|World Food Day: The Road from Rome to Cancun|
[15 October 2010] ROME - Remember 2008: the prices of agricultural commodities doubling in a matter of months, food riots in about thirty developing countries, 150 million more people facing hunger. Two years later, as the Committee for World Food Security holds its annual session in Rome and celebrates World Food Day, there is little to rejoice about.
The stocks have been replenished, but no bold efforts have been made to reform the food systems: food-deficit countries still are in a highly vulnerable situation, small-scale farmers are still not sufficiently supported, and poor consumers are still not shielded from price increases.
Yet, there is something even worse than efforts that come too little, too late: it is efforts that, because they are focused on the short term and on quick wins, may be achieving the very opposite that we need.
Of course, we have learned the cost of under-investing in farming and after 30 years of neglect, there is a renewed interest in agriculture, both within the private sector and among governments. But the recipes promoted to re-launch agriculture may not be up to the challenges we are facing today. The provision of chemical fertilizers, the greater mechanisation of production or the expansion of irrigation seem far away from the professed commitment to fight climate change and to support small-scale, family agriculture. In reality, these “solutions” will mostly benefit the larger plantations. And it is their industrial model that is expanding.
If we were to stick to this approach, this would be a recipe for disaster, threatening the ability for our children’s children to feed themselves. Agriculture is already directly responsible for 14 percent of man-made greenhouse gas emissions – and up to one third if we include the carbon dioxide produced by deforestation for the expansion of cultivation or pastures. As a result of temperature changes, the yields in certain regions of Sub-Saharan Africa are expected to fall by 50 percent by 2020 in comparison to 2000 levels, and conservative estimates locate the global agricultural capacity in 2080 between 10 and 25 percent below the current levels.
Today already, weather-related events linked to climate change mean an increase in the number of floods and droughts, shorter and less predictable rainy seasons, and more volatile agricultural markets. In addition, the approaches that are currently promoted make food production increasingly dependent on fossil fuels, oil and gas, at the very same moment that the extraction of these resources is nearing its peak. Agriculture choosing this path is agriculture committing suicide.
This can change. We can improve the resilience of agriculture to climate change by combining diverse crops on the same farm, by planting more trees, and by developing water harvesting techniques to moisture the soil. The classic ‘Green Revolution’ approaches should be fundamentally rethought to achieve this. Agriculture, now part of the problem of climate change, should be made into part of the solution.Operating this shift requires that we think together climate change and agricultural development, when the two are too often dealt with in isolation from one another, left to different policy makers. We need to travel the road from Rome to Cancun – home of the next climate change summit in December.
This change also requires that we adapt our modes of governance. We won’t shift to a carbon-free agriculture if we remain hostages to the short-termism of markets and of electoral politics. The immediate expectations of shareholders and of voters cannot be ignored, but the aspirations of citizens must be allowed to grow into something larger, that recognizes our debt towards future generations, and that enriches democracy into something more permanent and closer to the citizen. We can do this by binding ourselves to multi-year strategies, adopted by participatory means, that identify the range of measures that must be taken in various policy areas, with a clear timeline for action and an allocation of responsibilities across various branches of government.
It is always tempting for the proponents of business-as-usual to dismiss as utopian proposals that are so far-reaching that they seem to be “revolutionary” in nature, and to dismiss other proposals as so minor and insignificant that they will not really make any difference.
We must move beyond this false opposition. What matters is not each of the policy proposals considered in isolation, whether reformist or more revolutionary. It is the pathway that matters: the sequence of measures that, piece by piece, may lead gradually to a carbon-neutral agriculture, that protects the ecosystems and that sustainably feeds the planet. Once part of a multi-year strategy, the set of measures that we need to move towards sustainable food systems cannot be so easily dismissed: what seems utopian now may be seen as achievable if it is the point of arrival of a long-term plan. And changes that may seem trivial at first will be seen in a very different light once they are presented as part of a broader and more ambitious strategy.
Our democracies are premised on the idea that even the greatest collective problems can be solved if broken down into pieces and addressed one by one. It is an idea that we must now reclaim.