New, green thinking for agriculture needed


New, green thinking for agriculture needed

At the recent International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) Governing Council, experts said that the best way to mitigate climate change and gain food security is to support small-scale, ecological farming (Item 1). This means shifting international agricultural strategies away from those that promote industrial and chemical agriculture, monocropping and the use of transgenic crops.

These sentiments were echoed by a new report published by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), ‘The environmental food crisis: Environment’s role in averting future food crises’, which calls for a change in the ways in which food is produced, handled and disposed of across the globe, to avert future food crises (Item 2)

“Simply ratcheting up the fertilizer and pesticide-led production methods of the 20th Century is unlikely to address the challenge”, says Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director. Instead, in the medium to long-term, support to farmers for adopting more diversified and ecologically-friendly farming systems is vital.

A recent report by UNEP and the UN Conference on Trade and Development surveyed 114 small-scale farms in 24 African countries, and found that yields had more than doubled where organic, or near-organic practices had been used, with the yield jumping to 128 per cent in east Africa. Organic practices outperformed traditional methods and chemical-intensive conventional farming and there are strong environmental benefits such as improved soil fertility, better retention of water and resistance to drought.


Item 1


ROME, Feb 26 (IPS/Kristin Palitza) – Organic and eco-friendly farming can feed the world, contrary to the common belief that biotechnology and chemical-intensive farming are indispensable, modern strategies to increase production, agricultural experts say.

“It is not necessarily about producing more food, but about producing more quality nutrition through less energy use and pollution,” declared Hans Herren president of the Washington DC-based Millennium Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting long-term, integrated, global thinking.

“We have to invest heavily into research on how to increase eco-agricultural production.”

The best way to mitigate climate change and gain food security is to support small-scale, ecological farming, scientists and economists said during the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) Governing Council in Rome, Italy, in late February. This would be a turnaround from international agricultural strategies of the past two decades that heavily promote monocropping and the use of biotechnologies.

“Nobody has really thought yet about how and if we can mitigate climate change in agriculture,” admitted Dr Josef Schmidhuber, head of the global perspectives study unit at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), indicating that although there is a lot of talk about averting the impact of climate change, no policies have been implemented yet to solve the problem.

“It starts and ends with governance, with convincing key decision makers to change strategy,” said Herren. “We know what the solutions to climate change are, but they are not put into practice because governments are in bed with the biotechnology industry. They are more interested in making a quick buck than in the long-term benefits of farmers.”

Herren believes industrial agriculture is “bankrupt by definition”, because it costs too much energy to produce: “For every calorie you produce you have to put in ten, if you look at fuel, fertiliser and labour needed.”

He lobbied policymakers to focus on prevention rather than fixing crises: “In agriculture, it takes a long time to rebuild what we destroy. It takes years to replenish soils and re-create diversity. We have to go back to the source and ensure that healthy soils grow healthy crops.”

Chemical-heavy agriculture has been systematically destroying soils, Herren complained, by causing mineral depletion, erosion and reducing soils’ ability to retain water.

“For small-scale farmers, water is far more important than having a pest-resistant, genetically modified plant, which is only resistant to one particular type of pest anyway,” he said.

Downward spiral

Agriculture is the main income source for poor rural people in the developing world. At the same time, it is the human activity most directly affected by climate change.

Climate change will affect smallholder farmers (who own less than two hectares of land) through increased crop failure, a rise in diseases and mortality of livestock, increased livelihood insecurity resulting in assets being sold, indebtedness, migration and dependency on food aid. Other consequences will be desertification and land degradation, rising sea levels causing floods, diminishing natural resource productivity and, in some areas, irreversible loss of biodiversity.

Climate change is expected to put 49 million additional people at risk of hunger by 2020, and 132 million by 2050, according to IFAD. In sub-Saharan Africa, an additional 17 to 50 million people could be undernourished in the second half of the century due to climate change.

Generally speaking, climate change is expected to lead to a downward spiral in human development indicators, such as health and education, especially in sub-Saharan Africa.

“To feed the world, we will have to scale up productivity, but in an ecological way, by polluting less and making use of low-cost technologies.” said Michel Griffon, executive director of the National Research Agency of France. “We need a holistic approach to the entire ecosystem, including soil, water, plants, animal management, pests and diseases. It will be an immense challenge.”

Change in rainfall

One of the key consequences of climate change is changing rainfall patterns. This will particularly affect African countries where 95 percent of cultivated land is rain-fed. “Less than ten percent of cultivated land is irrigated and only 20 percent is irrigable,” explained Ides de Willebois, director of IFAD’s Eastern and Southern Africa division.

In Africa alone, between 75 million and 250 million people will be exposed to increased water stress caused by climate change by 2020. Since the 1960s, the Sahel region has had a 25 percent decline in rainfall.

