This article is part of our special report Sustainable farming.
Humankind needs to take a more collaborative approach to agriculture in order to sustain its future nutrition needs, while at the same time minimising environmental harm to the planet, global leaders and luminaries have warned.
Agriculture should be made an integral part of the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, in order to address global challenges like food production and environmental protection, according to several speakers at the Forum for Future Agriculture, which took place in Brussels last month.
“The 17 Sustainable Development Goals are a declaration of interdependence. The food chain is a perfect example of how people’s fates are linked in this globalised world,” UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said in a video message on 22 March.
Several speakers at the forum backed Ban Ki-moon’s call and urged scientists, the agri-food industry, policy-makers and civil society to get rid of their “past prejudices” and start working together.
Transforming food systems by making them resilient to climate shocks are among the objectives of the UN goals. World hunger can only be ended “if we change how we grow, process, distribute and consume food,” Ban Ki-moon stressed. “We also have to better manage our natural resources, land, and water. And we have to preserve the world’s rich biodiversity,” he said.
Bringing stakeholders to the table
However, bringing all agriculture-related stakeholders to the same table will be a tall order for policymakers, mainly because of their different perspectives on the planet’s future.
Jon Parr, chief operating officer of Swiss pesticide and seed maker Syngenta, told EurActiv.com that partnerships were required between all actors, including industry and NGOs, in order to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
“We need to abandon our old prejudices and ways of working and find ways to collaborate like never before,” he stressed.
Environmental activists see such partnerships with suspicion, however. “We criticise European and international initiatives, including UN institutions and projects, when their main focus is limited to easing the way for corporations to invest in under-developed countries where there are great business opportunities,” Greenpeace EU agriculture policy director Marco Contiero told EurActiv.
According Greenpeace, the investment focus of some of those UN-backed agriculture projects “will not benefit the people who are in need”.
Rising population and food production
Although they may share the same goals, it is no understatement that agri-food businesses and civil society groups like Greenpeace often differ significantly on how to reach them.
Calls to increase food production to meet the world’s growing population illustrates this dichotomy like no other subject in global development.
The UN projects that the global population will rise to more than 9.7 billion in 2050 and exceed 11.2 billion by 2100, calling for a dramatic increase in food production.
This is the main argument of the agri-food industry, which has expanded its activities across the world focusing in densely populated and “forgotten” agricultural markets, like in Asia and Africa.
Via partnerships with smallholders who follow specific sustainable cultivation protocols, big agri-food multinationals are trying solutions to feed a fast-growing population, while keeping climate change in check.
But environmental NGOs often see the challenge in very different terms
Referring to data by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), Greenpeace argues that the world already produces more than 1 ½ times enough food to feed everyone on the planet.
The agency notes that for the past two decades, the rate of global food production has increased faster than the rate of global population growth and attributes high hunger levels to poverty and inequality, not scarcity. There are people who earn less than $2 a day and cannot afford to buy this food, Greenpeace points out.
Still, producing more with less takes centre-stage in agri-food industry strategies.
Agri-food businesses claim that biotechnology and precision farming practices are crucial to the sustainability of agriculture as it can improve productivity, secure yield and produce higher quality crops.
“We strongly believe that food and environmental security are indivisible…that is to say, we have no chance of achieving one without the other,” Jon Parr, Syngenta’s chief operating officer, told EurActiv.
If food production is to increase to meet projected population growth, genetic modification and other biotechnologies should be available to growers as an option, the argument goes.
Syngenta has created a network of “reference farms” across crops and regions in specific markets. Farmers are collaborating with crop experts and trialing new solutions to raise productivity and make crops more efficient.
On its website, the company notes that it is currently gathering farm data from 21 crops in 42 countries. In 2015, the global average productivity increase on reference farms was 2%.
This “open data” and the best practices on productivity are then published in an online database accessible to all in order to speed up the innovation knowledge transfer and reach new people and communities.
The agri-food industry also gives special emphasis to precision farming practices as an innovation-driven solution.
