From Rio to Johannesburg:
Farming Reducing Hunger and Meeting Environmental Goals
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.
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.
farms have become more technologically sophisticated in the
last decade, they have become ecologically and socially destructive.
Agriculture contributes to some of the worlds most threatening
environmental problemsfrom global warming to the spread
of toxic chemicals. And the vast majority of farm families
remain among the poorest people on the planet.
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 muchadjusted
for inflationon pesticides.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.)
the same time, rural areas remain the locus of global povertythey
are home to 75 percent of the worlds 1.2 billion people
living on a dollar a day or less. Roughly 100 million familiesabout
500 million peoplelack 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
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 goalreaffirmed as a U.N.
Millennium Development Goalwould not be reached for
more than 60 years, too late for many of the worlds
the global level, the share of the worlds 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.
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
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 projects9
million farms, covering nearly 30 million hectaresyields
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,
second survey, by the World Conservation Union-IUCN, cited
examples from around the world showing that farmers who reintegrate
biodiversity into the farmin the form of grass hedges
for fodder or habitat for pollinatorswill 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.
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
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 worlds 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
contrast, the ability to map and study the genetic code of
agricultural plants and animalsthe field called genomicscan
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.
only four nationsthe United States, Argentina, Canada,
and Chinahave significant commercial area planted in
genetically engineered crops, farmers in virtually all of
the worlds 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.
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 organica cheaper solution than removing farm chemicals
from the water.
this weeks 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.
agricultural subsidies to support ecological farming.
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
farmersin 1996, 25 percent of farms in the OECD got
nearly 90 percent of total support.
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.)
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
should consider taxing pesticides, synthetic fertilizers,
factory farms, and other polluting inputs or farm practices.
Cuba and Switzerland are exceptional among the worlds
nations for using a variety of economic measures to promote
sustainable agriculture at the national level.
export subsidies, food dumping, and other unfair trade practices.
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 productionan economic
weapon that can squash local food production.
agreements should ban hostile trade tactics like food dumping
and export subsidies.
order to combat hunger or maintain family farms, trade agreements
should give nations sovereignty over what does and does
not enter their borders.
land and guarantee secure ownership rights.
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
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
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
women equal rights and support in agriculture.
play an integral role in producing the worlds foodparticularly
as men migrate to towns and citiesbut 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
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.
public sector agricultural research that is farmer-centered
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.
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.
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.