If farmers carry on with “business as usual”, productivity could decline between ten percent and 25 percent by 2020, predicts Herren. In some countries, the yields in rain-fed agriculture could even be halved, he believes. “Such trends clearly threaten the achievement of the MDGs. We need new thinking to tackle old problems.”

Since rural people in developing countries manage vast areas of land and forest, they could be important players in natural resource management. “Climate change will affect us for the next 30 years, even if we take good measures now, so we do need efficient adaptation plans,” said Asian Farmers Association secretary general Estrella Penunia.

“Policymakers need to re-direct investments to small-scale, ecological, diversified farming,” she advocated. “Smallholders will be most affected by climate change, yet they are the ones most likely to use sustainable farming methods, such as diversification and inter-cropping.”

Agricultural experts at IFAD advise farmers to adapt to climate change by altering timing and location of cropping activities and to utilise water management to prevent water-logging, erosion and nutrient leaching in areas where there is an increase in rainfall. Farmers should also ‘harvest’ water in areas with less rainfall to conserve soil moisture and use water more efficiently.

In addition, farmers should diversify their income though additional activities, such as livestock raising, and use seasonal climate forecasting to reduce production risks. Other strategies include soil conservation, incentives for sustainable production practices and payment for carbon reduction and avoided deforestation.

“We need to find solutions to reduce risks and create more safety nets for smallholder farmers,” explained Herren. “A most important move would be to increase crop diversity (and move away from mono-cropping) to diminish the risk of crop failure through variety.”

Resilience against climate change goes down with less plant variety, Herren explained, “because if one invader or disease attacks a mono-crop, everything gets destroyed”.

He also believes that transgenic plants do not produce a higher yield per hectare than natural plants: “They might produce more efficiently, but gains are nullified because farmers have to pay more for their seeds and buy them every year (because the seeds of genetically modified plants cannot be saved).”


Item 2

UNEP Press Release


[Download the UNEP report at:]

Cutting Food Losses from Farm to Kitchen and Converting Wastes into Animal Feeds a Key Opportunity

 Nairobi, 17 February 2009 – A seven point plan to reduce the risk of hunger and rising food insecurity in the 21st century is outlined in new report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

Changing the ways in which food is produced, handled and disposed of across the globe – from farm to store and from fridge to landfill – can both feed the world’s rising population and help the environmental services that are the foundation of agricultural productivity in the first place.

Unless more intelligent and creative management is brought to the world’s agricultural systems, the 2008 food crisis – which plunged millions back into hunger – may foreshadow an even bigger crisis in the years to come, says the rapid assessment study.

The report, entitled ‘The Environmental Food crises: Environment’s role in averting future food crises’, has been compiled by a wide group of experts from both within and outside UNEP. It supports UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s task force on the world food crisis.

Major findings:

– The one hundred year trend of falling food prices may be at an end, and food prices may increase by 30-50 per cent within decades with critical impacts for those living in extreme poverty spending up to 90 per cent of their income on food. These findings are supported by a recent report from the World Bank stating that if agricultural production is depressed further, food prices may rise.

– Up to 25 per cent of the worlds food production may become lost due to ‘environmental breakdowns’ by 2050 unless action is taken. Already, cereal yields have stagnated worldwide and fish landings are declining.

– Today, over one third of the world’s cereals are being used as animal feed, rising to 50 per cent by 2050. Continuing to feed cereals to growing numbers of livestock will aggravate poverty and environmental degradation.

– The report instead suggests that recycling food wastes and deploying new technologies, aimed at producing biofuels, to produce sugars from discards such as straw and even nutshells could be a key environmentally-friendly alternative to increased use of cereals for livestock.

– The amount of fish currently discarded at sea – estimated at 30 million tonnes annually – could alone sustain more than a 50 per cent increase in fish farming and aquaculture production, which is needed to maintain per capita fish consumption at current levels by 2050 without increasing pressure on an already stressed marine environment.

The report shows that many of the factors blamed for the current food crisis – drought, biofuels, high oil prices, low grain stocks and especially speculation in food stocks may worsen substantially in the coming decades.

Climate change emerges as one of the key factors that may undermine the chances of feeding over nine billion people by 2050. Increasing water scarcities and a rise and spread of invasive pests such as insects, diseases and weeds – may substantially depress yields in the future.

This underlines yet another reason why governments at the UN climate convention meeting in Copenhagen in some 300 days’ time must agree a deep and decisive new global deal.

 Other actions under the seven point plan include:

– Re-organizing the food market infrastructure to regulate prices and generate food safety nets for those at risk backed by a global, micro-financing fund to boost small-scale farmer productivity in developing countries.

– Removal of agricultural subsidies and the promotion of second generation biofuels based on wastes rather than on primary crops – this could reduce pressure on fertile lands and critical ecosystems such as forests.

Medium to long term measures include managing and better harvesting extreme rainfall on Continents such as Africa, alongside support to farmers for adopting more diversified and ecologically-friendly farming systems – ones that enhance the ‘nature-based’ inputs from pollinators such as bees as well as water supplies and genetic diversity.

