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Page added on September 23, 2013

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UN report calls for transformation in agriculture

UN report calls for transformation in agriculture thumbnail

Transformative changes are needed in our food, agriculture and trade systems in order to increase diversity on farms, reduce our use of fertilizer and other inputs, support small-scale farmers and create strong local food systems. That’s the conclusion of a remarkable new publication from the U.N. Commission on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).

The report, Trade and Environment Review 2013: Wake Up Before it is Too Late, included contributions from more than 60 experts around the world (including a commentary from IATP). The report includes in-depth sections on the shift toward more sustainable, resilient agriculture; livestock production and climate change; the importance of research and extension; the role of land use; and the role of reforming global trade rules.

The report links global security and escalating conflicts with the urgent need to transform agriculture toward what it calls “ecological intensification.” The report concludes, “This implies a rapid and significant shift from conventional, monoculture-based and high-external-input-dependent industrial production toward mosaics of sustainable, regenerative production systems that also considerably improve the productivity of small-scale farmers.”

The UNCTAD report identified key indicators for the transformation needed in agriculture:

  • Increasing soil carbon content and better integration between crop and livestock production, and increased incorporation of agroforestry and wild vegetation
  • Reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of livestock production
  • Reduction of GHGs through sustainable peatland, forest and grassland management
  • Optimization of organic and inorganic fertilizer use, including through closed nutrient cycles in agriculture
  • Reduction of waste throughout the food chains
  • Changing dietary patterns toward climate-friendly food consumption
  • Reform of the international trade regime for food and agriculture

IATP’s contribution focused on the effects of trade liberalization on agriculture systems. We argued that trade liberalization both at the WTO and in regional deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) had increased volatility and corporate concentration in agriculture markets, while undermining the development of locally-based, agroecological systems that better support farmers.

The report’s findings are in stark contrast to the accelerated push for new free trade agreements, including the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the U.S.-EU Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which expand a long discredited model of economic development designed primarily to strengthen the hold of multinational corporate and financial firms on the global economy. Neither global climate talks nor other global food security forums reflect the urgency expressed in the UNCTAD report to transform agriculture.

In 2007, another important report out of the multilateral system, the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), with contributions from experts from over 100 countries (and endorsed by nearly 60 countries), came to very similar conclusions. The IAASTD report concluded that “Business as Usual is Not an Option,” and the shift toward agroecological approaches was urgent and necessary for food security and climate resilience. Unfortunately, business as usual has largely continued. Maybe this new UNCTAD report will provide the tipping point for the policy transformation that must take place “before it’s too late.”

Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy



11 Comments on "UN report calls for transformation in agriculture"

  1. IanC on Tue, 24th Sep 2013 2:49 am 

    Well, they’re right. No argument here.

  2. BillT on Tue, 24th Sep 2013 3:28 am 

    It’s already too late. Soils have been degraded to almost sand and require the help of Monsanto, Dow, etc. to even grow weeds in most of the world, especially the West. It would take decades to change farming just as it took decades to get to this point. Two words we will hear and see in the near future: Famine and Starvation.

  3. LT on Tue, 24th Sep 2013 3:46 am 

    Farming is always a hard work even with the help of machinery like tractors. However, that is not what farmers and peasants are afraid of. What they are afraid of most is the lack of water, the availability of water. In the West, no water may means no income, but in the East no water means hunger, starvation.

    No water (and land) = no food!

  4. GregT on Tue, 24th Sep 2013 5:02 am 

    If you believe that ‘someone will think of something’ and you are willing to bet your life that they will, no need to think about your future.

    Otherwise, now would be a very good time to take steps toward a ‘sustainable’ future for yourselves and those close to you. A really big clue; large cities are not sustainable.

  5. LT on Tue, 24th Sep 2013 5:32 am 

    Mr. GregT and Mr. BillT:

    We all know that the world’s current way of life is not sustainable. And many people advocate a “sustainable” way of life.

    We also know that the way the ancient people lived is sustainable.

    What I would like to ask both of you (if you two don’t mind) is what do you mean by “sustainable” way of life, especially in Canada and the US?, how is it possible for many people, not just for a few people?

    In my opinion, the only way to attain “sustainable” way of life is that land and land tax must be affordable for everyone who want to work the land. Unfortunately, this option does not exist today.

