Agriculture at the core of sustainable development
The UN Commission
on Sustainable Development (CSD) is set to meet next week from 4th-15th
May 2009 to discuss the intricately interwoven issues of agriculture,
land, rural development, drought, desertification and
The article was published in Third World Resurgence No. 223 (Mar 2009).
With best wishes,
Lim Li Ching
at the core of sustainable development
THE current thematic cycle of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) could not have come at a more opportune time. As the world faces perhaps the most serious convergence of crises in food and finance, climate change, environment and energy, the 17th session of the CSD will tackle the intricately woven issues of agriculture, land, rural development, drought, desertification and Africa.
The multiple crises
facing the world today make CSD17, which will convene in
the obstacles, opportunities and challenges to sustainable development
in these very crucial development areas during the review year (of the
current thematic cycle) in May 2008, governments are now ready to tackle
the way forward by agreeing on the priorities for action to address
the challenges. At the Intergovernmental Preparatory Meeting (IPM) held
on 23-27 February 2009 in the run-up to CSD17, delegates presented their
views on the actions that the international community and national governments
must take to operationalise the principles of sustainable development
in agriculture, land, rural development, drought, desertification and
The Chair of CSD17,
Overall approach to addressing the challenges
While there is clear recognition that agriculture lies at the centre of sustainable development, the Chair's Negotiating Text largely adopts a technological-solution approach in addressing the challenges in the current themes. Ecological agriculture, agro-ecological practices and sustainable agricultural production are presented as alternative farming methods to address the environmental consequences of conventional agriculture dependent on chemical inputs, but the text fails to capture the integration of the economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainable development in these systems. In a narrow way, sustainable agriculture is presented as a technological solution rather than as an approach that embodies a shift in agricultural paradigms, as shown by success cases presented during the panel discussions.
The urgency of the response needed to address the food crisis and the challenges in agriculture needs to be duly conveyed in the CSD17 outcome as it is weakly reflected in the negotiating document.
Sorely absent: IAASTD
The Chair's Negotiating
Text did not at all mention the report and recommendations of the International
Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development
(IAASTD), not even in the preambular paragraphs where references to
other related international processes were mentioned.
The IAASTD is a
joint initiative of several UN agencies and the World Bank, involving
a rigorous assessment process undertaken over four years by more than
400 authors from around the world. More than 50 governments adopted
the findings and recommendations in the final report presented in
Delegates acknowledged the importance of recognising the tenurial rights of farmers, women and communities to ensure food security and promote rural development. However, such recognition stops short of recognising the human rights of people to land, food, water, seeds and other productive resources. The negotiating text for CSD17 does not even reaffirm the right to food as embodied in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, for example, which is a fundamental right that enables people to participate in shaping sustainable development. It is essential to promote rights-based approaches to development, including the right to food and self-determination, the right of peoples and States to determine their own policies that protect food security, environmental quality and livelihoods, and the adoption of land and agrarian reform policies within a human rights framework.
The EU and
While delegates did recognise the importance of participation of farmers, women, civil society and Major Groups in development, as well as the role of a 'bottom-up' approach in decision-making, there is no consensus on the nature of such participation and there is silence on the rights-based participation beyond democratic consultations.
With much more caution due to the negative role played by biofuels in the recent food price crisis, delegates took note of the potential of biofuels in raising farmers' income and attracting investments in agriculture. The Chair's Negotiating Text, however, did not adequately take stock of the adverse consequences of biofuels production on food supply and prices. Several delegations called for stronger language on the need for sustainability criteria in biofuels production, strong precaution on the potential adverse impacts of biofuels on food security, environment and land relations, and a cautious approach on the prescription to support the so-called second- and third-generation biofuels.
It was quite surprising that none of the government interventions at the IPM acknowledged the alarming trend on the acquisition of agricultural lands in developing countries by governments of oil-rich countries and emerging economies to ensure their own food and energy security through offshore production. In many parts of the world, land acquisition by foreign governments and corporations is for the purpose of producing biofuels in the home countries. CSD17 should consider this development and adopt policy options to address the concerns on tenurial rights, food security and resource distribution: the right to land and the right to food are interwoven.
at the IPM underlined the importance of addressing the impacts of climate
change that threaten sustainable development in general and agriculture
in particular. Understandably, the discussions were limited to general
policy options to avoid preempting the negotiations under the UN Framework
Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and its Kyoto Protocol which are
expected to culminate in
With priorities for action in land degradation, drought and desertification related to sustainable land management involving soil carbon sequestration, which is stepping on the territories of UNFCCC discussions on measures to mitigate emissions from agriculture, debates are expected to erupt at CSD17 in this area. The CSD can be the forum for a thoughtful discussion on how to bring some sense to the many tracks of the Rio Conventions that affect agriculture, and it should not lose this opportunity.
Except for a controversial statement in one panel by a resource person urging African governments to adopt genetically modified organisms (GMOs) as a climate change adaptation strategy in agriculture, very few delegates openly endorsed GMOs as a priority action to address the challenges in agriculture. If at all, many governments urged the adoption of precautionary measures on the use of GMOs and other technologies that may have adverse consequences on the environment and that reinforce social inequities. The effort to avoid the GMO debate is clear in the Chair's Negotiating Text which instead called for science-based agricultural management and the use of new technologies that capitalise on existing plant genetic potential.
