From Rio to Johannesburg: Ecological Farming - Reducing Hunger and Meeting Environmental Goals

World Summit Policy Brief #6


From Rio to Johannesburg:
Ecological Farming — Reducing Hunger and Meeting Environmental Goals
by Brian Halweil

WASHINGTON, DC - June 11, 2002 - Since the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, agriculture remains high on the international agenda because it brings together critical issues like water, poverty, hunger, and health. Governments, farmers, scientists, and others will gather at the World Food Summit in Rome this week to assess the progress towards eradicating hunger, and the U.N. Secretary General has already identified agriculture as one of the priority areas for the Johannesburg Summit in August.

Nonetheless, a fundamental split has emerged in national and international discussions between embracing an ecological approach to food production and clinging to the currently dysfunctional model with its dependence on chemical inputs and technological fixes. Without radical changes in how we farm, food production will continue to be at odds with the goals of alleviating poverty, eliminating hunger, and restoring natural ecosystems.

Agricultural Dysfunction

While farms have become more technologically sophisticated in the last decade, they have become ecologically and socially destructive. Agriculture contributes to some of the world’s most threatening environmental problems—from global warming to the spread of toxic chemicals. And the vast majority of farm families remain among the poorest people on the planet.

Shaped by national and international policies biased towards large, specialized farms, the countryside in most nations has become less biologically diverse, as farmers plant more uniform fields and rely on fewer crop varieties. These monocultures have reinforced a strong dependence on chemical inputs, widespread in the industrial world and becoming more common in developing nations. Worldwide, farmers use 10 times more chemical fertilizer today than in 1950, and spend roughly 17 times as much—adjusted for inflation—on pesticides.Global Pesticide Sales, 1950-99 Chart showing dramatic rate of increase. This dependence on agrochemicals not only pollutes the soil and harms human health and wildlife, but also contaminates water at a time when usable supplies are increasingly scarce. (Water is another priority area identified by the Secretary General.)

At the same time, rural areas remain the locus of global poverty—they are home to 75 percent of the world’s 1.2 billion people living on a dollar a day or less. Roughly 100 million families—about 500 million people—lack ownership rights to the land they cultivate, a condition that greatly reduces their ability to make a living and their incentive to invest in the land. Rural indicators of health, education, and political participation lag far behind those in urban areas. Hunger, too, is concentrated in the countryside, worsened by poorer access to safe water and sanitation.

Over the past thirty years, participants at international conferences have repeatedly pledged to break the back of hunger, but this elusive goal has always retreated into the future. Delegates at the 1974 World Food Summit pledged to eradicate hunger within a decade. Two decades later, delegates at the 1996 World Food Summit called for cutting world hunger in half by 2015, even as the number of hungry remained roughly the same as in 1974. Most recently, in 2001, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization declared that at the current pace, even the less ambitious 1996 goal—reaffirmed as a U.N. Millennium Development Goal—would not be reached for more than 60 years, too late for many of the world’s poor.

At the global level, the share of the world’s population that is hungry is generally on the decline. But this decline masks the persistence of hunger in much of the developing world. And in sub-Saharan Africa, the share and the absolute number of hungry children has increased in the last two decades.

The Agroecological Choice

Farmers and agricultural scientists in many parts of the world are restructuring food production to better serve the ecological and social goals outlined in Rio. This “agroecological” approach to farming focuses less on purchased chemicals and technological fixes and more on taking advantage of freely available ecological processes in the field, including leguminous crops that boost soil fertility and beneficial insects to control pests.

The potential of agroecological techniques to combat hunger and poverty has been confirmed by two recent surveys. The first, by researchers at the University of Essex, looked at over 200 agricultural projects in the developing world that utilize ecological approaches. They found that for all the projects—9 million farms, covering nearly 30 million hectares—yields increased an average of 93 percent, and substantially more in some cases. A majority of these projects succeeded in boosting production in the Sahel of Africa, the hills of the Andes, the rainforests of Southeast Asia, and other so-called “marginal” areas where chemical inputs have proven unaffordable, inappropriate, and unsuccessful.

The second survey, by the World Conservation Union-IUCN, cited examples from around the world showing that farmers who reintegrate biodiversity into the farm—in the form of grass hedges for fodder or habitat for pollinators—will often realize gains in productivity as well as ecological benefits. Coffee growers who reintroduce trees into their farm landscape not only preserve rainforest and the resident biodiversity, but can also reduce their production costs and their vulnerability to pest attack and erratic weather.

The Biotech Question

Politicians, industry leaders, NGOs, and farmers discussing the future of agriculture often get bogged down in a polarized discussion in which some argue that biotechnology will help clean up agriculture and serve the poor, while others see biotechnology simply as an extension of the flawed status quo. (While there was no commercial area planted in genetically engineered crops in 1992, the year of the Rio Summit, farmers planted genetically engineered crops on over 50 million hectares worldwide in 2001, largely in the United States, Argentina, Canada, and China.)

