Kofi Annan: ‘What is the point of economic growth if you cannot breathe?’

Greenpeace argues that the world already produces more than 1 ½ times enough food to feed everyone on the planet. [UN Geneva/Flickr]

Former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan called yesterday (28 March) for investment in developing countries in order to “produce more food with fewer resources”, while making agriculture more sustainable.

The UN projects that the global population will rise to more than 9.7 billion in 2050 and exceed 11.2 billion by 2100, and has called for a dramatic increase in food production.

At the same time, rising demand for food is putting additional pressure on the environment and natural resources, with agriculture ranking among the heaviest emitter of greenhouse gases, which are warming up the planet.

This is the main argument of the agri-food industry, which has expanded its activities across the world, focusing on 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.

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But environmental NGOs have a completely different approach. 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 the food that is produced, Greenpeace points out.

Produce more with less

Speaking at the 10th Forum for the Future of Agriculture in Brussels on Tuesday (28 March) Kofi Annan urged leaders to increase investment in developing countries and food systems in order to “produce more food with fewer resources” and simultaneously feed a growing population which faces starvation.

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“Shifting to sustainable food systems and agriculture is possible if bold leadership from every sector can be ensured”, the Nobel Peace Prize winner said. He stressed that scientific discovery and sustainable solutions are crucial to meeting the demands of a population of 9 billion people in 2050.

Annan emphasised that all countries should play a role in implementing the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and wondered, “What is the point of economic growth if you cannot breathe?”

He also emphasised the need for cooperation between large and small sectors and more innovation in this direction. “Africa will to some extent move away from smallholding,” he said.

Referring to the Paris Agreement, he noted that it is the right tool to fight climate change and stressed that the world will continue this fight regardless of US President Donald Trump’s intentions.

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“The United States may withdraw because of the policies of President Trump or will put a brake on it but the rest of the world will continue,” Annan said.

EU farming and SDGs

EU Agriculture and Rural Development Commissioner Phil Hogan stressed that the Common Agricultural Policy fits into the implementation of SDGs but that it needs to be further modernised.

Referring to the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, he stressed that the CAP had been one of the real successes of the EU.

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Precision farming could play a leading role in making EU agriculture more sustainable. But green NGOs claim that the concentration of food production in the hands of the agri-food industry will have catastrophic consequences.

“The CAP has ensured food security in Europe since shortly after the end of the Second World War. Today, it provides food security to millions of people way beyond the EU and, despite all the laudable objectives of helping people to feed themselves, that will continue to be the case, at least for decades to come,” the EU agriculture chief said.

However, Hogan underlined that EU farming needs to adapted for the 21st century, with food placed at the centre of the debate and farmers’ actions directed accordingly.

“A system of agricultural production that delivers on the Paris Agreement and the SDGs will ensure a more resilient agricultural system, based on healthy ecosystems and a production system that integrates innovation and more value across the whole chain, from primary production to the consumer,” the Irish politician stated.

For Hogan, EU farmers must be supported but also asked to do more in terms of their contribution to the EU’s international obligations for climate and environment.

“Consumers – that’s all of us – have a role to play. We have to become more demanding, more discerning,” he concluded.

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Future agriculture is agroecology

In the meantime, around 50 activists gathered out of the venue of the conference, which was organised by pesticides producer Syngenta and the European Landowners’ Organisation.

The European Commission approved on Monday (27 March) the proposed $130 billion merger of Dow Chemical and DuPont and in the coming days, the EU is expected to decide on the $43-billion takeover bid by ChemChina for Swiss rival Syngenta.

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The European Commission approved on Monday (27 March) the proposed $130 billion merger of Dow Chemical and DuPont. But the decision triggered a strong reaction from environmentalists, who believe that such mergers lead to “major monopolies”.

The activists said they opposed the “false solutions advertised by agribusiness multinationals” and underlined that sustainable farming is only possible “once the destruction of soil, nature and rural communities has been stopped”.

“Yet the economic success of the FFA organisers over the past decades has been built on this very destruction,” they added.

Corporate Europe Observatory’s campaigner Martin Pigeon said, “We are standing in solidarity with farmers and citizens who are mobilising against the disastrous consequences of the grip that big agribusiness has on EU policy-making.”

“Politicians in the EU and worldwide must stop subsidising the destructive methods of agribusiness and champion the agroecological transition of the sector. It is the only way to boost food security and sustainability in the long term,” Pigeon added.

The activists cited a report recently published by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) and stressed that it highlighted the “problematic approach” of agrochemical companies like Syngenta.

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“According to the UN experts, agroecology, on the contrary, is a solution which can successfully meet today’s environmental and food challenges without putting the environment and human health on the line,” the activists said.

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.

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