Small-scale sustainable agriculture key to global food security

According to the United Nations’ World Economic and Social Survey 2011, a transformation from the predominant large-scale and intensive systems of agriculture towards small-scale sustainable agriculture is urgently needed.

While the Green Revolution in agriculture of the 1960s and 1970s boosted food production worldwide, it also accelerated land degradation and water pollution. Modern agriculture also contributes about 14 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions, and the management of land-use and water is not sustainable.

To meet the challenge of feeding the world’s growing population, the report calls for a ‘truly green agricultural revolution’, using farming techniques that require less water wastage and less use of chemicals and pesticides that cause land degradation. An extensive menu of already available green technologies and sustainable practices in agriculture (which have been successfully adopted with large productivity gains in developing‐country contexts) can be deployed to lead the radical transformation towards sustainable food security, the report says.

Nonetheless, effective ways must be found to adapt sustainable agricultural technologies to local conditions and the needs of smallholders. The deployment of these sustainable technologies also needs to be scaled up and made affordable to farmers worldwide, especially to smallholders in developing countries.

For the full text of the report and more information, please see

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Third World Network

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World Economic and Social Survey 2011: The Great Green Technological Transformation


Technological change for sustainable food security [Excerpt]

The first green revolution in agriculture was in fact not all that “green”

The recent food crises laid bare deeper structural problems within the global food system and the need to increase investment and foster innovation in agriculture so as to accelerate growth of food production in order to overcome hunger and feed a growing world population. Achieving this goal with existing agricultural technologies and production systems would entail further increases in greenhouse gas emissions, water pollution, deforestation and land degradation, which in turn would impose further environmental limits on food production growth itself.

In large parts of the world, food systems were shaped to a considerable extent by the so‐called green revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, which pushed agricultural yields as much through intensive use of irrigation water and environmentally harmful chemical fertilizers and pesticides, as the introduction of new seed varieties (figure 3).

A truly green agricultural revolution is now needed ...

Food security must now be attained through green technology so as to reduce the use of chemical inputs (fertilizers and pesticides) and to make more efficient use of energy, water and natural resources, as well as through significant improvement of storage facilities, and marketing to reduce waste. An extensive menu of already available green technologies and sustainable practices in agriculture (which have been successfully adopted with large productivity gains in developing‐country contexts) can be deployed to lead the radical transformation towards sustainable food security, including technologies and practices such as low‐tillage farming, crop rotation and interplanting, water harvesting and recycling, water‐efficient cropping, agroforestry and integrated pest management. Further, biotechnology, genetic engineering, food irradiation, hydroponics and anaerobic digestion hold out the promise of improving the resistance of food crops to pests and extreme weather, increasing their nutritional value and reducing food contamination and greenhouse gas emissions. Development of new high‐yielding varieties of crops, a central focus of the first green revolution in agriculture, should continue, provided such development is combined with improved water management and better use of agrochemical and organic inputs so as to substantially reduce their adverse ecological impacts, as in the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) which raises crop yield while reducing water, chemical fertilizer and pesticide usage through simple changes in the times when and the means by which rice seeds are transplanted and irrigated.

... a revolution with a key focus on small-scale farming

While these technologies need to be improved further, the main challenge is to change incentive structures so as to encourage their widespread use. The Survey reaffirms the view taken by the international community at the 1996 World Food Summit and when defining responses to the food crisis of 2007‐2008, namely, that the main policy focus on the supply side should be promotion and development of sustainable agriculture, with an emphasis on small farm holders in developing countries, since it is in this area that most gains in terms of both productivity increases and rural poverty reduction can be achieved. In developing countries, most food is still locally produced and consumed, placing small‐scale farming at the heart of food production systems.

The green revolution of the 1960s and 1970s bypassed many small farm holders because of its focus on a single technological package— one that did not address the context‐specific conditions of millions of farmers, mainly in Africa. Without providing adequate technologies and a larger range of supportive services (rural infrastructure, like rural roads and sustainable irrigation systems, education and training and access to land, credits, affordable inputs and market information), small farm holders are, typically, not able to take advantage of available technological improvements.

A comprehensive approach to food security is essential ...

The policy challenge is thus twofold. First, effective ways must be found to adapt sustainable agricultural technologies to local conditions and the needs of small farm holders. Second, dynamic innovative processes must be introduced at the local level, including by putting in place the necessary support infrastructure and services, as well as strengthened forms of association and joint production among farmers (such as cooperatives and land consolidation), especially for crops whose cultivation benefits from economies of scale. Taking advantage of scale economies could also be appropriate in serving large markets and accessing inputs and credit. Increased agricultural productivity raises rural incomes and frees labour for the industrial sector.

