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Idea paper based on UNCTAD’s Wake Up Before It’s Too Late-report

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).

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Learning diary: Hurni et al. 2009. Context, conceptual framework and sustainability indicators. In: B. D. MacIntyre et al. (ed.) International assessment of agricultural knowledge, science and technology for development (IAASTD): Global report.

The Key messages chapter promised some interesting topics to be covered. These included the focus on small farms, inter-linkages between provision function, ecology and culture, discussion on different ways agriculture can be used to solve some of the problems it has been accused of creating, incorporation of different knowledge systems and the complex issues around equity and gender especially. The AKST-concept was introduced vaguely without offering much content.

Setting the scene – chapter offered a background information and reasoning for the global assessment which tries to answer the key question: “how can we reduce hunger and poverty, improve livelihoods, and facilitate equitable, environmentally, socially and economically sustainable development through the generation of, access to, and use of AKTS?”. The IAASTD has especially focused on reducing poverty, indicated by income level. The global context of agriculture was covered briefly with information on productivity growth, areas covered and the multi-functionality of agriculture. It was interesting to note that the trend to globalise agricultural sector has hit small farmers especially hard due to commersialisation, subsidised and capital intensive competition, the growing power of supermarkets and wholesalers (retailers), standards and export orientated horticulture. Small farms need external subsidies to thrive in the new environment. The globalisation and industrialisation is driven by national policies that seek export revenue and fulfillment of international trade agreements. Due to these policies the market power has centralised, small farmers have been left to compete with subsidised food imports and natural resources have become overexploited, and energy use and GHG emissions have increased. The policies affect nearly half of the world’s population as 90% of world farming households, that consist of 40% of world population, are small farmers. I could not grasp why it is insisted that subsistence farmers, who often use diverse risk minimising strategies, are more vulnerable than the employed relying on external employment opportunities. It was interesting to consider, whether the exact reasons why small farmers find it hard to compete with industrial agriculture; lack of subsidies, lack of fossil energy dependent technology, volatile market prices and lack of external inputs, might tip the scale in favor of small farmers in the near future, as small-scale farms are often the most productive systems in terms of output per area and energy. Food sovereignty was not included in the lectures. It would have been interesting to learn more about the concept and how it relates to current policies.

It was refreshing to note that IAASTD was aiming for, or at least calling after, a wholistic interdisciplinary approach with a transparent and wide stakeholder participation on all levels and stages of the process. Science should not be done for the sake of science, but for the use of practitioners who need to be included in the process. For this, natural resource management needs to incorporate norms, values and rules into its focus. The most used indicator for development and poverty reduction, the income level, seemed schitzophrenic after the earlier description of the effects of globalisation and commersialisation. The income level is best increased by commersialising goods and service production. The indicator can therefore be seen as a key driver for the worsening situation of small scale farmers who are already the most marginalised and poor. AKTS as a concept seemed to offer very little new except the transdisciplinary approach that focuses on the most urgent real life problems and the wider stakeholder involvement. It seemed more of a new spin to increase R&D funding for the sector.

The depiction of agricultural services focused, in my opinion, still too much on the provisional functions at the expense of a more multi-functional perspective that takes services and ecosystem functions into account. The green revolution’s positive achievements were staggering but so was the challenge of stagnation and decrease of agricultural output and the need to increase the outputs further to meet the growing demand in times of increasing scarcity. The explanation why forestry is included in the report seemed vague in forester’s eyes. Livestock production is growing fast, driven by the increased incomes. The development indicator for higher income seems to drive also the growth of excess animal production that has numerous negative effects on environment, climate and equity. It would have been interesting to know whether this growth happens in industrial production or in small farms that dominate the sector. Standards were mentioned as one of the key issues benefiting large producers, and certification of organic production as the key cost in transition to agroecological production. Is the official organic farming actually marginalising small farmers even further? I was left wondering if the required cropland increase of 50% by 2050 is based on needs (health, equity..) or on wants (increased income) as well. In my opinion the forecast should be made based solely on needs to avoid self-fulfilling scenarios that might have disastrous consequences.

The driver and indirect driver analysis was familiar from my work on land-use change issues. I was left wondering if one of the key goals should actually be redefinition of what is considered as a decent livelihood in the North. Could the exclusion of excess wants from peoples’ values make small scale farming socially acceptable ie profitable enough in the North? The poor nature of income as an indicator was highlighted when comparing the decrease in the proportion of people living under 1 dollar per day (-9%) and the decrease in proportion of people who are undernourished (-4%). Still, the increase in household GDP was depicted as a the goal in the livelihoods chapter. It was even said that the less agricultural production contributes to the national GDP the better. Should we stop farming all together to reach the development goals? How obscure!

The chapter on hunger, nutrition and health was interesting as it consisted of a lot of new information to me. Even though there has been huge development in peoples’ health, the difference between geographical areas is becoming more clear and even widening, with sub-Saharan Africa lacking far behind other areas. Livestock and meat production was pinpointed as one of the causes for hunger. If the direct farming output was used to feed people, instead of animals, in equitable way, hunger would not exist. Also the high expenditure on food in developing countries suggests that it might not be too wise to aim for higher incomes but higher self-reliance with multiple livelihood strategies, farming included. The point made about how nutritional guidelines should emphasise local culture (defined as?) and local food was interesting.

The chapter on natural resources was mainly repetition of previous chapters. The role of farmers in natural resources management was made clear by handing them the responsibility to make choices between practices. This seems as an unrealistic burden when the international agreements and national policies that unable them to make better choices are taken into account. Natural resources, agriculture included, was depicted in a more wholistic manner as system elements that are significant to humans and that are rapidly degrading due to growing demand (due to population growth (need) and economic development (wants)). The use of water in agriculture and the means to use it more efficiently, as well as the degradation of soils, was especially interesting issues in this chapter. The conflict between the role of biodiversity for higher scale systems as the element that is essential for food production and the fact that current practices destroy this diversity was striking. I liked the fact that the importance of traditional knowledge was mentioned, and the fact that natural resources management is more than solving technical issues, and has to take cultural, sociological, behavioral issues and values into account.

Small scale rural farmers are not only negatively impacted by policies that drive commercialisation and globalisation, but also by the migration of labor to the cities in search of this much longed after income. The solutions that have been suggested to overcome this race to the bottom would require political will that is not present, as the power has been centralised to men in urban areas. The increasingly female small farmers are left out of the system.

The chapter on indicators was the most interesting one as it relates strongly to my doctoral thesis. The many requirements for useful indicators was described. I was pleased that the authors mentioned the importance of the type of indicator used as it may hiddenly drive the process as with the case of income level. The chapter was a good warming up for the questions I need to start thinking about in the near future.

International assessment of agricultural knowledge, science and technology for development (IAASTD): Global report