Precision farming is based on the optimised management of inputs in a field according to actual crop needs. It involves data-based technologies, including satellite positioning systems like GPS, remote sensing, and the internet, to manage crops and reduce the use of fertilisers, pesticides and water.
Yara, a fertiliser company, uses precision farming to increase accuracy of fertiliser inputs and simultaneously reduce negative environmental impact.
The company developed the N-Sensor for the site-specific management of nitrogen application. N-Sensor is mounted on the tractor roof and is ‘on the move’ measuring light reflection from the crop, translating this into an optimum application rate enabling the application equipment to apply the required rate for that specific part of the field.
A wrong production model
But Greenpeace’s Contiero takes the debate to a different level. In hid view, the issue is not to produce more in order to feed a growing world population. Rather, he points out that farming output is currently “wrongly produced” and that this needs to change in order to address the environmental issues of agriculture.
“Claiming that there is a need to intensify agricultural productivity is false,” Contiero said.
“The focus should not be in providing external and non-renewable inputs to these farmers, making them dependent, as European or US farmers are, on agrochemical companies products,” he continued, wondering what will happen to those farmers when governments and agri-business will stop their funding projects and operations.
“Farmers will be left alone, with no means to buy expensive inputs,” he claims, saying “they will become totally exposed to the volatility of input prices.”
Rather than supporting farmers with costly subsidies and programmes, governments should focus their efforts on making them self-sufficient, Contiero stressed.
“These farmers need to be able to sustain themselves in the centuries to come, thanks to modern and sustainable agricultural practices, not just in the next few years, thanks to temporarily-subsidised inputs,” he claimed.
According to Contiero, the productivity challenge should be seen and measured differently — in the amounts of people nourished per hectare, not the amount of tons produced per hectare. “In that way you are really tackling the problem of feeding the world,” he stressed.
For Greenpeace, agriculture development should be based on agronomic practices and rules, which focus on the fundamental role of the soil. “How can a farmer in a specific region ensure that the soil becomes richer in organic content? Because when it is rich in organic content, its plants will grow much stronger.”
“Measured simply by the production of calories and by economic efficiency, industrialised agriculture might seem “efficient,” but this ignores the massive environmental, social, and health degradation brought by industrial food production, processing, distribution, consumption, and waste,” Stanka Becheva, food and agriculture campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe told EurActiv.
“By all of these measures - costs we all pay - the industrial food system is stunningly expensive and inefficient. Rather than feeding the world sustainably, the industrial food system is cutting off the branch we’re sitting on by depleting and degrading the ecosystems and rural communities needed to produce food,” she stressed, adding that governments and transnational agribusinesses had created a far bigger global commodity market than ever before.
“And yet, the number of hungry people continues to increase, most developing countries are net importers of food, and peoples’ right to food sovereignty is being compromised. Turning to niche markets is one of the strategies of the agri-food sector which sees food as a commodity and not a human right, to increase their profit on the back of people and planet.”
Thierry de l’Escaille, Secretary-General of the European Landowners’ Organization and cofounder of the FFA, said: “The implementation of the SDGs means we must adapt our agricultural and environmental policies. Their implementation must be coherent so that they are compatible with today’s and tomorrow’s farm businesses. Countryside entrepreneurs rely on dependable and sensible regulations that protect what is best about rural Europe while promoting a maximum of practical and scientific innovation. Only by combining the best of our traditions with our most forward thinking will we achieve global food and environmental security”.
John Ingram, Food Systems Programme Leader at the Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford stressed: “Food systems encompass interactions among a number of activities conducted by many actors who are all influenced by a wide range of environmental, social, political, economic and technological factors. An agricultural innovation system perspective recognises these interactions and, when combined with a food systems approach, can identify interventions which synergistically address multiple SDGs.”
In 2015, the UN General Assembly set 17 measurable Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), ranging from ending world poverty to achieving gender equality and empowering women and girls by 2030.
Nine of these goals are directly or indirectly connected with farming, conferring a special multidimensional status to agriculture.
Faced with a growing global population, food insecurity, and climate change, agriculture has a leading role to play.