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Toward an agricultural model that respects nature

NewsNotes, March-April 2009

Recently Bill Gates and others have turned their attention to fighting hunger in Africa through improving technology to boost the productivity of small-scale farmers. Critics from the agro-environmental movement feel that Gates is overly confident in the same technology and market based solutions that deepened the global food crisis, while what is needed is a transformation of the entire system. The following article looks at some of the problems inherent in the global food system as well as the solutions outlined in two important reports, the Food and Agricultural Organization's “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” published in 2006, and the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), published in April 2008.

Climate conscious consumers are confronted with several questions when shopping for groceries in the U.S. How can I be sure that people in other countries are paid a fair wage for the bananas I eat, or the coffee I drink? How humanely was the chicken or cow or pig treated before it became packaged meat? When strawberries and blueberries abound in the dead of winter – how do I calculate the food miles from farm to table for my own carbon footprint? In the meantime, U.S. trade practices and development efforts work to export some of the same practices these consumers are questioning. “Development” is often measured by growth in GDP but an often touted sign of “progress” is a rise in meat consumption and the presence of imported packaged foods.

While we logically think that shipping food over huge distances contributes substantially to climate change, a recent study by the Food and Agricultural Organization entitled “Livestock’s Long Shadow” finds that the world’s livestock production contributes a much higher share than transport. The livestock sector is responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions measured in CO2 equivalent.

The U.S. way of producing livestock, mimicked throughout the world, is highly dependent on grain production. Mono-cropping (planting one variety of grain) is accompanied by the heavy use of fossil fuel based chemical fertilizers, pesticides and irrigation; it accounts for eight percent of global human water use. These practices contribute to air and water pollution themselves, but once this grain is fed to livestock, methane and ammonia are released in animal waste leading to local air and water contamination.

Some concrete blueprints for how to transform the system are provided by the findings of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD). This unique effort brought together over 400 experts including stakeholders from governments, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the private sector, producers, consumers and the scientific community to share views, gain common understanding and shape a vision for the future.

The main goals of the three-year study were focused on the use of agricultural knowledge, science and technology to reduce hunger and poverty; improve nutrition, health and rural livelihoods; and to facilitate social and environmental sustainability. The study looked at the productivity and multi-functionality of agriculture. In trying to meet these goals, the IAASTD clearly identified the need for drastic changes.

Both the IAASTD report and the FAO report point to the need to internalize as many externalities as possible. This would help assign real costs to the earth’s contribution, including soil degradation, species reduction, pollution, as well as properly accounting for the fossil fuels used in industrialized agriculture. Currently key inputs are under-priced or considered “free” leading to overexploitation and pollution. New incentives must be created. One rule that ecological economists promote is to tax what is bad – resource depletion, land degradation, pollution, etc. – and relax the tax on “goods” (products where value has been added by human labor).

The IAASTD identified the inequitable distribution of food and resources as the basic problem when looking at how to achieve the goal of poverty alleviation. It concluded that small-scale farmers would benefit from greater access to knowledge, technology, and credit, and from more political power and better infrastructure. They should be able to participate in decisions around credit and markets, intellectual property rights, trade priorities, and protection of the rural environment.

The IAASTD recommends improving low impact practices such as organic agriculture and providing incentives for the sustainable management of water, livestock, forests, and fisheries. This represents a true green revolution, away from industrial unsustainable models and toward a model of a realistic relationship with the earth.

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