Biotechnology is a powerful tool, but if it has a role in improving the way we farm and reducing hunger, researchers will have to change its current emphasis. The major biotech products commercialized to date have reinforced monocultural farming and chemical dependence and are largely irrelevant to the needs of poor farmers and the world’s hungry. The biotech industry, which controls the technology with patents and other proprietary obstacles, has funneled most of its investment into crops and traits designed for the large-scale farms of the First World, such as herbicide-resistant soybeans or insecticide-producing corn.

In contrast, the ability to map and study the genetic code of agricultural plants and animals—the field called “genomics”—can greatly enhance traditional breeding or improve our understanding of how plants respond to drought or how animals respond to disease. This informational role for biotechnology is inherently less risky and less politically controversial than swapping genes between wholly unrelated species.

While only four nations—the United States, Argentina, Canada, and China—have significant commercial area planted in genetically engineered crops, farmers in virtually all of the world’s nations are expanding organic cultivation, which rests on agroecological principles and goes a step further to limit all chemical use. Consumer demand for organic produce has exploded into a multibillion dollar global market.

Governments that support the growth of organic area are investing not only in a growing economic opportunity, but also in an effort to keep their water supplies free of pollutants and to return biodiversity to the farm landscape. German water supply companies in Munich, Osnabruck, and Leipzig now pay neighboring farmers to go organic—a cheaper solution than removing farm chemicals from the water.

Policy Priorities

At this week’s World Food Summit in Rome and the upcoming World Summit in Johannesburg, governments have an opportunity to commit to agricultural policies to enhance incentives for agroecological techniques, to create disincentives to polluting farm practices, and to reform international policies accordingly. Among the top priorities will be shifting agricultural subsidies away from support of commodity production and rewarding farmers for meeting ecological goals; supporting the growth of organic farming; taxing pesticides, synthetic fertilizers and factory farms; redistributing land and guaranteeing secure ownership rights; and assuring women equal rights and support in agriculture.

Shift agricultural subsidies to support ecological farming.

  • Industrial nations collectively pay their farmers over $300 billion each year in subsidies, primarily tied to a handful of commodities. These payments entrench farmers in prevailing farm practices that are low on diversity and high on chemical use. The payments also tilt the table towards the largest and wealthiest farmers—in 1996, 25 percent of farms in the OECD got nearly 90 percent of total support.


  • Governments should shift these subsidies to stewardship payments that reward farmers for meeting certain ecological goals. (The latest US Farm Bill goes in precisely the opposite direction.)


  • National governments should work with farming organizations to increase the share of their land under organic production to 10 percent over the next ten years, by improving organic certification programs; boosting organic know-how at agricultural universities, research centers, and extension agencies; and providing subsidies or tax credits to farmers in the first few years of conversion.


  • Governments should consider taxing pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, factory farms, and other polluting inputs or farm practices. Cuba and Switzerland are exceptional among the world’s nations for using a variety of economic measures to promote sustainable agriculture at the national level.


Eliminate export subsidies, food dumping, and other unfair trade practices.

  • Current international trade agreements restrict the ability of nations to protect and build domestic farm economies by forbidding domestic price support and tariffs on imported goods. At the same time, these agreements leave considerable wiggle room on other forms of trade distortion, including the ability of wealthy nations to dump subsidized crops on the world market well below the cost of production—an economic weapon that can squash local food production.


  • Trade agreements should ban hostile trade tactics like food dumping and export subsidies.


  • In order to combat hunger or maintain family farms, trade agreements should give nations sovereignty over what does and does not enter their borders.


Redistribute land and guarantee secure ownership rights.

  • Where land is equitably distributed and farmers have secure ownership rights, the incidence of poverty and hunger is lower and food production is higher. Farmers also have a greater incentive to invest in tree planting, soil improvement, and other conservation practices.


  • Roughly 100 million farm families, comprising about 500 million people, lack ownership or owner-like rights to the land they cultivate, including a near majority of agricultural populations in South Asia, Central and South America, and Southeast Asia.


  • Among the priorities are accelerating reform in East and Southern Africa and Central and South America where land distribution is particularly inequitable, and supporting services (credit, extension, market access) for the beneficiaries of land reform.


Assure women equal rights and support in agriculture.

  • Women play an integral role in producing the world’s food—particularly as men migrate to towns and cities—but rarely receive the same financial and technical support as male farmers. This discrimination remains one of the strongest obstacles to eradicating hunger and poverty in the countryside. When women have the same access to agricultural resources as men, their yields, income, and ability to feed their families all increase.


  • Guaranteeing that women can own and access land, water their fields, and take advantage of credit and extension services should all be national and international priorities.


Support public sector agricultural research that is farmer-centered and ecologically-focused.

  • Both public and private agricultural research spending is heavily tilted toward farms in rich countries. Rich nations currently spend five times as much as developing countries on agricultural research and development as a share of agricultural production, even though the predominantly rural populations of the developing world stand to benefit most from agricultural research.


  • Simultaneously, investment in public agricultural research is falling, as agricultural research is being privatized. The private sector tends to invest little in research relevant to the developing world, as it sees little potential for profit.


  • All nations should reinvigorate public agricultural research. Since the private sector tends to focus on innovations that are patentable and marketable, rather than improved farming systems or farm management, public sector research should focus on agroecological approaches. Such research should involve farmers, including women farmers, as central players.