Interview with Assem Abu Hatab – the role of smallholder farming systems to end hunger and achieve the SDGs


In this interview, we meet Assem Abu Hatab, associate professor at the Department of Economics of SLU and senior development economist at the Nordic Africa Institute (NAI). Assem coordinates the workshop Zero Hunger: Is Smallholder Farming the Solution, one of the workshops presented at the upcoming summit in October. 

 In total, they are six associate professors representing four Swedish research organisations who have been planning and organising the workshop. Erika Chenais and Ylva Persson are affiliated with the National Veterinary Institute (SVA). Klara Fischer is affiliated with the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU). Johanna Lindahl is affiliated with SLU, SVA and Uppsala University (UU). Jonas Johansson Wensman is affiliated with SVA and SLU.

Smallholder farming is critical to recognise when talking about food system transformations. One can tackle these issues from several angles, e.g. from a political and/or economic perspective, concerning livestock and local versus global markets. What made you choose to design a workshop on this topic?

Assem: The idea behind the topic of our workshop originated from our research interests in smallholder farming systems in various settings and contexts. Each of us works on this topic differently: some are interested in small-scale livestock production systems, whereas others are interested in small-scale crop production systems. Some focus on smallholder farming systems in the context of Sweden, Europe and other high-income countries, whilst others focus on these systems in low- and middle-income countries’ contexts. A group of us researches the production and supply-side of the smallholder farming value chain. In contrast, others concentrate more on the demand and consumption stages of the chain. Moreover, we represent a range of research subjects, including social sciences such as economics and rural development, veterinary sciences and agricultural sciences. Thus, I think we complement each other very nicely in terms of our research interests and areas of expertise, which enabled us to work jointly to structure the workshop in an interdisciplinary way that would hopefully attract researchers, policymakers, and international organisations working with agriculture and food systems to participate in our workshop and discuss how we could unlock the potential of smallholder farming systems to contribute more effectively to end hunger and achieve the sustainable development goals.

In your opinion, what are the leading public health concerns about food systems, and what needs to be done to achieve sustainable, equitable food systems promoting our health?

Well, food systems are inextricably linked to health outcomes. In other words, what we eat (our diets) is one of the most significant drivers of our health and well-being. Decisions about what and how food is produced, processed, packaged, and promoted undermine the quality of what we eat. The outcomes of today's food systems lead to the triple burden of malnutrition, which refers to the coexistence of overnutrition, undernutrition and micronutrient deficiencies. In many low- and middle-income countries, the most nutritious food is often expensive, putting it out of reach for many households. At the same time, unhealthy alternatives are readily available and heavily marketed. Climate change, disease outbreaks and pandemics, conflicts, and other socioeconomic and environmental challenges increase food systems’ fragility. As a result, millions of people around the globe do not have safe and regular access to nutritious food to the extent that famine – which should be consigned to history – looms again. Sadly, two-thirds of children between the ages of 6 months and two years are not getting the diverse diets they need to grow up well, putting them at risk of malnutrition. Food systems are one of the primary drivers of this. Therefore, governments and their development partners and donors need to be more serious about agricultural transformation and set the reform of the sector and agriculture transformation as a top priority.  Greater efforts are required to build the productive capacities of food systems, enhance their resilience and preparedness to deal with future shocks, and foster food security and nutrition for the growing populations. To accomplish this, accelerated investment in sustainable agriculture also needs to be leveraged to deliver on a longer-term goal of a more inclusive, environmentally sustainable and resilient food system.

What are your expectations for Uppsala Health Summit 2022 and your involvement?

The summit takes place this year when many food systems worldwide are still struggling with and trying to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, which disrupted supply chain activities during the last two years from end to end and posed profound threats to global food security. The invasion of Ukraine earlier this year is another major event that emerged as an additional shock to food systems that threatens to scramble further fragile food supply chains, exacerbate food security challenges, and subsequently derail national and global efforts aiming to achieve SDG #1 (end hunger) and SDG #2 (end poverty). Therefore, the 2022 summit presents a significant and valuable opportunity to exchange views, share ideas, present ongoing research and receive critical feedback from colleagues and stakeholders. In particular, it provides an excellent platform to bring together researchers and stakeholders from diverse disciplines and sectors who are working in areas related to health and agricultural systems and food security to discuss and define research priorities for building more sustainable food systems. Also, I expect the summit to provide a platform for participants to network with peers and gain new insights and collaborations with other researchers interested in similar research areas.

Can you tell us about an ‘Aha moment’ you have had in your research?

Every time I learn new things and gain an accurate and deep understanding of something is an Aha moment. In recent decades, academic research has become more interdisciplinary as researchers aim to solve significant global challenges that span many different fields. This has become even more critical as global challenges such as the COVID-19 pandemic affected daily operations worldwide. Especially, contemporary food systems- the focus of my research- are increasingly globalised, constituting complex networks of multiple actors and multidirectional interlinkages between and organisations at local, national, regional and global levels. Besides, food systems are not isolated from other systems, such as the health systems. These characteristics of contemporary food systems have increased the need for system thinking and more multi- and inter-disciplinary approaches, learning from a wide range of disciplines and the inclusion of knowledge from outside of academia. When different perspectives are brought together in a way that consistently results in a greater understanding that goes beyond divisions, one has a unique chance to restructure own assumptions, gain new insights and be more capable of interpreting information and results, and then the aha moment(s) come!