The panelists (f.l.t.r.): J.B. Penn, Klaus Josef Lutz, Ajay Vir Jakhar, Michael Windfuhr, Shenggen Fan.
Photo: GFFA / Nils Krüger

Sustainable intensification – (how) can it work?

With the bioeconomy being hailed world-wide as a viable concept, the demand for agricultural raw materials is on the increase as well. The challenges that this poses for the agriculture and food branch were discussed at the International Business Panel in Berlin, Germany, in mid-January 2015.

Is the bioeconomy the right approach to future world-wide agricultural production? Is it also a viable concept for the countries suffering from hunger and malnutrition? And what framework conditions are needed to protect the natural resources when implementing the concept? These questions were at the centre of this year’s International Business Panel, organised by the Global Forum for Food and Agriculture (GFFA), reg. Ass., in Berlin in mid-January.

Producing more, and better, with less

Shenggen Fan, Director General of the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), once again demonstrated the dimensions of the challenges to the participants. Not only will the world be inhabited by an estimated nine billion people by 2050, but per capita calorie consumption is expected to increase as well. This coincides with an enormous demand for land, feed, water and energy. Whereas 5,100 square metres was still available to each of the world’s citizens in 1950, this area is set to drop to a mere 2,000 square metres by 2050. Today, 30 per cent of the world-wide gross domestic product is produced in water-stressed regions, a figure that is to rise to more than 50 per cent by 2050. At the same time, up to seven per cent of the world-wide gross domestic product is lost through so-called hidden hunger, i.e. malnutrition, from which more than two billion people are suffering. “We have to produce more with fewer resources and lower levels of carbon emissions – not just more food, but also more nutritious food,” Fan explained, summing up the challenge ahead.
Various practices exist on the production side to achieve this that ought to be combined with one another, such as no till agriculture, improving nitrogen-use efficiency and the growing of drought-tolerant varieties. However, Fan points out that in addition, changes are above all needed at the political and institutional level. For example, food prices ought to reflect the real costs of natural resource use. As long as resources like water and energy were free of charge, he argued in Berlin, there was no need to save on them. Fan also recommended that subsidies be converted from staple crops to investments to more nutritious crops such as vegetables and fruits. Furthermore, a fiscal policy ought to be employed that promoted sustainable, healthy diets. Unhealthy foods should be taxed, whereas nutrient-rich foods should be subsidised. In all considerations, food and nutrition security should always be at the top of the agenda.

Don’t forget the most marginalised

J. B. Penn, Chief Economist of John Deere & Company, is reckoning with tremendous increases in agricultural productivity in the future. For this purpose, Penn maintained in Berlin, it was necessary to promote innovation and see to it that knowledge and knowhow also reached the farmers. In many countries throughout the world, smallholders had no access to modern technology. But above all, those countries requiring a further development of their agricultural production had to improve the investment climate. Michael Windfuhr, Deputy Director of the German Institute for Human Rights, urged that such investments should not focus solely on the high potential areas. Many farmers were living in difficult conditions in marginal areas. These areas also had to see development. At the same time, it had to be ensured that future investments would not have a negative impact on the living conditions of local people. Here, it was above all up to the governments to protect people by establishing social security structures. However, the investors also bore responsibility – not only the multinational corporations but also those farmers who were investing. For example, they ought to commit themselves to not making use of child labour.

Not enough cake for all

The President of the Indian farmers’ association Bharat Krsihak Samaj, Ajay Vir Jakhar, reminded the meeting that productivity increases alone could not represent the solution to the problem. Many Indian farmers were only remaining in agriculture because they had no other income options, which was putting additional pressure on the other farms. “We want to get the people off the farms so that the existing farms become prosperous. This is why we must urgently create business opportunities outside farming,” Jakhar demanded. Eighty per cent of India’s farmers manage less than five hectares. In order not to jeopardise the profitability of farms, his association had called on the Indian government to no longer support individual farms buying agricultural technology but to offer incentives for the development of co-operatives and the use of services.

Not only relying on governments

Evelyn Nguleka, President of the World Farmers Organisation (WFO), seconded this approach. Her association, die Zambia National Farmers Union (ZNFU), had successfully adopted the “machinery ring” system of the German Farmers’ Association. “It does not matter how brilliant your technologies are; if we cannot reach the farmers, they are useless,” Nguleka said, adding that this also applied to the application of biotechnology. To many people, there was no difference between biotechnology and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). In Zambia, GMOs were a no-go area. However, with the aid of biotechnology, maize varieties had been grown successfully that ripened very early. “In this season, the rains set in almost three months later than normally. If we had had only one maize variety with a standard ripening period, this would have been a disaster,” Nguleka explained. However, budget cuts had a particularly severe effect on research in the country, which simultaneously impacted negatively on extension. For the farmers, it was often better to co-operate directly with industry.

Direct links to farmers important

Jürgen Leiße, Managing Director of Mondeléz International (formerly Kraft Foods) for Germany, Austria and Switzerland, gave an example of such co-operation. With its “Cocoa Life” programme, funded with around 400 million US dollars, the world’s largest chocolate manufacturer intends to reach a total of 200,000 smallholders in Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, India, Indonesia, the Dominican Republic and Brazil. To this end, the corporation seeks not only to raise the productivity of cultivation but also to support the sustainable development of communities, thus making cocoa-growing attractive to future generations as well. In Ghana, Leiße explained, the yields of the cacao smallholders had already been increased by 20 per cent, and their income by 200 per cent, between 2008 and 2011. “We used to opt strongly for co-operation with certifying enterprises, but their influence on the results is only relative. Now we are going for direct contact with the farmers in order to ensure that the money we spend is immediately spent on consulting and technology transfer,” Leiße explained.

The Global Forum for Food and Agriculture Berlin, reg. Ass., was founded by the members of Germany’s agricultural and food industry in December 2011. The founding members of GFFA, reg. Ass., are the Federation of German Food and Drink Industries (BVE), the German Farmers’ Association (DBV), the German Agricultural Society (DLG), Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH and the Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations (OA)

Author: Silvia Richter, editor, Rural 21

Related articles:

Rural 21 Special issue on Bioeconomy

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