"The world needs a paradigm shift in agricultural development: from a “green revolution” to an “ecological intensification” approach. This implies a rapid and significant shift from conventional, monoculture-based and high- external-input-dependent industrial production towards mosaics of sustainable, regenerative production systems that also considerably improve the productivity of small-scale farmers. We need to recognize that a farmer is not only a producer of agricultural goods, but also a manager of an agro-ecological system that provides quite a number of public goods and services (e.g. water, soil, landscape, energy, biodiversity, and recreation)".This is one of the key messages of a new report from United Nations Conference of Trade and Development, UNCTAD. The Trade and Environment Report 2013, subtitled Wake up before it is too late: Make agriculture truly sustainable now for food security in a changing climate, warns that continuing rural poverty, persistent hunger around the world, growing populations, and mounting environmental concerns must be treated as a collective crisis. It says that urgent and far-reaching action is needed before climate change begins to cause major disruptions to agriculture, especially in developing countries.
Agricultural development, the report underlines, is at a true crossroads. Food prices in the period 2011 to mid-2013 were almost 80% higher than for the period 2003-2008. Global fertilizer use increased by 8 times in the past 40 years, although global cereal production has scarcely doubled at the same time. The growth rates of agricultural productivity have recently declined from 2% to below 1% per annum. The two global environmental limits that have already been crossed (nitrogen contamination of soils and waters and biodiversity loss) were caused by agriculture. GHG emissions from agriculture are not only the single biggest source of global warming in the South, besides the transport sector, they are also the most dynamic. The scale of foreign land acquisitions (often also termed land grabbing) dwarfs the level of Official Development Assistance, the former being 5-10 times higher in value than the latter in recent years.
But most important of all are the persistent problems with hunger, malnutrition, and access to food. Almost 1 billion people currently suffer from hunger, and another 1 billion are malnourished, the report notes, even though current global agricultural production already provides sufficient calories to feed a population of 12 to 14 billion. Some 70 per cent of the hungry or malnourished are themselves small-scale farmers or agricultural labourers, indicating that poverty and access to food are the most critical challenges.
The report recommends adjusting trade rules to encourage “as much regionalized/localized food production as possible; as much traded food as necessary.” The past strategy of relying on international markets to meet staple food demand, while specializing in the production and export of “lucrative” cash crops, has recently failed to deliver its desired results, because it has relied on low staple food prices and no shortage of supply in international markets, conditions that have drastically changed since the turn of the century, the report notes.
TER13 highlights that the required transformation is much more profound than simply tweaking the existing industrial agricultural system. However, the sheer scale at which modified production methods would have to be adopted, the significant governance issues, the power asymmetries' problems in food input and output markets as well as the current trade rules for agriculture pose considerable challenges.
More than 60 international experts contributed to the report’s analysis of the topic. It is incredibly comprehensive with a lot of interesting discussion, some of which I will comment on later on this blog. The full report is available at http://unctad.org/en/pages/PublicationWebflyer.aspx?publicationid=666. I have written one of the chapters in the report on Agriculture, Food and Energy.