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Sustainable Agriculture Technologies and Practices Imperative in Beating Hunger

In response to the UN’s General Assembly resolution 66/195, the Secretary-General submitted his report on the implementation of that resolution on “Agricultural technology for development” at the General Assembly’s 68th session in 2013.

At the UN Rio+20 Conference in 2012, Heads of State and Governments renewed their commitment to freeing humanity from poverty and hunger as a matter of urgency. There is growing consensus that reaching this commitment demands an urgent shift to sustainable and resilient agricultural and food systems. Towards this end, the report examines the current status and trends of agricultural technologies.

The report makes 28 recommendations for the way forward, paying particular attention to the importance of small-scale farmers and investing in women in transforming agriculture. Among other things, it recommends creating a new paradigm for agriculture with smallholder farmers at the centre of innovation systems; facilitating a participatory approach to R&D with an emphasis on women farmers; mainstreaming gender into agricultural policies and legal and regulatory frameworks; and instituting governance mechanisms to ensure the active involvement of women.

On genetically modified crops, it states that “the technology’s contribution to food security and poverty reduction remains contested" and that the shift towards biotechnology and enhanced intellectual property rights has in fact “accelerated the privatization of agricultural technologies, especially seeds….(and)….often interfere with the development and adoption of locally adapted varieties.”

The Summary and Way Forward sections of the report are reproduced below while the full report can be downloaded from www.un.org/esa/dsd/.../SG%20report_Agricultural%20technology.pdf

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Item 1

United Nations General Assembly

Sixty-eighth session              

Item 19 of the provisional agenda

Sustainable Development 

Agricultural Technology for Development 

Report of the Secretary-General [EXCERPTS ONLY]

SUMMARY

At Rio+20, Heads of States and Governments renewed the commitment to freeing humanity from poverty and hunger as a matter of urgency. Consensus is growing that meeting the existing challenges associated with reaching this vision requires a shift to sustainable and resilient agriculture and food systems in order to ensure food and nutrition security, contribute to poverty eradication and protect natural resources, to support equitable development for all. Agricultural technology for development has a key role to play in this regard. Access to capital-intensive technologies is unevenly spread especially across developing countries and capacity for knowledge-intensive technologies needs to be augmented. Effective responses necessitate improved and innovative approaches to the development, transfer and dissemination of sustainable agricultural practices that are resilient, accessible and beneficial for the most vulnerable people, including women and men smallholder farmers. Creating an enabling environment and the right incentives for the shift to sustainable food systems is imperative.      

IV. WAY FORWARD

60. It is now well recognized that in order to address the challenges facing our food systems, it is necessary to embrace a systemic approach that moves away from a singular focus on per capita productivity and innovations that address only one problem at a time, and focuses instead on the broader contribution of agriculture to economic, social, and environmental outcomes.[i]

61. Effective responses to the challenges posed to food security and nutrition and the sustainability of food systems are based in innovative approaches to the development, transfer, dissemination and deployment of sustainable agricultural practices. Shifts in agricultural investments towards sustainability and increased productivity, both at farm level and in terms of labor, are at the heart of these processes.

62.  Multidimensional approaches drawing on agriculture’s multi-functionality are necessary to enhance sustainable productivity in the medium- and long-run and address existing inequalities amongst farming households. 

63. Diversifying away from the three major cereal crops towards additional food crops, such as teff, sorghum, millet or vegetables, and using sustainable production systems are key factors to reducing vulnerabilities to climate change and volatility in commodity markets.                                                           

64. The shift to sustainable and resilient food systems must be supported by actors along the entire food value chain, including farmers, the input and processing industries, retail, and consumers.

65. Small-scale agriculture plays an essential role in the conservation and promotion of agricultural biodiversity, relying on use and practices of farming communities and their extensive field knowledge. In this context, supporting diverse smallholder farming systems, including inter-cropping and use of farmer-selected seeds, can be an important tool to foster genetic diversity and environmental resilience.[ii]

66. Strengthening the rights for indigenous communities is important to sustainable agriculture[iii], including by enabling participatory breeding, increasing local control over genetic resources, and protecting traditional knowledge.[iv]

67. Mainstreaming gender into agricultural policies and the legal and regulatory frameworks that govern the use of technologies is critical. Participatory guarantee systems (PGS), successfully established in India and Brazil and recently introduced in East Africa, can also contribute for women’s improved marketing access by reducing costs and lowering entry barriers. 