Notably, the only specific technological solution that received special mention in the negotiating document is biochar (see box), which was mentioned, in a paragraph on actions to address climate change, as an agricultural practice 'to increase soil carbon content. for increased agricultural productivity and carbon sequestration'. In the panel on Land, the Executive Secretary of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) actively called for the adoption of biochar as a 'durable option' to increase the capacity of the soil to sequester carbon.
trade barriers as major obstacles to the attainment of sustainable development
in agriculture. The developing-country Group of 77 (G77) and
to allow farmers, particularly in Africa, to take advantage of the benefits
of international trade are focused on the World Trade Organisation (WTO)
and regional trade integration, but there was no discussion on the need
to address the threats posed by onerous provisions related to agriculture
in regional and bilateral free trade agreements (FTAs). Only
Echoing the calls
in the ministerial declaration of a high-level meeting in Windhoek,
Namibia on 'African Agriculture in the 21st Century: Meeting the Challenges,
Making a Sustainable Green Revolution', African governments urged for
a uniquely African Green Revolution to help boost agricultural productivity,
food production, and national and regional food security. The conference
In the ministerial
declaration, governments reiterated the urgent need for an African Green
Revolution that does not depend only on improved seeds and fertilisers,
but is built on public investments in rural development, rural infrastructure,
education, credit support, research and development, and technology
development and dissemination. They recognised that a sustainable Green
It is noteworthy
that unlike in CSD16 when African governments had expressed their enthusiasm
to support the Green Revolution for Africa agenda of philanthropic institutions
under the banner of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, their
tone was much more cautious in the recent IPM deliberations. The call
for a unique and sustainable Green Revolution in
The important role of livestock in agriculture in ensuring food security and augmenting household income, as well as the crucial role of pastoralists in maintaining animal genetic resources and diversity, were generally overlooked at the IPM deliberations. The negotiating document for CSD17 barely made any reference to the importance of livestock, which is integrated in small-scale agriculture and traditional farming systems. Sustainable agricultural practices largely depend on farm diversity that involves mixed crop-livestock (and/or poultry) systems in providing income and food security and in reducing farmers' risks. This message, and the recognition of the important role of pastoralists in agriculture and land management, should be strengthened at CSD17.
Small islands, big problems
Despite an entire day of deliberations during CSD16, and one full session during the IPM, the discussion on how the issues under the current CSD thematic cycle affect small island developing states (SIDS) was almost ignored in the Chair's Negotiating Text. Setting the stage for the IPM discussions, SIDS delegates had stressed that the impacts of the global financial crisis and the volatility in the prices of food and fuels were crippling sustainable development. SIDS, after putting years of work into developing programmes of action and strategies specific to their needs, continue to hear promises and kind words but have seen little assistance for implementation.
Financing and investments in agriculture
A critical area for discussion at CSD17 is the nature and extent of financing and investments required to restore the rightful role of agriculture as an important engine to promote economic growth and social equity in an environmentally sustainable manner. While the decades of neglect of the agriculture sector are widely acknowledged and the need to increase investments in rural infrastructure, agricultural support systems, and research and development is recognised, the discussions on how to attain this are limited to generalities.
Only African governments have set a concrete specific target on allocations for agriculture in their national budgets. The Maputo Declaration of the African Union states the commitment of governments in the continent to devote at least 10% of their national budgets to agriculture and rural development.
Within and outside the CSD, no new substantial investments have actually been committed for agriculture. The EU talked about its Euro 1 billion Global Food Facility committed for 2008-2010 to assist small-scale farmers to cope with the impacts of the global food and financial crises, mainly by providing access to improved seeds and fertilisers, as explained by a representative of the European Commission (EC) during a meeting with Major Groups at the sidelines of the IPM. However, a closer analysis of the EU facility would reveal that a substantial portion of this fund had earlier been earmarked prior to the food crisis, and the total amount pales in comparison with the Euro 2 trillion economic recovery package offered to the ailing banking sector in the EU.
A major challenge for CSD17 is how to pressure governments to set clear targets for budgetary allocations, public investments and development assistance for agriculture and rural development. A very concrete challenge for governments is to commit themselves to prioritising agriculture in the economic and financial recovery packages that are being extended to domestic sectors. A substantive financial package for agriculture would be a welcome short- and medium-term response to the financial and food crises and have potential long-term benefits in attaining sustainable development.
No room for failure
Undoubtedly, a most
formidable task awaits delegates at CSD17 in May. With the spectre of
the unprecedented failure of CSD15 on Energy, Climate Change, Industrial
Development and Air Pollution in May 2007 still fresh in the minds of
the international community, there are many expectations for CSD17 to
deliver a successful outcome. That success depends on the CSD's capacity
to come out with concrete actions in making sustainable development
a reality in addressing the issues of agriculture, land, rural development,
drought and desertification and
Simply put, the
CSD cannot afford another failure. Definitely not now, when the world
needs an urgent and concrete response from the international community
to the multiple crises facing humanity. A business-as-usual response
is not what the world expects from the CSD. After all, sustainable development
requires a paradigm shift, and that is where the CSD matters.