A recent report by UNEP and the UN Conference on Trade and Development surveyed 114 small-scale farms in 24 African countries, publishing our findings in late 2008.

– Yields had more than doubled where organic, or near-organic practices had been used, with the in yield jumping to 128 per cent in east Africa.

– The study found that organic practices outperformed traditional methods and chemical-intensive conventional farming and also found strong environmental benefits such as improved soil fertility, better retention of water and resistance to drought.

The research also highlighted the role that adapting organic practices could have in improving local education and community cooperation.

A report launched by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in April 2007 also highlighted the key role of ecosystems in food production. The Rapid Food Assessment also follows the IAASTD report on sustainable agricultural production, which was co-produced by UNEP in 2008.

Only last week UNCTAD reported that, despite the economic crisis, organic agriculture would continue to grow, representing an opportunity for developing country farmers including those in Africa.

It estimated that sales of certified organic produce could reach close to $70 billion in 2012, up from $23 billion in 2002.

“We need a Green revolution in a Green Economy but one with a capital G”, says UN Under-Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner. “We need to deal with not only the way the world produces food but the way it is distributed, sold and consumed, and we need a revolution that can boost yields by working with rather than against nature.”

He said the report also shone a light on perhaps one of the least discussed areas – food waste, from the farm and the seas to the supermarket and the kitchen.

“Over half of the food produced today is either lost, wasted or discarded as a result of inefficiency in the human-managed food chain. There is evidence within the report that the world could feed the entire projected population growth alone by becoming more efficient while also ensuring the survival of wild animals, birds and fish on this planet,” he added.

– Losses and food waste in the United States could be as high as 40-50 per cent, according to some recent estimates. Up to one quarter of all fresh fruits and vegetables in the US is lost between the field and the table.

– In Australia it is estimated that food waste makes up half of that country’s landfill. Almost one-third of all food purchased in the United Kingdom every year is not eaten.

– Food losses in the developing world are also considerable, mainly due to spoilage and pests. For instance, in Africa, the total amount of fish lost through discards, post-harvest loss and spoilage may be around 30 per cent of landings.

– Food losses in the field between planting and harvesting could be as high as 20-40 per cent of the potential harvest in developing countries due to factors such as pests and pathogens.

This underlines the need for greater agricultural research and development which in Africa amounts to just 13 per cent of global investment, versus over 33 per cent in Latin America and over 40 per cent in Asia.

Innovative solutions are also required. A case in point is Niger where an estimated 60 per cent of the national onion crop, or some 3,000 tonnes a year, can be lost. The losses also lead to emissions of the greenhouse gas methane as the vegetables rot. Experts are looking at using solar dryers and other systems to preserve the onions so they do not rot in storage or on the way to market.

Environmental degradation poses a major risk to food production. For instance:

– The melting and disappearing glaciers of the mighty Himalayas, linked to climate change, supply water for irrigation for near half of Asia’s cereal production or a quarter of the world production.

– Globally, water scarcity may reduce crop yields by up to 12 per cent. Climate change may also accelerate invasive pests of insects, diseases and weeds, reducing yields by an additional 2-6 per cent worldwide.

– Continuing land degradation, particularly in Africa, may reduce yields by another 1-8 per cent. Croplands may be swallowed up by urban sprawl, biofuels, cotton and land degradation by 8-20 per cent by 2050, and yields may become depressed by 5-25 per cent due to pests, water scarcity and land degradation.

– In Sub-Saharan Africa, population growth is projected to increase from the current 770 million to over 1.7 billion in less than 40 years, while also being the Continent on the front-line in terms of climate change, land degradation, water scarcity – and conflicts. Unless a major economic, agricultural and investment boom takes place, the situation may become very serious indeed.

– Increased use of artificial fertilizers, pesticides, increased water use and cutting down of forests will result in massive decline in biodiversity.

Already, nearly 80 per cent of all endangered species are threatened due to agricultural expansion, and Europe has lost over 50 per cent of its farmland birds during the last 25 years of intensification of European farmlands.

“Simply ratcheting up the fertilizer and pesticide-led production methods of the 20th Century is unlikely to address the challenge”, says Achim Steiner. “It will increasingly undermine the critical natural inputs and nature-based services for agriculture such as healthy and productive soils, the water and nutrient recycling of forests, and pollinators such as bees and bats.”

Notes to editors

The report ‘The environmental food crisis: Environment’s role in averting future food crises’ can be accessed at at or at including high and low resolution graphics for free use in publications.

The report is released during the 25th session of the UNEP Governing Council/Global Ministerial Environment Forum taking place in Nairobi, Kenya from 16-20 February. The meeting’s main focus is on finding solutions to the current environmental, financial, food and energy crisis through the emerging concept of Green Economy.

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