Jun 22 2020

Professor David Simon, Department of Geography, has recently been appointed Commissioner to join renowned experts across the Global South for a major new Commission on Sustainable Agriculture Intensification. David is the sole UK-based Commissioner which has its membership largely drawn from Africa, Asia and Latin America. We recently caught up with David to congratulate him on the news, and to ask a bit more about what this work will entail.

1. Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your role in the department of Geography?

I am Professor of Development Geography and current the Department’s PGT Lead. From late 2014 till the end of last year I was on 80% secondment, serving as Director of Mistra Urban Futures, which I built into a leading international research centre on urban sustainability, based at Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden. During that period, my RHUL time was focused on seeing 8 PhD students to successful completion and some teaching on our MScs in Practising Sustainable Development / Sustainability and Management. RHUL is benefiting in various ways from the networks and experience I gained at MUF, ranging from mandatory Open Access publication of books as well as journal articles to currently submitting GCRF research grant applications with former partners in key Asian, African and Latin American cities.

2. Congratulations on being appointed Commissioner to join renowned experts across the Global South for a major new Commission on Sustainable Agriculture Intensification. Can you tell us about the ‘Commission on Sustainable Agriculture Intensification (CoSAI) and what they do?

Thanks! CoSAI has been established by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), a global network of specialised research institutes linked to the World Bank and working to promote food security and eradicate hunger. Many are associated with large-scale initiatives linked to the Green Revolution, although in recent times attention has shifted increasingly to include enhancements to indigenous varieties of crops in order to promote the contributions of peasant and small-scale commercial farmers and enhance overall environmental sustainability in agri- and aquaculture.

CoSAI has a 2-year lifespan and is charged with galvanising a major step change in agricultural sustainability in terms of the global Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals on food and nutritional security, social equity, efficiency of resource use and an improved natural environment. In particular, we envisage wide availability of affordable, safe and nutritious foods, a healthy natural environment, and reduced poverty and inequality. Considerable work and investment will be required to achieve this and to manage the tensions among these objectives. Accordingly, CoSAI aims to galvanise public and private support to ramp up sustainable agricultural intensification (SAI) in low and middle income countries or global South. One of our first tasks was to define SAI in an appropriate way for our objectives, including environmental and equity dimensions that distinguish it from the various existing socio-technical definitions.  It will feed into decision-making initiatives at different scales, including the key UN Food Systems Summit 2021.

3. Looking at the current state of the climate change, and the huge demand on food supplies, can you tell us how important this work is and how it could help people and our planet’s ecosystems?

Agenda 2030 and the related parts of what is collectively known as the global sustainable development agenda represent our best – and possibly last real – chance to avoid global disaster through unsustainable (ab)use of our planet and to keep global warming within the 1.5 or even 2 degree Celsius limit. Tackling climate change is a huge challenge and a key so-called ‘wicked problem’ requiring all societal groups and stakeholders to work together over – and for- the long term. The world’s population continues to grow, and so does aggregate demand for food. There is arguably already enough food produced worldwide to feed everyone if waste at all stages from farm to fridge to fork could be reduced massively, and market, political and other forces that drive the unequal and unfair distribution of and access to existing food supply could be tackled successfully.  Efforts to achieve this notwithstanding, different forms of SAI will play a key role according to local circumstances.

A key part of my contribution to CoSAI will be to ensure adequate attention to urban and peri-urban agriculture, which plays a larger role in feeding urban populations than commonly realised. For example, roughly half the food consumed in metropolitan Dar es Salaam (Tanzania) and Kampala (Uganda) is grown within those cities and their immediate environs. Yet, apart from ‘hobby gardening’ on allotments, urban food production is still widely regarded around the world as inappropriate and something that belongs in rural areas and hence is restricted or prohibited. Such attitudes are changing, spurred by the popularity of farmers’ markets, ideas of ‘think global, act local’, reducing food miles as a key part of the sustainability agenda, and ultimately increasing urban food security.

4. What inspired you to focus your research interests on urban development and the environment?

Growing up in Cape Town, one of the world’s most naturally beautiful cities and in a country of astonishing environmental richness, which my family explored extensively, imbued me with a sense of wonder at the diverse beauty and awareness of the damage that humans are inflicting on the environment in the name of development. I have vivid childhood memories of incredibly poor communities living amid amazing natural wealth from which they were excluded and to the degradation of which they were often forced to contribute through lack of alternatives and their immediate survival needs, exacerbated by apartheid.

Mid-way through secondary school I was immensely fortunate to be selected to attend one of the early international courses run by the path-breaking Wilderness Leadership School in what is today KwaZulu-Natal province. It had recently been established by Ian Player, brother of the famous golfer Gary. He was a world renowned pioneer conservationist who understood that saving key individual endangered species like the white and black rhino would be meaningless without conserving their natural habitats and environments, and that that, in turn, would be impossible unless the (mainly poor) local residents participated in, and gained material benefits from, that conservation. The die was cast in terms of what focus my career should have. I later came to realise that the lonely life of a game ranger or rural conservationist would probably not suit a city boy for long, but chose to pursue my interests through degrees combining my natural and social scientific interests. My DPhil had an urban focus and, although I work on diverse themes at different geographical scales, ‘the urban’ has dominated since I became fascinated by the centrality of cities and urbanisation to climate change challenges in the early 2000s.

5. How are you spending your time outside of work currently?

I enjoy outdoor pursuits whenever possible, including leisure hiking, cycling and tennis, although squash is my main sport. Hard daily cycles through the almost deserted Windsor Great Park during the total lockdown was a lifesaver, while several overdue DIY tasks also got done, but it’s great to be back on the tennis court again now!