A recent UNCTAD Trade and Environmental review 2013 focuses on the need for a drastic paradigm shift in global agricultural pratices and food trade and policy is currently making waves in the social media. Here’s my take on the report as I studied it to write a course exercise:
”Play a role of senior adviser of your government. You are asked to produce a justified idea paper to be used in the government’s task of formulating its food and agriculture policy, based on messages of the recent UNCTAD report (make an explicit reference to the source of your inspiration). Your document will be used in launching a high level policy and strategy seminar with key stakeholders in the food system (including actors from public and private sector, and from all steps of the food chain). The document will be posted to the invited participants of the seminar, to serve as inspiration and help in thinking “out of the box”. ”
The global agricultural and the wider food sector is at the crossroads. The challenges faced from climate change, environmental degradation, continued hunger, poverty, social inequity and poor health may seem overwhelming, but with a holistic and coherent cooperation between the stakeholders in the sector and in the wider society, agriculture can play a key role in the solution by transforming itself from the culprit to the problem solver.
The challenges are great and require tough decisions. To help in solving the growing climate crisis and in meeting the Millenium Development Goals agriculture needs to transition to truly ecologically and socially just agriculture. Economic thinking needs to diversify from the conventional economics of scale to economics of local diversity and the global trade on food needs to become coherent with the political development goals.
If the challenges are great, so are the opportunities. With a common strategy based on existing solutions and backed by training, extension work, policy and trade agreements agriculture’s multi-functionality can be used as a tool to drastically cut atmospheric CO2 concentration, improve environmental conditions, end hunger, create jobs and improve general social equity with relatively small investments (Herren 2013, Hoffmann 2013, Li Ching 2013).
Green house gas (GHG) emissions of the agricultural sector should be cut by 40% by 2030 for the sector to play its role in keeping the global average temperature rise under 2 C. The business as usual model, or the conventional agriculture, is failing to do so and is in contrast moving towards the opposite direction. The GHG emissions of the sector are projected to increase by 35-60% with the highest proportion of rise coming from the developing countries led by increased consumption of meat, dairy and spread of conventional agriculture. Agricultural and food sector as it is, is demolishing its own continuity as the changing climate will cause unseen constraints to future yields in key production areas including: South and South-East Asia, Australia, southern US and Latin America (Hoffmann 2013 ). The sector is eating out its own basis not only by increasing climate vulnerability but also by destroying the very basis it relies on; the top soil, which in return is one of the key carbon storages on earth (Leu 2013).
Conventional agriculture has had many successes but it hasn’t succeeded in eradicating poverty and hunger as proven by the 1 billion undernourished and poor. This is due to the unequal trade agreements and distorted markets. Economics of scale and the trade liberalisation practiced during the past decades has benefited the industrial nations and created a centralised and thus vulnerable food markets where the poor and developing countries have become the net loosers, unable to compete in the large corporate and subsidy dominated markets (Hoffmann 2013, Li Ching 2013).
Due to these reasons agriculture has a bad image as the sector that causes problems instead of solving them. The strong hold of conventional agriculture needs to be overturned by a paradigm shift to agro-ecological practices that recognize the socio-ecological multi-functionality of agro-ecosystems. Food production practices need to shift from monocultural industrial methods to mosaic of diverse place specific and less fuel-intensive farming that aims to increase total farm output from multiple yields instead of one yield per land area. By building diversity of practices using systems thinking, encouraging food sovereignty, small-scale farming and local markets and by discouraging financial speculation, industrial livestock production, feed concentrate use and biofuels expansion, it is estimated that global GHG emissions could be cut as much as by 50% within a few decades. Only by transitioning to organic agriculture the agricultural sector could sequester as much as 20% of the current emissions. Key methods in reducing food sector’s emissions include increasing the soil carbon content, closing the nutrient cycles, reducing direct and indirect livestock emissions, reducing land use change (LUC) and indirect land use change (ILUC) emissions and reducing food waste. Building of soil organic matter (SOM) through organic farming is estimated to be one of the key and the least costly climate mitigation method. Use of sustainable pastures is the fastest and most permanent way of building SOM. These various methods would not only help in mitigating climate change but would build resilience of the sector to climate change and future energy constraints (Grain 2013, Hoffmann 2013, Leu 2013).
