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Food, nutrition and sustainable agriculture within a green economy Hans Rudolf Herren, Biovision


n order to sustainably secure food and nutrition for all human beings, a fundamental transformation of our global agricultural and food system is required – a shift towards ecological agriculture, which primarily relies on smallholder and family farms. The international community will have to develop and implement a set of actions to inform and design new agricultural policies to achieve this.

Image: ©Peter Luethi

“By selling my vegetables on the market I used to earn ETB160 (around US$10) in two months on average,” says Haraba Abdulamahid, a smallholder farmer in Assosa, Ethiopia. Farming is a challenge in this region as the soils are threatened by erosion, and many farmers lack the means and knowledge to adopt sustainable farming practices such as organic agriculture. Faced with this challenge, Haraba signed up for a training course at a biofarm – a model farm where feasible, low-cost, but highly effective farming methods are demonstrated to farmers. The farm, which is run by the Ethiopian non-governmental organization BioEconomy Africa and supported by Biovision, has a very hands-on approach. After

the course Haraba went back to her own farm and started to apply what she had learned. She explains that she was able to get a better price for her organic products as they are now of better quality: “I am very successful on the market – I have earned ETB700 (US$40) in only two months.” The Swiss and Kenyanbased Biovision Foundation is now supporting efforts to further disseminate this approach to giving farmers access to information and hands-on knowledge in sustainable agriculture. Everyone should be able to have enough healthy food and enjoy a decent livelihood, as Haraba Abdulamahid does in Assosa. It is not acceptable that every fifth child born today will grow up hungry. But progress is very slow. Since the mid-1990s, the number of malnourished people has increased by more than 100 million, despite the fact that the world’s farmers have been producing a daily average of 4,600 calories per person – about twice as much as needed. Calculated

Drip irrigation improves efficiency of water use, significantly reducing consumption

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Image: ©Flurina Wartmann


Biofarms provide training in low-cost, highly effective farming methods

in calories, losses between harvest and consumption today amount to about 50 per cent. Meanwhile, agricultural resources are shrinking. Almost 40 per cent of the soil used by agriculture is already degraded. In many places, water supplies are running low; species diversity, the very basis of plant breeding, is declining; and in regions such as the tropics and subtropics, climate change will further severely impact both the profitability of agricultural production and food security in rural and urban Africa. Moreover, with a major share in global greenhouse gas emissions, agriculture is a major contributor to climate change. In view of these challenges, global consensus is growing that ‘business as usual’ is no longer an option if we want to nourish a growing population while maintaining and protecting natural resources. As United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon states: “We need to transform the way we approach food security, in particular by unleashing the potential of millions of small farmers and food producers.”1 A widespread paradigm shift is needed in our agriculture and food system; a global transformation towards an agriculture based on ecological principles, which strengthens small and family farms. Although challenges exist, there are already many proven solutions available that can more than double present productivity in developing countries. Biovision, together with international partners, is implementing a global initiative to highlight the alternatives available and reshape global policy and governance. When considering the issue of sustainable development and a green economy, we need to recognize that in some cases agriculture is a source of environmental problems, but also a major part of the solution to address urgent issues including climate change, land degradation and desertification, or scarcity of natural resources such as fossil fuels and water.

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Climate change Intensive industrial farming is one of the causes of climate change, and we need to switch to ecological methods to provide relief. Agriculture accounts for 30-50 per cent of man-made greenhouse gas emissions – more than the total for global transport.2 Agriculture accounts for 50-60 per cent of emissions of nitrous oxide (N2O) and methane (CH4),3 which are both potent greenhouse gases: 1 kilogram of methane has the same impact as 21 kilograms of carbon dioxide (CO2), and nitrous oxide has 310 times the impact. Animal factory farms have the highest greenhouse gas emissions in the agriculture sector.4 Moreover, the potential impact of climate change on agricultural production is huge. On the other hand, some methods of sustainable and organic farming can reduce climate change impact while increasing resilience.5 One example is the sequestration of CO2 in fertile soils where the humus content is higher. CO2 from the atmosphere ends up in dead plant materials in the soil, where it is mineralized before being released again as CO2, but some of it is also stored in the humus for a long time. If the humus content increases, more CO2 will be stored in the soil than will escape. Studies have shown that soils on organic farms are richer in humus than soils on conventional farms. Furthermore, ploughless farming techniques can further increase CO2 capture in soils, because ploughs promote the breakdown of humus. Sustainable use of natural resources Not only are fertile soils crucial to mitigating climate change and building resilience for adaption to its


