The panel (from left to rieght): José Graziano da Silva, Petteri Orpo, Elizabeth Mpofu ,Evelyn Nguleka, Christian Schmidt, Cornelia Füllkrug-Weitzel, R. Vasu Vasuthewan, Deon Nel, Dunja Hayali.
Photo: © BMEL / Julian Laidig

Future agriculture - sustainable provider of food, raw material and energy?

The future holds considerable challenges for agriculture. While it is to meet the demand for food, which is on the increase world-wide, it is also expected to make a growing contribution to a bio-based economy and a sustainable use of natural resources. The potentials and challenges of the bio-economy were at the centre of the GFFA Forums in Berlin, Germany.

“The growing demand for food, raw materials and energy: opportunities for agriculture, challenges for food security?” was the key topic at the 7th Global Forums for Food and Agriculture, held in Berlin, Germany, in January and attended by more than 70 ministers of agriculture and 1,300 participants representing politics, science and civil society.

The experts are reckoning with agriculture facing revolutionary changes since it is in the central field of tension of soon having to provide food for nine billion people and going easy on the natural resources of water, soil and forests while simultaneously making a growing contribution to a bio-based economy that has entered the global discourse referred to as the bioeconomy.

It was against this background that this year’s GFFA, introduced by Germany’s Minister of Agriculture Christian Schmidt, was held. He said: “The future is with the bioeconomy. If more people can earn an income in the world’s rural regions through the development and use of the bioeconomy, this will serve combating poverty as well as food security.” Schmidt added that a sustainable bioeconomy with a wide range of value chains could make a crucial contribution to food security, climate protection and the conservation of natural resources as well as to saving fossil resources for future generations.

Professor Joachim von Braun of the University of Bonn also emphasised the considerable opportunities offered by the bioeconomy. “We need a new relationship between humans and nature,” von Braun said in the panel discussion. “Energy consumption must no longer be the sole driving force. Instead, the focus has to be on creating products with an environmentally friendly footprint.” Finnish Minister of Agriculture Petteri Orpo added that 60 per cent of production was already bio-based in his country and that the bioeconomy was employing 300,000 people.

The President of the World Farmers’ Organisation, smallholder poultry producer Evelyn Nguleka from Zambia, stressed in the panel debate that smallholders were also offered a big opportunity to participate in the development of the bioeconomy. However, the precondition for this was that they were involved in the information and innovation cycle. To this end, strong political governance was required in the countries both of the North and the South. Ms Nguleka added that biofuel production need not necessarily have to compete with food production and called on politics and business to invest more in agricultural waste products for energy production, which would reduce pressure on the food crops.

According to Cornelia Füllkrug-Weitzel, Chair of the Protestant development organisation “Brot für die Welt”, growing interest in agricultural areas taken by countries like China and the Gulf states as well as business being keen to buy up large expanses of cropland, particularly in Africa, was one of the challenges posed by the bioeconomy. It was certainly more efficient to grow both a sufficient amount of food crops in large areas and to cover the bioeconomy’s demand with them. However, Füllkrug-Weitzel fears that this will be at the expense of millions of smallholders the world over who have been driven off their land, frequently without any compensation. She points out that it is precisely these smallholders who form the backbone of world-wide agricultural production. Not only Füllkrug-Weitzel but also other panellists see an urgent need for corresponding legislation both in the North and the South. The Voluntary Guidelines on land and natural resources introduced by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) have to be adopted in national legislation, Füllkrug-Weitzel argues, in order to tackle the uncontrolled buying up of land, so-called land-grabbing. This would above all help protect the land rights of the smallholders.

Food first....

... reminded Elizabeth Mpofu, Chief Co-ordinator of via campesina in Africa. She stresses the key importance of indigenous knowledge in sustainable agriculture and warns against sacrificing this knowledge on the altar of agro-industry. Farmers’ President Nguleka held against this argument that farmers had the right to gain profits through the opportunities offered by the bioeconomy, and that they needed to grasp this opportunity. Von Braun supported this demand by calling on the countries of the North to share the already existing technologies with the farmers in the South and thus not only improve the supply of raw materials for a bio-based economy but simultaneously make an important contribution to an efficient agriculture going easy on the natural resources.
Ms Nguleka added: “We have to see to it that farmers throughout the world efficiently manage their land. Agriculture is a business and not a hobby.”

Concluding the panel debate, FAO Director General José Graziano da Silva pointed to the great opportunity offered by the bioeconomy to make profitable use of the waste products resulting from food production. The transition to a bio-based economy must not proceed at the expense of a smallholder organic agriculture, da Silva stressed. But this was up to political governance.

Angelika Wilcke, Rural 21 Editorial Office 

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