Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Good farming needs a good society

A new discussion paper from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) calls for a rapid shift from conventional, industrial, monoculture-based and high-external-input dependent agriculture towards mosaics of sustainable production systems.

The paper, ‘Assuring Food Security in Developing Countries under the Challenges of Climate Change: Key Trade and Development Issues of a Fundamental Transformation of Agriculture’, points out that such sustainable (regenerative) production systems, such as organic agriculture could considerably improve the productivity of small-scale farmers, and the adaptation benefits of sustainable agriculture could help farmers face the challenges of climate change to food security.

This is not the first and not the last paper to point this out. The failure of "conventional" industrial, non-organic farming to deliver either sufficient food or income and its destruction of the environment are obvious reasons to look for something else. One of the big merits of this paper is that it doesn't stop at discussion methods. Transformation of farming is not about methods and technologies in the first place. The author, Ulrich Hoffmann writes:

The current structures in global agricultural input and output markets do not ease, but rather complicate the required fundamental transformation of agricultural production methods and consumption patterns. Huge price distortions, considerable externalities, market and policy failures, as well as powerful commercial interests create a “minefield” for constructive action being (unilaterally) undertaken at national level. Without a reform of international trade and investment policies that are really supportive of ecological agriculture national-level action may remain ineffective.

There is generally too much emphasis on and simplistic overestimation of the potential of technological development for agricultural transformation. This will only give false hope and excuses for doing nothing really fundamental. In fact, only few problems in agriculture are mainly caused by a lack of technology, many are related to social, economic and cultural issues that require structural changes, not techno-fixes. It is therefore critical to first of all define what problems are best solved by changing legal frameworks, trade policies, incentive structures or human behaviour and, second, what contribution technology could make within this very context.

Good farming needs a good society, and vice versa!

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