Image: Peter Luethi


Regeneration of depleted soil can reverse the loss of farmland caused by erosion

impact; they are also the key resource for agricultural production. However, land is becoming scarce, with increasing degradation due to unsustainable practices and growing global competition for productive agricultural land. Land degradation, and poor soil fertility in particular, is widely accepted as the most critical limiting factor in constraining agricultural production in sub-Saharan Africa.6 There are some 5 billion hectares of land presently available for the global food supply: 1.5 billion hectares of farmland and permanent crops and 3.5 billion hectares of grassland, grazing land and extensively used steppe.7 Of this land, 1.9 billion hectares have already been degraded to a greater or lesser extent due to intensive and improper use.8 Additionally, 10 million hectares are lost to erosion every year. The need to stop the loss of farmland is urgent, and this includes regenerating depleted soils so they can be uses in the future with sustainable production methods. Sustainable use of natural resources is also especially relevant when we look at the use of water in agriculture. Agriculture accounts for 70 per cent of global freshwater consumption today – yet it is possible to limit water use while still meeting global food and nutritional needs. In various regions such as India, China, North Africa and the Middle East, depletion of water resources is already a serious problem. Groundwater levels are falling rapidly. Further, groundwater resources are only renewable over the very long term, if at all. Climate change will exacerbate water shortages in drier parts of the world. Sustainable small-scale farming exhibits a great deal of potential with regard to reducing water consumption. Efficient irrigation systems – such as drip irrigation – could reduce consumption by several degrees of magnitude. Case studies in developing countries have demonstrated that water consumption can be reduced by 40-80 per cent,9 and in 2011 the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Green Economy report confirmed that production with sustainable methods, which is adequate to cover humanity’s food

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needs in the year 2050 with limited use of water, is now feasible.10 Biological diversity is crucial for sustainable food production, but it is currently shrinking. Over centuries, humanity has used over 10,000 edible plants: today we use only 150 and just 12 species make up 80 per cent of plant-based food production.11 The edible plants being grown are becoming increasingly similar to one another. The enormous wealth of cultivars that the world’s farmers have created through cultivation under a variety of conditions has shrunk in parallel with the rapid rise to dominance of a few globally grown high-yield cultivars. An estimated 75 per cent of all economically useful plant cultivars has vanished from the world’s farms.12 With every species that disappears, valuable genes are lost. Considering that 90 per cent of pest species have natural antagonists – predatory or parasitic insects –and over 100,000 species of pollinating insects provide their services to the agriculture sector, this matters a great deal. This is why diversity in the animal kingdom and plant species is an insurance against pest problems, and key to ensuring food and nutrition for all. A healthy environment, resilience to climate change, fertile soils, sustainable use of scarce natural resources including water, and rich biodiversity are the foundation for a secure food supply in the long term. Farms do produce a number of key ecosystem services that benefit society, the environment and the economy as well as agriculture itself, for example with pollination and natural pest control. Farmers can and should be supported as needed to assure that these ecosystem


Image: Peter Luethi


‘Push-pull’ technology helps farmers control pests and improve soil quality

services are maintained into the future, as our civilization depends on them. One way is to create incentives for farmers, and remunerate their efforts in maintaining ecosystem services. Transforming policies, governance and investments One example of an agricultural method meeting these challenges is the ‘push-pull’ technology for maize cultivation, developed by the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) in Kenya. The technology is widely accepted and adopted by smallholder farmers because it addresses their major production constraints. The key drivers of its adoption are the control of striga, stemborer and soil erosion, and the increase of soil fertility and fodder production. These combined benefits, together with the low cost of the technology, make it highly attractive to farmers. An impact assessment concluded that push-pull contributes significantly to reducing the vulnerability of farm families by ensuring higher yields. Of the assessed farmers, 75 per cent indicated threefold to fourfold maize yield increases and, more importantly, better yield stability.13 Furthermore, as push-pull does not depend on external inputs such as synthetic pesticides and fertilizer, it is an environmentally friendly technology that is likely to increase agro-biodiversity and contribute to provisioning of ecosystem services. With push-pull, ICIPE has developed the most successful and widely used intercropping system in East Africa and beyond, with current adaptations underway for more arid climates, focusing on millet and sorghum as the main crops. The agricultural sector represents countless interests; yet given its essential role in reducing poverty and achieving economic growth in developing countries, and in ensuring sustainable development, there is broad agreement among diverse stakeholders to transform our agriculture and food system. Efforts to upscale successful agricultural applications from the ground need to be combined with

