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Guaranteeing food security in a changing global climate

Experts at a recent meeting co-organized by UNCTAD made a strong call for a rapid and significant shift from conventional, monoculture-based and high-external-input-dependent agricultural production towards mosaics of sustainable production systems that also considerably improve the productivity of small-scale farmers, as a response to climate change. Please find below a report of the meeting, which was first published in the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS) #7049, 29 November 2010 and is reproduced here with permission.

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Lim Li Ching
Third World Network
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10400 Penang, Malaysia
Email: twnet@po.jaring.my
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Geneva, 26 Nov (Ulrich Hoffmann*) -- With the annual United Nations climate conference starting on 29 November, attention will once more be focused on what the world must do to deal with global warming and climate change.

The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change has, in its objective, the stabilisation of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere "to ensure that food production is not threatened".

Thus, experts at a recent meeting organized by the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and the Environmental Management and Research Association of Malaysia (ENSEARCH) made a strong call for a rapid and significant shift from conventional, monoculture-based and high-external-input-dependent agricultural production towards mosaics of sustainable production systems that also considerably improve the productivity of small-scale farmers, as a response to climate change.

The UNCTAD/ENSEARCH International Conference on Climate Change, Agriculture and Related Trade Standards, held in Kuala Lumpur on 1-2 November 2010, concluded that the problems of climate change, hunger and poverty, economic, social and gender inequity, poor health and nutrition, and environmental sustainability were inter-related and needed to be solved by leveraging agriculture's multi-functionality. Farmers should not simply be seen as maximizers of food and agricultural commodity production, but also as managers of the food and agricultural commodity-producing eco-systems.

The discussion highlighted that climate change had the potential to irreversibly damage the natural resource base on which agriculture depends, with grave consequences for food security. Meeting the dual challenge of achieving food security and mitigating and adapting to climate change required political commitment at the highest level. Time was rapidly running out to galvanise such a commitment.

Sound agricultural practices are essential to human, economic and environmental well-being. In most developing countries, agriculture accounts for between 20-60% of GDP, and employs up to 65% of the labour force, providing a livelihood for approximately 2.6 billion people globally. Women are the primary agricultural producers in many developing countries and play a major role in securing household food security, thereby requiring special attention.

Many participants gave illustrations that global warming posed significant threats to agricultural production and trade, and consequently increased the risks of malnutrition and extreme hunger. Preliminary estimates for the period up to 2080 suggested a decline of some 15-30% of agricultural productivity in the most climate change-exposed developing country regions: Africa and South Asia.

For some countries in these regions, total agricultural production could decline by up to 50%. More frequent extreme weather events, related to climate change, would also create increasing humanitarian and food crises.

The meeting highlighted that agriculture accounted for about 13-33% of global GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions, the former being confined to direct, the latter including indirect agricultural GHG emissions from agricultural inputs, food processing, transport, and land-use changes. As agriculture's share in global GDP is just about 4%, this suggests that agriculture is very GHG-emission-intensive.

Agricultural emissions of methane and nitrous oxide (collectively accounting for over 90% of agricultural GHGs) grew by 17% in the period 1990-2005, about three times as fast as productivity increased in global cereals production, for instance. These GHG emissions are predicted to rise by a further 35-60% by 2030 in response to population growth and changing diets in developing countries, in particular towards the greater consumption of ruminant meats and dairy products, as well as the further spread of industrial and factory farming in developing countries.

According to the Kuala Lumpur conference, the key driving forces of GHG emissions in agriculture are: (i) land-use changes, primarily deforestation for intensified cattle, animal feed, vegetable oil, pulp or large-scale bio-energy production, mostly in the context of export-led strategies; (ii) the expansion of industrial, mono-crop-focused and external-input-intensive crop production; and (iii) industrial livestock production, increasingly done under landless conditions.

Today's advanced food production systems have become heavily dependent on the continuous investment in and use of energy-intensive machinery and fossil-fuel-based agricultural inputs.

At present, industrial-agriculture uses 2-3 times more fertilizers and 1.5 times more pesticides for the production of 1kg of food than it did 40 years ago. The prevailing system of industrial-agriculture uses ten times more energy than ecological-agriculture, consuming on average 10 energy calories for every food calorie produced.

Many delegates underscored that that imbalance was only possible with cheap energy-based inputs linked to distorted (i. e. subsidized) energy prices.

Over the next 40 years, the global population is estimated to expand by almost 50%, combined with significant increases in per capita demand for meat, dairy and vegetable products, as incomes rise. The major new sources of demand for food and dietary change are primarily expected in low-income and least developed countries, where food accounts for 40-80% of household expenses. This increases the pressure to sustainably raise farm output, in particular among small-scale commercial and subsistence farmers.

The discussion at the Kuala Lumpur meeting emphasized that agriculture was a sector that had the potential to move from being a part of the problem to becoming an essential part of the solution to climate change. A rapid and significant shift away from industrial monocultures towards a mosaic of sustainable, regenerative production systems was required. Delegates, however, underlined that a much more profound transformation was required than simply tweaking the existing industrial-agricultural systems.

