Governments in rich and poor countries alike should renounce their focus on agribusiness and give more support to small-scale, local food production to achieve global food security and tackle climate change, according to a report from Unctad, the UN trade and development body.
The 2013 Trade and Environment Review, calls on governments to “wake up before it is too late” and shift rapidly towards farming models that promote a greater variety of crops, reduced fertiliser use and stronger links between small farms and local consumers.
Persistent rural poverty, global hunger, population growth and environmental concerns must be treated as a collective crisis, argues the report, which criticises the international response to the 2008 food price crisis for focusing on technical “quick-fixes”.
“Many people talk about energy, transport, etc, but agriculture only comes on to the agenda when there is an acute food price crisis, or when there are conflicts at the national level over food,” said Ulrich Hoffman, senior trade policy adviser at Unctad. “At the international scene most of the discussion is on technicalities, but the matter we have before us is far more complex.”
The report warns that urgent and far-reaching action is needed before climate change begins to cause big disruptions to agriculture, particularly in vulnerable regions of poorer countries.
It says that while the 2008 crisis helped to reverse the long-term neglect of agriculture and its role in development, the focus has remained on increasing yields through industrial farming.
The report, which includes contributions from 60 international experts – covering topics from food prices and fertiliser use to international land deals and trade rules – demands a paradigm shift to focus efforts on making farming more sustainable and food more affordable through promoting local food production and consumption.
Several of the contributors call for a focus on food sovereignty, a concept introduced more than a decade ago by the international peasants’ movement La Via Campesina. Unlike food security, often defined as ensuring people have enough to eat, food sovereignty focuses on questions of power and control. It puts the needs and interests of those who produce and consume food at the heart of agricultural systems and policies.
The report argues that industrial, monoculture agriculture has failed to provide enough affordable food where it is needed, while the damage caused to the environment is “mounting and unsustainable”. It echoes the work of Nobel prize-winner Amartya Sen in arguing that the real causes of hunger – poverty and the lack of access to good, affordable food – are being overlooked.
Agricultural trade rules must be reformed, it says, to give countries more opportunity to promote policies that encourage local and regional food systems.
The report follows last week’s publication of Unctad’s annual trade and development report, which urged governments to focus more on domestic demand and inter-regional trade and rely less on exports to rich countries to fuel growth.
“Export-led growth is not the only viable development path,” said Nikolai Fuchs, president of the Geneva-based Nexus Foundation and a contributor to the trade and environment report. “We don’t say ‘no trade’, but … trade regimes should secure level playing fields for regional and local products, and allow for local and regional preference schemes, for example in public procurement.
“Highly specialised agriculture does not create enough jobs in rural areas where most of the poor are.” He argued that industrial, export-oriented farming typically offers a few highly skilled and specialised jobs, or low-skill, seasonal and precarious employment.
The report says governments should acknowledge and reward farmers for the work they do to preserve water sources, soil, landscapes and biodiversity.
Hoffman acknowledged it would be difficult to implement the agenda the report was suggesting. “Subsidies are a key hurdle … at a national level but also [in terms of] dealing with subsidies in the context of the WTO [World Trade Organisation],” he said. There must be more scrutiny of agricultural subsidies, he argued, including those that appear to promote environmentally sustainable farming, as there were “ample opportunities for abuse or misuse”.
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