After I had finished all my university courses and also the Master’s thesis, I was – similar to many other students – a bit lost in the many visible or also seemingly hidden possibilities, which were now ready to be discovered. After a few talks with my master's thesis supervisor a great opportunity opened to continue my thesis project. I received a grant from the World Food System Center (WFSC) to collaborate with the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) to further work on my project of assessing and measuring farm system resilience – and this time, on a global scale.
Actually, my first contact with a United Nations (UN) organization was in high school, when I participated in a short-term exchange program to the US and we visited the UN headquarters in New York. Back then, I was amazed and inspired by the work of international development aid, but at that time I would have never dared to imagine myself working for a UN organization.
The FAO is a specialized agency of the UN and focuses its international efforts to eradicate hunger and malnutrition. It is an intergovernmental organization and works in over 130 countries. During my internship, I was working at the FAO headquarter in Rome. Worldwide FAO has around 11.000 employees of which around 3.700 are based in Rome, while the other employees work in local country offices.
The focus of my internship was to analyze data on farm system resilience of individual farms, which was obtained through the FAO-developed tool SHARP. This nice and catchy acronym stands for Self-evaluation and Holistic Assessment of climate change Resilience of farmers and Pastoralists. It is a participatory tool and has already been used in many FAO projects in Africa and Central Asia. SHARP is also used in ETH projects and in the Swiss Canton de Vaud.
In an agricultural context, resilience is the capacity of the system, i.e. the farm, to withstand disturbances, respond to or re-organize after a shock (IPCC, 2014, pp. 1-32). It is central to strengthen the resilience of farmers, especially to climate change, which will increase the amount of shocks farmers will face in the future, e.g. droughts, higher temperatures, more variability in rainfalls, among many others. Resilience in agriculture is a relatively new topic but receives more and more attention in recent years. Even at an international, political level, i.e. at FAO, increasing resilience is set as a high priority. Nevertheless, to develop solutions to increase farms’ resilience, it is important to identify the least resilient aspects. A system is only as strong as its weakest part. To do so FAO developed SHARP to quantitatively measure and analyze which aspects of the farms are the most vulnerable.
For me personally, strengthening farmers’ capacities or also possibilities to increase their resilience is very important. I grew up at Lake of Constance in Germany, where we have many apple farms and wineries. I experienced the immediate difficulties farmers face when there is a year of yield loss. For example, in 2017 a late frost stroked the apple trees during blossoming and decreased the yield dramatically.
During my studies, I felt that science alone cannot solve everything. There must be a next instance with the means to implement and also adapt scientific findings to real life situations. Hence, when starting my internship at FAO, I was very curious and motivated to see how organizations on a political level try to develop strategies and solutions for farmers’ problems, especially because FAO is very huge and active worldwide.
And indeed, during my time at FAO I felt its big influence. For example, just looking at the sheer size and monetary budget of FAO projects is incredible. The SHARP project, which has a comparatively low budget, already sampled 4.000 – 5.000 households in more than 25 countries in only a few years. Hence, the amount of data is huge and can give a very thorough insight into farms’ resilience to climate change.
Contrariwise, FAO is also incredible slow, especially when it comes to decision-making or simple administrative work. The first is due to a difficult political process to find a consensus between all member countries different agendas. The second comes mainly from the organization’s structure and its tight budget for administrative costs.
In a way, I feel that these points inhibit the organization’s potential for innovation and creative work. Taking SHARP as an example again, it took a lot of time and an immense personal effort for the people coming up with the idea until it was finally accepted and implemented. Also, SHARP still faces development issues since the team lacks IT support to implement a functioning tablet application for field work.
To sum up, my internship at FAO was an incredible experience, which showed me that I want to pursue my career to foster sustainable agriculture. Time will show if this is going to be a more academic or political career. Maybe, I will find a path which is somewhere in between?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Adelaide Sander is a recently graduated Master’s student from ETH Zurich. She loves agriculture with all its diverse facets from field work to politics and science. She is extremely passionate to work towards a sustainable and just future for nature and humans alike. In her free time, she helps on her friend’s vineyard and enjoys spending time outdoors with her horse, family and friends.