax rotation in the “qmethod” package in R software produced distinct factors, that is, distinct food security approaches. Content analysis was applied through the help of NVivo software to analyze the qualitative data resulting from stakeholder interviews.

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Fig B. Pictures that depict district level stakeholders ranking the statements on the scoreboard. The left picture was taken in one of the offices in Gera Woreda and the picture on the right side was taken in one of the offices in Setema woreda.

We found four distinctive food security approaches in southwestern Ethiopia, namely:

1) Smallholder commercialization, a technological-economic discourse that prioritizes smallholder economic growth through intensive production of commercial crops, and which was supported by food security sector stakeholders at all levels of governance.

2) Agroecology and resilience, a social-ecological discourse that argues for the application of agroecological methods for improving food production and social-ecological resilience as a pathway to food security, supported by green niche actors.

3) Local economy and equity, a social-economic discourse that places a strong emphasis on local development and equity as a means to achieve food security, supported by stakeholders at all levels.

4) Market liberalization, a neoliberal macroeconomic discourse that primarily sees smallholders’ integration into the global market as a means of achieving food security, supported by many different types of stakeholders, except at the regional level.

The main findings include:

  1. Global food security discourses unfold into multiple and partly overlapping approaches at local levels, such that local approaches involved a mixture of properties of several of the global discourses.
  2. Some of the emerging global food security discourses, for instance, the Food sovereignty discourse were not a priority for stakeholders in southwestern Ethiopia, possibly because policy influencing stakeholders widely supported a belief that ‘food precedes human rights and democracy.’
  3. Smallholder centered development pathways were the common denominator of all approaches, i.e., private investment or Foreign Direct Investment were generally viewed as not important for attaining better food security.
  4. All approaches called for the government to not overly interfere within agricultural market.
  5. Agricultural intensification, commercialization, and profit were widely considered important, while only green niche actors supported the agroecology and resilience approach.
  6. In all approaches except the agroecology and resilience approach, biodiversity was either considered a secondary priority or only important if directly linked to food security.

Key insights and recommendations

  • Given the complexity inherent to the problem of food security and given the multiplicity of stakeholders involved, the existing plurality of approaches needs to be appropriately acknowledged.
  • The focus on intensive production, commodification, and income as a pathway to food security has been widely accepted—and also will continue to dominate the institutions around food security in Africa, mainly due to support from national and international philanthropic organizations. However, to ensure equity, social-ecological resilience and sustainability, it appears important to further strengthen the institutional base of the agroecology and resilience approach.
  • Acknowledging the multi-layered interdependence between food security and biodiversity, keeping an appropriate balance between ecological and social resilience is essential for a sustainable outcome.
  • Harmonizing contradictions between alternative approaches is essential, and this could be achieved through systematically integrating aspects from all approaches that are compatible with local conditions.

2 thoughts on “Alternative discourses around the governance of food security: A case study from Ethiopia

  1. I am much interested in issues of the intersection between biodiversity and food security and I encourage more research and capacity in these areas like you are doing.

  2. I am very happy to see such a study which is very interesting and necessarily important. The issues of biodiversity conservations, climate change, and food security are the main concerns that need further integrated and sustainable agricultural activities in Ethiopia. Especially, the intersection of natural resources management, biodiversity conservation, Climate change, and food security is not practically considered beyond documentation.

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