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Wake up Before it is Too Late – Make Agriculture Truly Sustainable Now for Food Security in a Changing Climate


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In late September of last year (2013) the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) put out the latest in their Trade and Environment Review series — titled Wake up Before it is Too Late: Make Agriculture Truly Sustainable Now for Food Security in a Changing Climate. Alert readers may already be aware of this document — as it was the springboard for a post on this site titled Paradigm Shift Urgently Needed In Agriculture – UN Agencies Call for an End to Industrial Agriculture & Food System — but, having taken some time over the New Year to read through this comprehensive (340-page) document, I felt it pertinent to ensure readers go beyond the above-linked article to also download the full review (5mb PDF). It is a particularly valuable resource for permaculture educators, community activists and all those seeking to influence policymakers and industry, etc., as this highly readable production is loaded with valuable information, facts and case studies which will help drive nails into the coffin of reductionist, industrial agriculture by showcasing the sensible, sustainable win-win solutions found in diverse, agro-ecological, relocalised food systems.

In short, all those interested in helping to educate the world towards a peaceful, healthful transition to long-lasting prosperity would do well to put this review on their reading list!

Key Messages:

The 2008 food crisis was an important catalyst for realizing the need for a fundamental transformation and questioning some of the assumptions that had driven food, agricultural and trade policy in recent decades. However, actual results achieved since 2008 suggest that a paradigm shift has started, but is largely incomplete. Priority remains heavily focused on increasing industrial agricultural production, mostly under the slogan "growing more food at less cost to the environment". The perception that there is a supply-side productivity problem is however questionable. Hunger and malnutrition are mainly related to lack of purchasing power and/or inability of rural poor to be self-sufficient. Meeting the food security challenges is thus primarily about empowerment of the poor and their food sovereignty. Furthermore, the current demand trends for biofuels, concentrate animal feed, excessively meat-based diets and post-harvest food waste are regarded as given, rather than challenging their rational.

The fundamental transformation of agriculture may well turn out to be one of the biggest challenges, including for international security, of the 21st century. Much slower agricultural productivity growth in the future, a quickly rising population in the most resource-constrained and climate-change-exposed regions (in particular in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia) and a burgeoning environmental crisis of agriculture are the seeds for mounting pressures on food security and the related access to land and water. This is bound to increase the frequency and severity of riots, caused by food-price hikes, with concomitant political instability, and international tension, linked to resource conflicts and migratory movements of starving populations.

The world needs a paradigm shift in agricultural development: from a “green revolution” to an “ecological intensification” approach. This implies a rapid and significant shift from conventional, monoculture-based and high-external-input-dependent industrial production towards mosaics of sustainable, regenerative production systems that also considerably improve the productivity of small-scale farmers. We need to see a move from a linear to a holistic approach in agricultural management, which recognizes that a farmer is not only a producer of agricultural goods, but also a manager of an agro-ecological system that provides quite a number of public goods and services (e.g. water, soil, landscape, energy, biodiversity, and recreation).

The required transformation is much more profound than simply tweaking the existing industrial agricultural system. Rather, what is called for is a better understanding of the multi-functionality of agriculture, its pivotal importance for pro-poor rural development and the significant role it can play in dealing with resource scarcities and in mitigating and adapting to climate change. However, the sheer scale at which modified production methods would have to be adopted, the significant governance issues, the power asymmetries’ problems in food input and output markets as well as the current trade rules for agriculture pose considerable challenges.

Elements and key achievements of the required transformation of agriculture, elaborated upon by the authors of this Review, include:

– Increasing soil carbon content and better integration between crop and livestock production, and increased incorporation (not segregation) of trees (agroforestry) and wild vegetation.
– Reduction of direct and indirect (i.e. through the feed chain) greenhouse-gas emissions of livestock production.
– Reduction of indirect (i.e. changes in land-use-induced) GHG emissions through sustainable peatland, forest and grassland management.
– Optimization of organic and inorganic fertilizer use, including through closed nutrient cycles in agriculture.
– Reduction of waste throughout the food chains.
– Changing dietary patterns towards climate-friendly food consumption.
– Reform of the international trade regime for food and agricultural products.

In pursuing a fundamental transformation of agriculture, one should take into account systemic considerations in particular 1) the need for a holistic understanding of the challenges involved due to inter-linkages between sometimes competing objectives; 2) the merits and demerits of single climate-friendly practices versus those of systemic changes (such as agro-ecology, agro-forestry, organic agriculture); and 3) the need for a two-track approach that drastically reduces the environmental impact of conventional agriculture, on the one hand, and broadens the scope for agro-ecological production methods, on the other.

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