• 14/10/13
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Wake Up Before is Too Late

By Teresa Martinez

This is the first one of a monthly series of blogs related to Food and Climate.

On September 18th the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development released a new report called: Wake up before is too late: Make agriculture truly sustainable now for food security in a changing climate.

This is arguably the boldest and most urgent UN report till date on the issue of Food and Climate. It’s a wake up call and cry for action from more than 60 international experts on food and climate.

The main messages of the report are:

We need a paradigm shift towards what the authors called “Ecological Intensification” from a system based on intensified food production to feed the 9 billion to a system based on climate-friendly agriculture, small-scale farming, food sovereignty, agroecology and local markets. The study notes that the sheer scale at which production methods would have to be modified under these proposals would pose considerable challenges. The report stresses that governments must find ways to factor in and reward farmers for currently unpaid public goods they provide – such as clean water, soil and landscape preservation, protection of biodiversity, and recreation.

Hunger is not a question of food scarcity but an issue of maldistribution and inequality. Almost 1 billion people currently suffer from hunger, and another 1 billion are malnourished, the report notes, even though current global agricultural production already provides sufficient calories to feed a population of 12 to 14 billion. Some 70 per cent of the hungry or malnourished are themselves small-scale farmers or agricultural labourers, indicating that poverty and access to food are the most critical challenges. It would be necessary to correct existing imbalances between where food is produced and where it is needed, to reduce the power asymmetries that exist in agricultural input and food-processing markets, and to adjust current trade rules for agriculture.

Globalization has also encouraged excessive specialization, increasing scale of production of few crops and enormous cost pressure. All this has aggravated the environmental crisis of agriculture and reduced agricultural resilience. What is now required is a shift towards diverse production patterns that reflect the multi-functionality of agriculture and enhance close nutrient cycles. Moreover, as environmental externalities are mainly not internalized, carbon taxes are the rare exception rather than the rule and carbon-offset markets are largely dysfunctional – all factors that would prioritize regional/local food production through ‘logical’ market mechanisms – trade rules need to allow a higher regional focus of agriculture along the lines of “as much regionalized/localized food production as possible; as much traded food as necessary”.

Climate change will drastically impact on agriculture, the report forecasts, primarily in the developing regions with the highest future population growth, such as sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Much slower agricultural productivity growth in the future and fast-rising populations in the most vulnerable regions will almost certainly worsen current problems with hunger, drought, rising food prices, and access to land. These pressures may easily lead to massive migrations, and to international tensions and conflicts over food and resources such as soil and water.

The report cites a number of trends that collectively suggest a mounting crisis:

• Food prices from 2011 to mid-2013 were almost 80 per cent higher than for the period 2003–2008

• Global fertilizer use has increased by eight times over the past 40 years, although global cereal production has only doubled during that period.

• Growth rates in agricultural productivity have recently declined from 2 per cent per year to below 1 cent

• Two types of irreparable environmental damage have already been caused by agriculture: nitrogen contamination of soil and water, and loss of biodiversity

• Greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture are the single biggest source of global warming in the South. They also the fastest growing (along with emissions from transport)

• Foreign land acquisition in developing countries (often termed “land grabbing”) in recent years has amounted, in value, to between five and ten times the level of official development assistance.

 

You can also download the full report here.