68. Literacy campaigns focusing on rural women and strengthening public research capacities in developing countries are essential to enable the transfer and adoption of knowledge-intensive

technologies. The Special Rapporteur’s recommendations to protect farmers’ rights should be seriously considered.[v]

69. Efforts towards sustainable intensification[vi]in agriculture may require additional skills and knowledge by farmers, as it will entail more complex mixes of domesticated plant and animal species and improved management techniques. Furthermore, it will be important for the farmers to understand the conditions under which agricultural inputs can complement biological processes and ecosystem services and the conditions that make them contradictory to such processes and services.[vii]While innovative information and communication technologies can help, extension services existing on the ground also need to be strengthened.                                                           

70. These technological innovations are often less capital-intensive, yet they require investment in human and social capital because they are more knowledge-intensive. Needed capacity building includes improving resilience at the household level, enabling more even distribution of access to water by farmers and overall improvement of governance of this shared resource.[viii]

71. FAO’s Policymaker’s Guide to the Sustainable Intensification of Smallholder Crop Production provides a toolkit rooted in a new paradigm of agriculture based on sustainable ecosystems.[ix]For instance, FAO provides guidance and relevant tools to countries on how to use and conserve the pollination services that sustain agroecosystems, and to formulate policies that will ensure sustainability of these ecosystem services. It also provides guidance on developing national phytosanitary strategies based on international standards to ensure the safe trade of plants and plant products and secure access to international markets, and on support for seed production systems.

72. Developing solutions locally and regionally applicable for smallholders is of great importance. More research will need to be directed towards agricultural growth that is ecologically sustainable, conserves biodiversity and ecosystems, and ensures that fertile soils for current and future generations.

73. A new paradigm for agriculture will require smallholders to be at the centre of innovation systems helping to shape the agenda for research and development and extension services so that the crops, fish and livestock products that matter to them as producers and consumers receive adequate attention. Increased knowledge-sharing and capacity-building for participatory seed breeding projects, and the development of local seed production and distribution systems, can strengthen important existing or dormant indigenous seed knowledge.

74. Publicly funded research should maintain an explicit focus on strategic priorities for food and nutrition security, including improving yields and resistance of staples, improving the nutritional value of crops, facilitating sustainable use of natural resources and/or reducing the use of external chemical inputs, and increasing resilience and adaptation to market conditions and climate change.[x]   Key areas for publicly funded research investments are crop management practices and agroforestry, implemented within a landscape approach. 

75. Ensuring that there is a reliable supply of quality seed of adapted varieties requires integrated national strategies for the management of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture. Plans need to include practical actions and targeted policy measures that create greater linkage and collaboration between plant breeding, seed systems and conservation stakeholders to make available climate-ready crops and seeds worldwide.

76. New technologies that help farmers cope with intra-annual changes in weather need to be complemented with long-term investments to identify stress tolerance via participatory experimentation that are integrated with efforts at increasing the soil’s organic matter and using year-round cover crops.

77. In order to advance these alternatives in the food system, there is a substantial need for more systematic analyses comparing different technologies and food systems in developing countries[xi], including systematic household-level studies on the benefits and risks of adopting technologies, such as hybrid seeds[xii]or certified organic agriculture, where inputs are relatively inaccessible or expensive, in addition to an improved understanding of coping strategies to address climate change.[xiii]Investment in R&D infrastructure and institutions and facilitating a participatory approach to R&D with an emphasis on women farmers is paramount to obtain the needed results that will help transform agriculture.

78. Building the capacity of rural institutions is paramount, including farmer cooperatives, participative education and research arrangements. Farmer field schools have proven highly successful in East Africa, with 80 to 100 percent yield increases observed[xiv]; larger benefits can accrue to female-headed households.[xv]

79. Building knowledge and expertise can be supported by a strong exchange and interaction between farmers themselves, and with agriculture extension and information services. Agricultural cooperatives and farmers organizations have a key role to play in this regard.    

80. Innovative agribusiness and NGO partnerships, such as the Sustainable Food Laboratory, are creating opportunities for scaling up the dissemination of sustainable agriculture.[xvi]Such partnerships need to take place in a participatory and transparent manner, and require investment through public funding.

81. Improvements in harvesting techniques, post-harvest technologies, storage and cooling facilities in difficult climatic conditions, infrastructure, and packaging and marketing systems are also needed to be able to support sustained improvements in the delivery of quality food produce to market, and hence in farmers’ incomes, in developing countries. 

82. Monopolistic practices in food markets must also be prevented. Better access to information, credit and risk insurance would also leave small farm holders in a better position to engage in mutually beneficial partnerships with the private sector.

83. Improved knowledge and new market information systems or marketing groups are some of the main needs in upgrading value chains.[xvii]In addition, cost-effective certification can ease access to export markets and Fair Trade certification can offer a valuable stepping stone for the adoption of agroecological practices.

84. In response to the proliferation of voluntary sustainability standards, it is critical to enable a better shared understanding of the impacts of those standards on various dimensions of sustainable development in a comparable way. Pioneering work in that direction such as the one done by the non-profit and volunteer-based consortium Committee on Sustainability Assessment (COSA), should be encouraged.

