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 Africa. At the heart of the debate will be a 17-page 'Negotiating Text' prepared by the Chair of this CSD session, Gerda Verburg. The following article highlights some of the contentious issues in the Chair's text.

The article was published in Third World Resurgence No. 223 (Mar 2009).

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Agriculture is at the core of sustainable development
By Elenita Dano and Juan Hoffmaister

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 New York on 4-15 May, unique from the other sessions of the CSD. The outcome of the session is expected to be a concrete response by the international community to the crises, with the food crisis at its heart. The mandate of the CSD allows it to integrate the discussions on global responses to the food crisis from the different parts of the UN system, consistent with the principles of sustainable development embodied in Agenda 21 and the Rio Declaration. 

After discussing 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 Africa

The Chair of CSD17, the Netherlands' Minister of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality Gerda Verburg, came out with a 'Chair's Negotiating Text' at the end of the IPM that will serve as the basis for negotiations on policy options in May. The 17-page document attempts to consolidate the views, positions and recommendations expressed by delegates at the IPM, as well as inputs from the nine 'Major Groups' of civil society participating in the CSD process  (namely, Youth and Children, Women, Farmers, Indigenous Peoples, NGOs, Trade Unions, Scientific Community, Local Authorities, and Business and Industry) on priorities for action. The text was received with mixed reactions from delegates and the Major Groups, who shared their views on factual omissions and gaps in the document at the final session of the IPM, as well as questions regarding the nature of the document - some delegates considered the document as a negotiation text while others, a chair's summary only.

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. Switzerland did urge the CSD to consider the IAASTD findings and recommendations in its deliberations, a point which was echoed by the NGOs in several interventions.

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 Johannesburg in April 2008. The IAASTD calls for shifting support to small-scale agricultural production, transforming the paradigm of conventional agriculture that has brought adverse environmental consequences and social inequities, and urges actions beyond the business-as-usual approach. The IAASTD framework is hinged on the three pillars of sustainable development, namely environmental sustainability, social equity and economic growth.  It is only logical for CSD17 to take on board the findings and recommendations of the IAASTD in deliberations on the outcome document.

Rights-based approach

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 Norway reaffirmed their support for the implementation of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA) but notably did not call for the operationalisation of Farmers' Rights, which is a core provision of the Treaty. Farmers' Rights embodies the inherent rights of farmers to save, re-use, exchange and sell seeds, including their rights to participate in decision-making processes on matters that affect their lives, access to markets and support services.

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.

Land grab

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.

Climate change

The discussions 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 Copenhagen in December 2009. The action points identified in the negotiating document for CSD17 are limited to upscaling and mainstreaming adaptation measures in agricultural and rural development strategies, monitoring and assessing the impacts of climate change on agriculture, promoting exchanges of technologies, knowledge and experiences in adaptation strategies, and integration of sustainable land management and climate change risks into adaptation strategies, among others. There is, however, nothing to aid in understanding how such upscaling and mainstreaming has been or can be done, making the long list of action points futile.

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. 

Technological fixes

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 issues

Governments identified trade barriers as major obstacles to the attainment of sustainable development in agriculture. The developing-country Group of 77 (G77) and China strongly reiterated the call for the elimination of trade-distorting subsidies in developed countries to allow farmers in developing countries to compete in the international market. Some developing countries like India raised the need to address the obstacles posed by stringent intellectual property rights to sharing and transfer of technologies needed to tackle problems in agriculture, land degradation, drought and desertification. On their part, most developed countries used the IPM as an opportunity to call for the timely and successful conclusion of the Doha Round of trade negotiations. These views were reflected by the Chair in her negotiating text.

Priority actions 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 Nigeria raised the impacts of structural adjustment programmes on the sustainable development of many developing countries. Delegates in the CSD generally try to avoid going into the details of trade issues to avoid stepping into the territory of trade negotiations, but CSD17 is a good opportunity to raise options for actions to address the trade-related barriers to attaining sustainability in agriculture and rural development.

Green Revolution in Africa

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 Namibia had been convened in February as a regional preparatory process for CSD17. 

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 Revolution in Africa tailored to the highly diverse agro-ecological conditions, farming systems and socio-cultural contexts, is necessary to reverse hunger, poverty and environmental degradation in the continent.  The declaration urges developed countries to support agricultural development in Africa by ensuring greater access to their markets and supporting the capacity building of African producers to compete internationally. It calls on agricultural research institutions to learn from farmers in enhancing their research efforts, and to work closely with farmers in developing and applying new technologies.

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 Africa developed by Africans with the active participation of farmers and communities to respond to the particular needs and conditions of the continent is a good starting point for discussions at CSD17.


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 Africa. The CSD needs to live up to its role of delivering critical recommendations to enhance the global efforts to achieve sustainable development.

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.

Biochar:  another “silver bullet” for climate change?

‘Biochar’ is a term used to describe charcoal used to enhance soil for agriculture.  Indigenous peoples in the Amazon Basin are well known for their practice in using charcoal (locally referred to as terra preta) from burning forest and agricultural biomass to enhance soil quality. With the global scramble to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, biochar is being promoted as a key measure to sequester carbon in the soils by functioning as a ‘permanent’ carbon sink and providing renewable energy for various uses.

Biochar is produced through a process called pyrolysis which involves the carbonisation or burning of biomass and organic matter under condition of low or no oxygen. Proponents claim that the charcoal by-product is ‘carbon-negative’, that biochar creates ‘permanent’ land-based carbon sinks when added into soil, aside from enhancing soil fertility, increasing water retention capacity of the soil and reducing nutrient leaching.

The process of pyrolysis also produces other by-products like ‘bio-oil’ and ‘syngas’ which are touted for use in road transportation and as aviation fuels when refined, and also for use in fueling cooking stoves and industrial machines. Other literature claims that pyrolysis can also generate electricity in the process of low/no oxygen burning.

Critics argue that the benefits claimed by proponents of biochar ignore the ecological and social impacts resulting from the land use change involved in the commercial production of biochar. There are also serious questions on the scientific basis of the proponents’ claims, especially from the perspective of complex soil biology.

There is a strong lobby under the banner of the International Biochar Initiative (IBI) to include biochar in the clean development mechanism (CDM), revising the additionality rules in the CDM to take into account biochar as a ‘permanent’ carbon sink, etc.  The secretariat of the UNCCD has outspokenly promoted biochar as a solution to land degradation and climate change.