  6. GregT on Tue, 24th Sep 2013 9:28 am 

    LT,

    People that own and work bigger plots of land sustainably, need hired help. They need people to provide other services. They need community, for trade, security, and resilience.

    There is more to life than only producing, storing, and eating food.

  7. J-Gav on Tue, 24th Sep 2013 9:40 am 

    When even the UN comes out with such a wake-up call you know something is about to give.

    Here in France, over 95% of arable land has been trashed. It’s d-e-d, dead. As soil microbiologist Clause Bourgignon puts it: “We are no longer engaged in agriculture in this country, we’re just doing soil pathology management.”

  8. rollin on Tue, 24th Sep 2013 11:56 am 

    Hurrah for the UN, they are planning the first baby step toward a better world. I hope they realize it is just a first step and not a true solution.

    J Gav and BillT are right, the soil in many places is barren. It will take time, planning and research to bring these soils back to real productivity. Be prepared to live off your gardens and local farms for a while as we step by step help the large farms shift back to fertility. Some will have to go back to nature for a while.

  9. J-Gav on Tue, 24th Sep 2013 3:52 pm 

    LT – For an interesting take on tax structure, see Michael Hudson’s writings. He explains quite well how the rentier class, the FIRE sectors (Finance, Insurance, Real Estate), are freeloaders. Even exploitative extraction industries at least extract something of use to people (however destructive the process may be), but the only thing these birds extract is wealth – they should be heavily taxed, as should the multinationals who get away with paying minimal if any taxes. Restructuring the tax system would thus free up capital which could be used to promote small business, small farmers and the communities around them …

    I’m not saying this any silver bullet but it sure would beat what we’ve got now.

  10. bobinget on Tue, 24th Sep 2013 5:19 pm 

    Going back to animal powered labor isn’t feeding India or Pakistan or Bangladesh either. Despite the
    lovely cover photo we see no mention of oil.

    Unlike some posters here I’ve vowed be as positive
    as possible. The truth, and we all know this is true,
    food growing and oil are inextricably tied.
    I’m a farmer who has be able with the help of petroleum power to produce conventional and organic food for three decades.
    (organic uses twice as much diesel)
    Given an end of civilization choice between a kilo of gold or equal dollar value in diesel, comparisons end.

    HOWEVER if we had a methane digester and enough animal waste we could SUBSTITUTE that for diesel with a mechanical alterations. Then, it gets down to shlepping all that waste material to the digester, storing and cleaning up gas before we No Plow.

    I’ve seen food being grown in Ecuador on hill sides so steep farmers are regularly injured falling out of their fields. That kind of farming is called subsistence.
    North America simply cannot be fed by a subsistence
    model any more then our Pakistani teenager who will never get a proper education chained to his 12th century plow can grow enough food to feed his village.

    WE do waste energy farming in the US but I’ll blame
    politicians for creating corn ethanol, not farmers for taking advantage of oil shortages and using more diesel in the process.

    Here’s some good news By the end of this decade,
    compressed natural gas will be powering North America’s AG.

  11. DC on Tue, 24th Sep 2013 5:46 pm 

    If you want to ‘transform agriculture’, then the first step is to end corporate control of food.

    There is really nothing more to say. There will never be such a thing as ‘sustainable-ag’ with nestle, monsanto, cargill, ADM etc etc etc in control of world food production.

    What I read into this article is that its not ‘sustainable-ag’ thats the goal, but minor tweaks to the existing corporate food chain.

    All discussions about food always revolve around one thing-oil. But the real reason everyone gets hung up on oil is that its a way to avoid talking about the real issue. The need to de-mechanize agriculture. As long as everyone keeps saying “But But we NEED oil to farm”, then the real core issue of de-mechanization can never come up. To put it another way, contineued reliance soley on oil is a way of maintaining the corporate status-quo. Oil maintains corporate mega-scale mono-cropping. Remove oil(mostly) from the equation and you’ll see Ag-reform itself in a big hurry. Nothing motivates people like not beating after all…

    Keep insisting its oil or nothing on the ‘farm’, and all you will get is the same system we have now-at least until the soil becomes so dead even petroleum cant keep it ‘alive, or we run out of water etc. Of course, if we wait till then-it wont matter how ‘sustainable’ the successor to corporate-ag is, the soil will be dead anyhow no matter how well-intentioned people are.

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