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four efforts outlined below to transform global policies, governance and investments. First, to reach a breakthrough, the international community must take on the responsibility of working to strengthen these methods and develop an agricultural and food system that manages natural resources sustainably, advances resilience to climate change, improves food and nutrition security and benefits the livelihood of millions of small-scale and family farmers around the world. Seventy per cent of global food production is produced by 525 million small farms and there is significant potential to increase their yields and revenues using solely ecological methods. Numerous projects in the tropics and subtropics have shown that organic agriculture can generate 50-150 per cent more income.14 Small-scale farmers are actually able to nourish people in developing countries – without expensive inputs, forest clearing or destruction of valuable ecosystems. However, they need to be supported and sustained by the appropriate agriculture and trade policies and research, development and education institutions. Second, investment flows need to be redirected. In view of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, the UNEP Green Economy report calls for a sustained investment of 2 per cent of our global economic power to begin the transition to a low-carbon, resource-efficient world economy. Of this, US$198 billion – or 0.16 per cent of the global GNP – should flow into agriculture. The funds should be used to regenerate degraded soils, promote diversified farms integrated with crops and livestock, fight erosion, establish efficient


Image: Peter Luethi


The ‘push-pull’ approach reduces the vulnerability of farm families by ensuring higher yields

irrigation systems, support biological pest control, facilitate access to the market for small-scale farmers, and reduce losses between harvest and consumption. Third, to arrive at a truly sustainable agriculture and food system, it is essential to look at the entire food value chain – from production to consumption. There are enormous inefficiencies in food use as post-harvest food losses and waste along the entire food chain account for at least one-third of all the food produced in the world. Moreover, the trend to eat more meat and other animal products will need adjusting, to improve both health and the global food consumption footprint. To produce a single calorie of meat, two to seven equivalent crop calories are needed as livestock feed. Finally, in view of the complexity of these issues, it is clear that coherent policies need reliable information support systems. The science-policy-knowledge link in agriculture and food needs to be strengthened. We need a mechanism that can deal with the changing needs in agriculture – one similar to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in climate policy, that will regularly inform governments, United Nations agencies and the global public on the situation and development of agriculture. An example of this is the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, commissioned in 2002 by the Sustainable Development Summit and sponsored by six United Nations agencies and the World Bank. The multi-stakeholder process was a great example of how to bring all interested parties together to analyse the status of food and agriculture and present a series of options for action to transition towards agroecological principles. For a follow-up of the assessments, mechanisms must be set in place and monitoring of progress and impact assured. A permanent assessment platform would be a one-stop shop where a broad range of stakeholders could discuss sustainable agriculture and food and nutrition security policies. The United Nations

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Committee on World Food Security has the potential to serve as such a platform. However, its mandate should be extended beyond food security policy, to include working towards the implementation of sustainable agriculture and considering sustainability issues in the realm of food security and agriculture. Setting the course The feasibility of such a paradigm shift and transformation of agriculture and food and nutrition systems was clearly demonstrated by the authors of the chapter on agriculture in the UNEP report. It visualizes the agricultural developments to be expected until 2050, given the prerequisites of a sustainable agricultural model and the investment suggestions from the Stern report, and contrasts it with the ‘business as usual’ scenario in which the current agricultural policy would continue unchanged. The superiority of the sustainability scenario is impressive, allowing for an increase in food availability from its current 2,800 calories per person per day to 3,380 calories. This should create an additional 47 million jobs in rural areas and thus effectively help alleviate poverty. It uses less water than today, whereas the baseline scenario would lead to a 40 per cent higher demand. It would also lead to a situation in which agriculture would no longer be an emitter of greenhouse gases by 2050. We now need to make the paradigm shift a reality to ensure a food and agriculture system that is resilient to climate change, restores soil fertility, reduces desertification and contributes to locally available sustainable diets for all. It is possible to nourish our people and nurture our planet, but we have to set the new course now!

Hans 4 Rio20