Climate change is projected to cause water constraints, pest and disease outbrakes, invasive species and extreme and unpredictable weather. Through existing, science based, agro-ecological farming methods system vulnerabilities can be greatly reduced using site specific local species, varieties and practices that increase the soil organic matter thus reducing water constraints and preventing flooding, and which build diversity that helps in preventing pest outbrakes. Use of mulch and soil cover plants help in erosion control and use of hedges and other edge elements create a mosaic of microclimates that decrease the negative effects of extreme weather (Müller & Niggli 2013).
The methods exist but to put them in wider use, a wide understanding and agreement needs to be achieved between the different players on the global food sector. Herren (2013) estimates that the investments required for a global strategy to be operationalised are as small as one third of the current subsidies to conventional agriculture that is causing the growing challenges. Investments are needed in broadening and developing agro-ecological practices; in training and further research, in building of local supply chains and in institutional strengthening including good governance, equitable land rights and infrastructure. At the same time the impacts of conventional agriculture need to be brought down by redirecting subsidies from conventional to environmentally and socially sound agriculture, by filling the policy gap in regulation of global corporates dominating the agrochemical, seed and retail markets, and by reforming the trade agreements so that subsidies in industrial countries are reduced and developing countries are allowed to calibrate their agricultural tariffs. These market and trade measures would reduce poverty and hunger as developing countries would be able to export to industrial countries, compete in more equitable terms in third markets and own their own markets thus creating jobs and subsistence. The diversification of markets would improve the resilience of the global food production as all production is not placed in one basket controlled by few big stakeholders (Li Ching 2013).
The political challenge is enormous but if these challenges are not addressed the transition to agriculture that can nourish the world, reduce poverty, provide environmental benefits and create jobs and livelihoods for people, is highly unlikely to happen and the sector will continue to increase the amount of future problems instead of solving them (Herren 2013).
Ching, L.L. 2013. The importance of international trade, trade rules and market structures. In: U. Hoffman (ed.) Trade and Environment Review 2013: Wake Up Before It Is Too Late. Make Agriculture Truly Sustainable Now for Food Security in a Changing Climate. United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). Chapter 4, Lead Article, pp. 252-265.
Grain. 2013. Commentary IV: Food, climate change and healthy soils: the forgotten link. In: U. Hoffman (ed.) Trade and Environment Review 2013: Wake Up Before It Is Too Late. Make Agriculture Truly Sustainable Now for Food Security in a Changing Climate. United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).
Herren, H. 2013. The role of research, technology and extension services in a fundamental transformation of agriculture. In: U. Hoffman (ed.) Trade and Environment Review 2013: Wake Up Before It Is Too Late. Make Agriculture Truly Sustainable Now for Food Security in a Changing Climate. United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). Chapter 3, Lead Article, pp. 172-179.
Hoffmann, U. 2013. Agriculture at the crossroads: assuring food security in developing countries uder the challenges of global warming. In: U. Hoffman (ed.) Trade and Environment Review 2013: Wake Up Before It Is Too Late. Make Agriculture Truly Sustainable Now for Food Security in a Changing Climate. United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). Chapter 1, Lead Article, pp. 2-8.
Leu. A. 2013. Commentary V: Mitigating climate change with soil organic matter in organic production systems. In: U. Hoffman (ed.) Trade and Environment Review 2013: Wake Up Before It Is Too Late. Make Agriculture Truly Sustainable Now for Food Security in a Changing Climate. United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD)
Müller, A., Niggli, U. 2013. Commentary III: The potential of sustainable agriculture for climate change adaptation. In: U. Hoffman (ed.) Trade and Environment Review 2013: Wake Up Before It Is Too Late. Make Agriculture Truly Sustainable Now for Food Security in a Changing Climate. United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).