85. New governance challenges are emerging and include areas of land use, traditional knowledge and intellectual or cultural property rights as well as mechanisms to ensure the active involvement of women who are often at the center of decisions on food production and consumption around the world. These governance challenges will likely need a blend of public and private interests to creatively address them. Processes that strengthen the ability of farmers and communities to engage with both agribusiness and government are likely to lead to not only better resource management and technology use but also to improved productivity and well-being. 

86. To ensure that private investments into agriculture are made in a way that benefit food security and nutrition, foster rural prosperity and maintain natural resources, regulatory frameworks need to be developed, implemented and monitored. In this regard, the on-going discussions on responsible agricultural investment in the framework of the Committee on World Food Security will become particularly relevant and should be rigorously followed by all stakeholders. 

87. Well-functioning information, monitoring and accountability systems are important to ensure that decision-makers’ responses accelerate progress towards reduced hunger, better food security and nutrition.[xviii]For example, conducting multi-stakeholder assessments at the country level can help to identify the most vulnerable populations, develop national food security and nutrition strategies and choose actions most appropriate to achieving development goals and targets.  As set out in the Rio+20 outcome document, the reformed Committee on World Food Security will consider facilitating such country-initiated assessments on sustainable food production, food security and nutrition.[xix]

Access to markets through liberalized trade can provide greater opportunities for both developing countries and developed countries when enabling conditions are in place. Fostering the capture of value added by smallholder farmers and rural communities in developing countries can support food security and development goals. Additionally, strengthening developing country trade analysis and negotiation capacity, and providing better tools for assessing trade-offs in proposed trade agreements can improve governance. In this context, it is also important that multilateral trade agreements, in particular through the WTO Doha Round, achieve further progress towards an open, fair, equitable and rules-based multilateral trade system.


[i]IAASTD (2008)

[ii]Zimmerer, K. S. (2013). The compatibility of agricultural intensification in a global hotspot of smallholder agrobiodiversity (Bolivia). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 110(8), 2769-74.

[iii]See SAFA; FAO (2012).

[iv]IAASTD (2008). Agriculture at a Crossroads: Global Report

[v]Schutter, O. De. (2009). Seed policies and the right to food: enhancing agrobiodiversity and encouraging (Vol. 42473).

[vi]See also Garnett, T., & Godfray, H. C. J. (2012). Sustainable intensification in agriculture: Navigating a course through competing food system priorities A report on a workshop.

[vii]Royal Society (2009). Settle and Hama Garba (2011). Cited in Pretty, J., Toulmin, C., & Williams, S. (2011). Sustainable intensification in African agriculture. International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability, 9(1), 8.

[viii]Ostrom, E. (1992). Crafting institutions for self-governing irrigation systems.

[ix]FAO (2011), Save and grow. A policymaker’s guide to the sustainable intensification of smallholder crop production. Rome: FAO.

[x]D. Giovannucci, S. Scherr, D. Nierenberg, C. Hebebrand, J. Shapiro, J. Milder, and K. Wheeler. 2012. Food and Agriculture: the future of sustainability. Sustainable Development in the 21st century (SD21), New York: United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs.

[xi]Seufert, V., Ramankutty, N., & Foley, J. a. (2012). Comparing the yields of organic and conventional agriculture. Nature, 485(7397). 231.

[xii]Kathage, J., Qaim, M., Kassie, M., & Shiferaw, B. (2012). Seed market liberlization, hybrid maize adoption, and impacts on smallholder farmers in Tanzania.

[xiii]For example Karanja Ng’ang'a, S., Diarra, L., Notenbaert, A., & Herrero, M. (2012). Coping strategies and vulnerability to climate change of households in Mali.

[xiv]FAO. (2012). Good practices in building innovative rural institutions to increase food security.

[xv]Davis et al. (2010). Cited in FAO. (2012). Good practices in building innovative rural institutions to increase food security.

[xvi]Sustainable Food Laboratory http://www.sustainablefoodlab.org. Cited in UNEP. (2011). Agriculture: Investing in natural capital. In Towards a Green Economy: Pathways to Sustainable Development and Poverty Eradication. UNEP.   Giovannucci, D. (2012). Food and Agriculture : The future of sustainability.

[xvii]World Bank. (2011). Missing Food: The Case of Postharvest Grain Losses in Sub-Saharan Africa. xvii.

[xviii]High-Level Task Force on the Global Food Security Crisis (2010). Updated Comprehensive Framework for Action. 29. Retrieved from: www.un-foodsecurity.org/node/842.

[xix]The future we want. GA Res. 66/288, 66th Session, UN DOC A/RES/66/288 (2012); Para 115.

 


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