The Survey argues that a comprehensive policy approach is needed to take on these challenges, which would involve both a comprehensive national framework for sustainable use of resources, and new technology and innovation with the capacity to increase the productivity, profitability, stability, resilience and climate change mitigation potential of rural production systems. Water conservation, soil protection and bio‐ diversity enhancement need to form part of an integrated approach aimed at sustainable management of land and other natural resources and also need to build on synergies between the forest and agriculture sectors. In the context of competitive land uses, many solutions, involving difficult choices, will be reachable only through open and inclusive negotiation and discussion. Nevertheless, the aforementioned synergies between sectors (resulting, inter alia, in reduced deforestation and increased land productivity, and sustainable water supply) present important “win‐win” options through better resource management facilitated by an enabling institutional environment.

... and will need to be supported by an enabling institutional environment

Countries should consider placing a Sustainable Agricultural Innovation System (SAIS) at the centre of a comprehensive policy approach to achieving food security and environmental sustainability. The SAIS, as the agricultural and natural resource management pillar of a Green National Innovation System, would link the multiplicity of actors that participate in national innovation systems in agriculture: universities, research institutions, firms, farmers, civil society organizations and private foundations.

Sustainable transformation of agriculture requires greater national capacities to adapt to continuous environmental and market change. A dynamic SAIS would provide the framework for the policy coherence needed to accelerate the desired transformation of agriculture, including by laying out the strategies for easing the adaptation of green technologies and sustainable crop practices, and for improving the capacity of farmers to innovate through learning and experimentation and to secure better access to input and product markets through partnerships with other actors (research institutions, private corporations, non‐governmental organizations and local governments).

Research capacities will need to be rebuilt

The creation of a Sustainable Agricultural Innovation System able to assume a leadership role in the new green revolution will require a new effort to rebuild global and national research capacities in agriculture and natural resource management, including through increased financial support for agricultural research and development. Experience from the previous green revolution has shown that the adoption of new technology for food security requires long‐term financial support for research and development. A significant component of that support had been channelled through the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) network, which lost much of its capacity to exercise leadership in further technological innovation when the flow of resources became unstable and decreased. The international and national public sectors have an important role to play in facilitating farmers’ free access to information and technology by providing adequate incentives to the private and not‐for‐profit sectors to collaborate in producing public goods, and by reinvigorating and helping to reorient the focus of networks like CGIAR as part of an SAIS and international cooperation.

The previous green revolution took less than a decade to increase food production at impressive rates. The new revolution in agriculture needed to improve food security and halt the depletion of natural resources can, with adequate financial resources and political support, be produced through the incorporation of available technology in farming.

International support will be critical

The international community has much to contribute to the transformation in agriculture by removing obstacles to the transfer of technology (including privately held patents); delivering on its commitment to mobilize $20 billion in additional official development assistance (ODA) for sustainable agriculture, as pledged at the 2009 G8 Summit held in L’Aquila, Italy; providing small‐scale farmers with expanded access to mechanisms for the payment of environmental services; and, in the case of Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) member countries, eliminating agricultural subsidies.

Small farms key to global food security, U.N. says

Tue Jul 5, 2011 10:30am GMT

By Robert Evans

GENEVA, July 5 (Reuters) - Governments must work towards a major shift towards small-scale farming if endemic food crises are to be overcome and production boosted to support the global population, the United Nations said on Tuesday.

In its annual World Economic and Social Survey, it said a transformation from large-scale and intensive systems of agriculture was vital if growing environmental and land degradation was to be avoided.

The food crisis of 2007-08 and a price spike this year "have revealed deep structural problems in the global food system and the need to increase resources and innovation in agriculture so as to accelerate food production," the survey declared.

Food production, it said, would have to increase between 70 and 100 per cent by 2050 to sustain a world population that would have grown by 35 per cent from the present 6.9 billion to around 9 billion by that time.

"With current agricultural technology, practices and land-use patterns, this cannot be achieved without further contributing to greenhouse gas emissions, water pollution and land degradation," the survey argued.

In its turn, the resulting environmental degradation would undermine any growth in food productivity.

Of the nearly one seventh of the global population, some 925 million people who are undernourished -- or lacking access to enough food to make possible an active and healthy life -- 98 per cent live in developing countries, according to the survey.

Two thirds of them are concentrated in seven countries -- Bangladesh, China, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia and Pakistan. Overall, 578 million are in Asia and the Pacific and 239 million in sub-Saharan Africa.

The worst drought in 60 years in the Horn of Africa has sparked a severe food crisis and high malnutrition rates, with parts of Kenya and Somalia experiencing pre-famine conditions, the United Nations said last week.

The survey said achieving food security would provide a long-term solution to hunger and malnutrition, easing price volatility and protecting the environment.

It would require a radical change in existing policies, but this would result "in a strengthening of currently fragmented systems of innovation and an increase in resources for agricultural development and sustainable resource management."

"The main challenge is to improve incentives so that they promote and lead to the development of sustainable agriculture by small farm holders," said the survey, drawn up by economists in the U.N.'s Department of Economic and Social Affairs.

"Evidence has shown that for most crops the optimal farm is small in scale and that it is at this level that most gain in terms of both sustainable productivity increases and rural poverty reduction can be achieved."

But to ensure that small farmers were viable, especially in the face of tougher international competition, strengthening of marketing chains and quality standards, they must have greater access to credits and grants. (Editing by Stephanie Nebehay)