UN Reports Urge More Sustainable Approach to Agriculture

21 March 2011

Extreme weather events and increased biofuels production are driving up food prices and will continue to be a significant force in surging global food prices, according to a new report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Meanwhile, a second UN report suggests a more sustainable approach to farming will not only help combat environmental problems, such as climate change, but also improve development.

While the FAO has not overtly made a connection between climate change and food prices, the annual State of Food and Agriculture (SOFA) report cites extreme weather, like the drought which devastated wheat crops in Russia last summer, to illustrate the increasingly clear relationship between the state of the world's environment and recent spikes in global food prices (see Bridges Weekly Vol 15, No 8).

"Over the past couple of years, we've seen a clear link between climate disruptions - floods, droughts, less predictable rainfalls - and price volatility," Olivier De Schutter, the UN's special rapporteur on the right to food told Bridges Trade BioRes. "Agriculture, when practiced on large-scale monocultures, is quite vulnerable to such shocks."

The SOFA report, released on 7 March, also points to rising agricultural production costs due to volatility in the fossil fuel and fertiliser industries. Soaring input costs contributed significantly to the slowed growth in the global food production index, according to the FAO data, falling from 3.8 percent in 2008 to 0.6 percent in 2009.

As a whole, the report found, annual world trade in agricultural goods contracted in 2009 and 2010 despite growth in per capita consumption.

Biofuels crops edging out those for food

The reallocation of crops from those meant for food consumption to those destined to produce energy represents a growing connection between agricultural commodities and international energy markets, the report says. According to the study, 120 million tonnes of maize and other cereal crops - once supplied for human consumption - are now designated for conversion to fuel in order to meet US and EU biofuels targets.

Tighter ties between agricultural commodity prices and international energy markets could mean that future fluctuations in energy prices would have a greater influence on agricultural markets and food prices. Thus, says the FAO report, this increasingly intimate relationship could end up "exacerbating international market volatility and jeopardising global food security."

The report predicts that higher food prices will undoubtedly result from the increased production costs, bouts of extreme and unpredictable weather, and increased biofuels production, and concludes that this will have detrimental effects on human development.

UN special rapporteur pushes agro-ecology approach

Boosting the output of smallholder farmers and coordinating international policies on food security and climate change will be key to stabilising food prices and increasing the role of agriculture as a means of economic growth and poverty reduction, the FAO suggests. Now more than ever, says the report, there is the need to revamp investment in agriculture in order to generate environmentally sustainable increases in productivity.

Agro-ecology and eco-farming, which take a more ecological approach to agriculture, could take the lead for stabilising market volatility and global food security if harnessed properly by coordinated international policy responses, contends a separate UN report released on 8 March by the right to food programme headed by De Schutter.

The UN report says eco-farming has the potential to double food production in the next 10 years in transitioning nations. Already, it raised average crop yields by 80 percent in 57 developing nations that were studied as part of the report.

Diversifying crops is a primary focus of agro-ecology as well as enhancing soil productivity and protecting crops against pests by relying on the natural environment. When applied to agricultural systems, says the UN report, agro-ecological methods can "help put an end to food crises and address climate-change and poverty challenges".

Benefits of agro-ecological farming would be greatest in nations that are just beginning to develop their agriculture, such as Least Developed Countries (LDCs) and sub-Saharan Africa. Agriculture production in LDCs has increased rapidly over the past decade, the SOFA report shows, with LDCs now leading the world in agriculture production growth at 2 percent per year.

With LDCs experiencing the greatest growth in agricultural production, a push towards agro-ecological farming in these regions could spread environmentally and economically sustainable techniques to those who need the support the most, De Schutter says.

Inter-governmental coordination essential for future

Women in agricultural sectors should especially be supported by global efforts, the SOFA report says. If women farmers were given the same opportunities as men for land use and financial resources, the FAO predicts that farm output in developing countries could increase by 2.5 to 4.0 percent. This approach would thus make women an important factor in ensuring security of food supplies and adopting the practices of sustainable agriculture.

To ensure global food security, the FAO report overall encourages urgent, coordinated global policy that maintains open trading and encourages agricultural reforms focused on environmentally sustainable practices and female participation.

"If more land was cultivated following agro-ecology principles, climate disruptions would probably be less damaging and would not result in as much volatility as we've seen recently," De Schutter said. "We simply cannot pretend that things can go on as they are."

More information

The FAO's State of Food and Agriculture 2010-11 can be accessed here.

The UN's Special Rapporteur on the right to food report "Agro-ecology and the Right to Food" can be accessed here.
"Climate change, biofuels threaten food security: FAO", REUTERS, 7 March 2011; "Farmers must be weaned off using oil, says UN expert", WALL STREET JOURNAL, 8 March 2011; "Global food crisis: Turmoil in Middle East will keep prices high", THE WASHINGTON POST, 9 March 2011; "Eco-farming could double food output of poor countries, says UN", THE GUARDIAN, 8 March 2011.

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