Fundamental Transformation Towards Sustainable Agriculture Urgently Needed


Dear friends and colleagues,
Re: Fundamental Transformation Towards Sustainable Agriculture Urgently Needed
A new discussion paper from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) calls for a rapid and significant shift from conventional, industrial, monoculture-based and high-external-input dependent agriculture towards mosaics of sustainable production systems.
The paper, ‘Assuring Food Security in Developing Countries under the Challenges of Climate Change: Key Trade and Development Issues of a Fundamental Transformation of Agriculture’, points out that such sustainable (regenerative) production systems could considerably improve the productivity of small-scale farmers, and the adaptation benefits of sustainable agriculture could help farmers face the challenges of climate change to food security.
Conventional agriculture is already a large emitter of greenhouse gases (GHGs) and further chemicalization and industrialization of agricultural production would reinforce this trend and are therefore steps in the wrong direction. Transforming agriculture towards sustainable production would help mitigate climate change as many of the practices are climate neutral and enhance carbon sinks.
However, the required transformation in agriculture is much more profound than simply tweaking the existing industrial agricultural systems. Among other things, a serious reform of international trade and investment policies that are really supportive of ecological agriculture national-level action is needed, including for energy, input and product price subsidies that support the current unsustainable system of conventional agriculture.
Please find below a summary of the key analytical points in the discussion paper, as written by the author. The full paper can be downloaded at (This is the corrected link)
With best wishes,
Lim Li Ching
Third World Network
131 Jalan Macalister
10400 Penang



Summary of Key Analytical Points in UNCTAD Discussion Paper, No. 201:
Assuring Food Security in Developing Countries under the Challenges of Climate Change: Key Trade and Development Issues of a Fundamental Transformation of Agriculture
By Ulrich Hoffmann
Global warming has the potential to damage irreversibly the natural resource base on which agriculture depends, with grave consequences for food security. Climate change could reduce total agricultural production in many developing countries by up to 50 per cent in the next few decades, in particular in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. At the same time, the population of these countries is projected to nearly double, creating huge tensions between food supply and demand. Although food could be theoretically imported from temperate-zone countries that may benefit from global warming, this may simply be unaffordable given the huge demand, low purchasing power and expected food price increases.
Agriculture is a very GHG-emission-intensive sector. Although agriculture’s share in global GDP is just about 4 per cent, agriculture accounts for about 13–32 per cent of global GHG emissions, the former being confined to direct, the latter including indirect GHG emissions from land-use changes, land degradation and deforestation. It is often overlooked that global GHG emissions from agriculture and forestry are higher than from the key energy-intensive industrial sectors (such as iron and steel, cement, chemicals or non-ferrous metals) and even surpass those caused by the global energy sector (i.e. generation of electricity, heat and other fuel combustion).
Under a business-as-usual scenario, agricultural GHG emissions are predicted to rise by almost 40 per cent till 2030. Further chemicalization and industrialization of agricultural production that cannot but reinforce this trend are therefore steps in the wrong direction.
If properly transformed, agriculture can be turned from being a climate-change problem to becoming an essential part of its solution (in fact, unlike most other industries that can only reduce GHG emissions, in agriculture, many sustainable production practices can be climate neutral or even become a net carbon sink). The key problems of climate change, hunger and poverty, economic, social and gender inequity, poor health and nutrition, and environmental sustainability are inter-related and need to be solved by leveraging agriculture’s multi-functionality. Thus a much more holistic approach is required that not only sees the farmer as a producer of food and agricultural commodities, but also as manager of sustainable agro-ecological systems. The required transformation, however, is much more profound than simply tweaking the existing industrial agricultural systems.
In essence, the key task is to transform the uniform, high-external-input-dependent model of quick-fix industrial agriculture into a flexible approach of sustainable (regenerative) agricultural systems (rather than individual crops) that continuously recreate the resources they use and achieve higher productivity and profitability of the system (not necessarily of individual products) with minimal external inputs (including energy). While extensively drawing on local knowledge and varieties, regenerative systems will marry them with modern agricultural science and extension services and give a very pro-active role to small-scale farmers. A key challenge is to considerably lift the productivity of small-scale (family) farmers by mobilizing and empowering them to use the modern methods of regenerative agriculture.
The sheer scale at which modified production methods would have to be adopted, the significant governance and market-structure challenges, in particular at international level, however pose considerable challenges to implement the required far-reaching transformation. Undoubtedly, there are very powerful vested interests by large globally active companies that dominate the agricultural input markets to keep the status quo of high external input dependent agricultural production methods. Also, large farmers will be reluctant to give up external-input- and mono-culture-based industrial agriculture, which is often very much dependent on energy, input and product price subsidies, unless there is a far-reaching subsidy reform accomplished under the current Doha Round of WTO negotiations. This would however also have to include green box support measures and energy subsidies.
To profoundly transform agriculture towards a mosaic of sustainable (regenerative) practices takes bold and visionary policy measures. Although action at international and national levels should ideally go hand in hand, governments in developing countries can still move ahead with effective measures at national level if international-level progress is slow. This is all the more tempting as agricultural mitigation and adaptation have low or negative costs, have considerable developmental co-benefits and will significantly draw on local resources, knowledge and skills. This will however require a considerable increase of public expenditure for agriculture, with a particular emphasis on public research, extension education and services and the improvement of local infra-structure aimed at empowering in particular small-scale farmers to significantly increase total productivity of the new regenerative agricultural systems.
There are important secondary macro-economic benefits of investment in sustainable agriculture. The most important is the ‘local multiplier effect’ that accompanies investments that direct a greater share of total farming input expenditures towards the purchase of locally sourced inputs (e.g. labour, organic fertilizers, bio-pesticides, renewable energy etc.) replacing conventional procurement of externally sourced inputs. Conceptually, the same investment in any other competing activity is unlikely to have as many linkages with the local economy and hence unlikely to yield a multiplier as large. De facto, this leads to a reduced dependence on global agricultural input and product markets and to a regionalization in focus, which enhances local sovereignty over key decisions rooted in the multi-functionality of agriculture.
The current structures in global agricultural input and output markets do not ease, but rather complicate the required fundamental transformation of agricultural production methods and consumption patterns. Huge price distortions, considerable externalities, market and policy failures, as well as powerful commercial interests create a “minefield” for constructive action being (unilaterally) undertaken at national level. Without a reform of international trade and investment policies that are really supportive of ecological agriculture national-level action may remain ineffective.
There is generally too much emphasis on and simplistic overestimation of the potential of technological development for agricultural transformation. This will only give false hope and excuses for doing nothing really fundamental. In fact, only few problems in agriculture are mainly caused by a lack of technology, many are related to social, economic and cultural issues that require structural changes, not techno-fixes. It is therefore critical to first of all define what problems are best solved by changing legal frameworks, trade policies, incentive structures or human behaviour and, second, what contribution technology could make within this very context.
Finally, it is important to bear in mind that “climate change” has become such a dominating issue in economic analysis and policy making that other, not much less important issues such as eco-system services, biodiversity, water management or social issues run the risk of being neglected or de-linked from the climate nexus. There is therefore a risk that governments and the international community optimize “climate mitigation and adaptation” without seeing (despite all synergies) the trade-offs and conflicts with other issues.
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