In essence, the key task is to transform the uniform, high-external-input-dependent model of quick-fix industrial agriculture into "regenerative" agricultural systems. Such systems continuously recreate the resources they use and achieve higher productivity and profitability of the system (not necessarily of individual products) with minimal external inputs (including energy). Regenerative systems will marry local knowledge and seed/livestock varieties with modern agricultural techniques and extension services and give a pro-active role to small-scale farmers; it will be knowledge-intensive rather than chemical input-intensive.

Such sustainable production systems have the potential to quantitatively and qualitatively feed the global population by 2050, in particular by substantially improving the crop yields of subsistence farmers in tropical regions where a rapidly growing population and food insecurity conditions are severe (studies indicate possible yield increases of between 60-80%).

Several experts at the meeting underlined that there were significant secondary macro-economic benefits of investment in sustainable agriculture, and perhaps the most important being the "local multiplier effect". By locally sourcing inputs (e. g. labour, organic fertilizers, bio-pesticides, bio-energy etc.), a greater share of total farming expenditure remained in the local economy, replacing conventional procurement of externally-sourced inputs, many of them imported.

Several experts elaborated on pre- and post-harvest losses that represent one of the single greatest sources of inefficiency in agriculture (often up to 40% or more, depending on food type and location). They could be reduced and world food supply increased by between 10-30% through the application of readily available technologies and management methods using minimal additional resources and without contributing to GHG emissions.

Also, integrating agricultural with (renewable) energy production offers several climate mitigation and adaptation opportunities. Localized food and renewable bio-energy systems can provide food and fuel security, based on a green circular economy that turns agricultural waste into biogas, animal feed and organic fertilizers.

At length, the meeting discussed the required national and international policy action for a fundamental transformation of agriculture.

Developing-country governments should focus on creating an enabling environment and changing the incentive structure as part of targeted agricultural and fiscal policies that strengthen sustainable agriculture.

There are several main policy areas in this regard:

NATIONAL-LEVEL MEASURES

-- Governments need to remove or modify existing tax and pricing policies that generate perverse incentives for sustainable production systems, such as the overuse of pesticides, fertilizers, water and fuel, or land degradation.

-- Assuring stability in land management and tenure systems is central to successful sustainable agricultural policies. Agrarian reform should therefore continue to be at the top of governments' political agenda.

-- It is imperative to significantly increase the share and effectiveness of public expenditure for agricultural development. In the last 20-30 years, investment in agriculture in agriculture-dominated developing countries has been declining as a share of total public spending from 7% in 1980 to 4% by 2007. Policy-makers need to target public investment carefully, putting resources into improving physical and R&D infrastructure for sustainable practices, the linkages between farmers, and greater investment into extension education and services.

-- Financial constraints in agriculture remain pervasive, and they are costly and inequitably distributed, severely limiting smallholders' ability to compete. The demise of special credit lines to agriculture through public programs or state banks has left huge gaps in financial services.

-- Strengthening the performance of producer organizations should also figure prominently on the agenda of governments.

-- Agricultural mitigation and adaptation actions should be integrated and prioritised in country-level initiatives, such as the Sustainable Development Policy and Measures (SD-PAM), Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions (NAMAs), and National Adaptation Programmes of Action (NAPAs). Particular emphasis should be placed on adaptation measures for the most vulnerable parts of the rural population. Adaptation is a priority for developing countries and should be supported by finance and technology transfer from developed countries.

POLICY MEASURES AND CHALLENGES AT THE INTERNATIONAL LEVEL

-- International development co-operation needs to refocus on agriculture, whose share as a proportion of total ODA (official development assistance) flows declined sharply from a high of 18% in 1979 to 3-4% in recent years. More aid should also flow into strengthening the agricultural innovation and extension system for ecological farming methods and infrastructure (even in Europe, less than 1% of agricultural R&D was spent on organic production methods, for instance).

-- There needs to be a reform of international trade policies that are really supportive of ecological agriculture. Apart from real reduction of domestic support in and export subsidies by developed countries, this should include improved market access for developing-country produce and policy space to support the agricultural sector, allow expansion of local food production, and the use of effective instruments to promote food security, farmers' livelihoods and rural development.

-- Very problematic is the ever-increasing global market dominance of a small number of agro-companies, which dominate the world seed, agro-chemical and biotechnology market. In 2004, the market share of the four largest companies (Monsanto, DuPont/Pioneer, Syngenta and Bayer Crop Science) reached 60% for agro-chemicals, 33% for seeds and 38% for biotechnology. These companies have a vested interest in maintaining an external input-dependent, mono-culture-focused and carbon-intensive industrial approach to agriculture. Furthermore, international supply chains, often under the leadership of major food processors or retailers, need to reconsider their sourcing from scale-focused, mono-crop production in favour of diverse multi-cropping and integrated agriculture.

-- Enhanced regional and international South-South co-operation could play a useful role in strengthening agricultural R&D and extension capacity. The establishment of regional centres of excellence, regional public research institutions and closer collaboration among existing research centres would be valuable steps in this direction. The Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) and its consortium of 15 research centres should play a more pronounced role in guiding and assisting developing countries towards this end.

-- The process of methodological development of appropriate mitigation and adaptation strategies and measures is costly and requires multi-faceted experts. There may therefore be the need for an international instrument/process that provides a global framework for action and support for agriculture, and which would implement the recommendations of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD).

(* Ulrich Hoffmann is Head, Trade and Sustainable Development Section, UNCTAD secretariat. He contributed this article to the SUNS.) +

 


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