By Laetitia Mailhes
Producing food is undoubtedly the most vital of all human activities. Yet, in conversations about climate change, agriculture has been astoundingly overlooked. General approaches to climate have typically focused on energy, or, at best, on the vague marker of ‘sustainability’.
Yet, agriculture is the elephant in the room. Think about it: agriculture is about environmental conservation (lest we waste away the natural resources we depend on, such as soil, clean water, biodiversity, fisheries, forests), energy use (dependency on fossil fuels makes our food system extremely vulnerable to oil price volatility and availability), public health, social justice, local communities, land rights, economic security. You name it: food and farming are at the heart of every issue on the table.
Not only is agriculture hugely impacted by climate change, but it also provides effective, low-cost opportunities for mitigation. From farm to fork, the food system generates about half of greenhouse gas emissions, according to latest estimates. The big culprit is livestock, which accounts for 80 percent of the nitrous oxide emissions and 31 percent of the methane emissions in the US, according to the U.S. Global Change Program. Chemical inputs, heavy machinery and other petroleum-dependent farm technologies also take their toll. Finally, long-distance freight of goods as required in the current global food system (where shrimps raised in Ecuador are shelled in China before being offered to US consumers) is a major contributor to global GHG emissions.
One may easily conclude from this that agricultural practices that keep livestock to a minimum, that do without chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, that do not rely on heavy machinery, and that focus on local markets, are bound to exhibit a much cleaner bill of environmental health than the model mentioned above. Such agricultural practices also happen to be most sustainable when at the hands of small farmers, who see an economic advantage in limited overhead (no chemical inputs, no GM patent-protected seeds, small machinery); in the integration of animals into the agricultural ecosystems (natural fertilizers and “herbicides”); and in meeting the demand of their local community through direct, trusted relationships requiring no or minimum intermediation. Finally, those farmers are more likely to be successful if operating in a context where dirt-cheap subsidized imports do not flood their market, and where customer demand and regulations make intensive animal farms a sheer aberration.
Does this sound overly simplistic? The dream of some California organic farmer with no awareness of the wider world?
Well, think again. The vision outlined above summarizes the recommendations put forth by the World Agricultural Report (“Agriculture At A Crossroads”), a 2,000-page document that was endorsed in 2008 by 59 nations (despite their heavy involvement in the project, the United States, Australia and Canada abstained over the issues of free trade and biotechnology which were contrary to their governments’ policies.)
Think of it as the sister-document of the IPCC Report, but for agriculture rather than climate change. Its full name is the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) Report. It was born of an initiative of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations Education and Science Organization (UNESCO), the United Nations Development Program (UNEP), the United Nations Environmental Organization (UNEP), the Global Environmental Facility (GEF) and the World Bank. Its stated mission was to assess the situation of agricultural knowledge, science and technology (AKST) on a global scale as well as five regional scales; to draw conclusions based on the findings extending over the past 50 years; and to formulate recommendations for the next 50 years.
Born of two years of preliminary broad stakeholder consultations around the world to identify the key questions, and of four years of desk research by over 400 international scientists and experts from around the world, the final report issued an unambiguous warning: “business as usual is not an option.”
The report states that the industrialization of agriculture (the familiar paradigm based on chemical inputs and fossil-fuels, and on a narrow genetic diversity), as well as lack of training and research into truly sustainable agricultural methods, have led to the overuse of natural resources, large-scale soil degradation, climate change, loss of critical biodiversity, inequity, malnourishment and rural-to-urban migration (among a long list of issues that need immediate action).
The report also demonstrates that enough food is produced worldwide to feed the global population into 2050 – but that this food is not produced in the right place, by the right people or with the practices that would guarantee the health of people, the environment and the economy.
About 2.6 billion people worldwide depend on agriculture for survival. The poorest, by a wide margin, live in rural areas, and are predominantly farmers. To fight climate change, hunger and poverty, a drastic shift in policy-making has to be implemented.
To this effect, the report contains 22 core statements which formulate “options for action” for decision-makers regarding strategies to improve food production sustainably while alleviating hunger and poverty, as well as dealing with health, nutrition and inequity. These include focusing on small-hold farmers; adapting agricultural practices to local social, cultural, economical and environmental ecosystems; and taking into account the triple bottom line of economic, ecological and social impacts as represented in the multifunctionality of agriculture, the key paradigm of the report.
So why haven’t most of us heard about this report? Most likely, because none of the 59 countries that endorsed the IAASTD Report has implemented any public policy change to follow through with its recommendations.
Hence the creation of IAASTD Rio+20, a coalition of some +170 NGOs that have come together to put forward sustainable agriculture at the forefront of the debates in Rio this month. (Read their declaration here.)
IAASTD Rio+20 has been an active participant to the various UN informal meetings held since the end of last year. They were successful at introducing language about sustainable agriculture into the Zero Draft of the Summit outcome document.
But that’s not good enough.
Mobilizing public opinion is essential to make governments actually pay attention to the agroecology agenda put forth by IAASTD Rio+20. To this effect, a public campaign was launched in the United States and the European Union. It is key to have each political entity (the movement is designed to be spread wider after Rio+20, which was picked as a first if major milestone) petitioned by its own citizens on local issues pertaining to transforming agriculture. Hence, distinct petitions in the US and in the EU. The former includes 5 requests that, if met, would put an end to factory farming as we know it and pave the way to agroecology. The latter draws from demands designed by various youth networks over the past few months ahead of the 2013 CAP Reform.
When it comes to agriculture and the climate, in the words of the IAASTD Report, “business as usual is not an option.”
Laetitia Mailhes is a recovering business reporter. Her blog, The Green Plate, is devoted to agriculture, food andfood systems. She’s also a Care2.com contributor, and the co-author of two books on food sovereignty. She coordinates nourish9billion.org, the public outreach arm of IAASTD Rio+20.