How can the agriculture and food sector ensure future food security? And where do modern production methods reach their limits in terms of sustainability, climate and environmental impact, political, social and natural boundaries? These issues were discussed at the International Business Panel, held in the context of the Global Forum for Food and Agriculture (GFFA) in Berlin/Germany in mid-January.
Cornelis Pieter Veerman, Professor at the Dutch Universities of Tilburg and Wageningen, first referred to five factors that have a massive influence on agricultural development and food security world-wide: climate change, which is already resulting in agricultural yields decreasing in many regions across the world; drinking water, a natural resource that is becoming more and more scarce; the rising demand for energy; demographic development, which is leading to considerable changes in food demand; and geopolitical power relations, which are shifting in favour of Asia and to the detriment of the USA and Europe. In order to maintain global food security despite these changes, food production above all has to be raised where demand is growing most strongly, i.e. in Asia and in Africa. “Local production should be stimulated,” Veerman stresses. To achieve this, farmers and, in particular, women, who provide a major share of agricultural labour, must have access to mechanisation. In addition, Veerman called for a speeding up of spending on agronomic research and development. New technologies were needed to raise the efficiency of food production.
Modern = viable = sustainable?
Professor Matin Qaim of the University of Göttingen/Germany agreed, notingd that the share of undernourished people in world population had dropped from 21 per cent in 1990 to eleven per cent today. A major part of this success was thanks to productivity growth and increases in income in the agricultural sector. However, sustainable productivity growth was only possible if it was built on modern science, Qaim maintained, for often, low tech agriculture did not use natural resources sustainably. On the other hand, innovations could only work if the farmers actually applied them. “Why is fertiliser use first increased in Africa even though we now have more nutrient-efficient seeds?” Qaim remarked with regard shortcomings in technology transfer. “Farmers are by nature conservative,” Cornelis Pieter Veerman declared, arguing that this was because they could not enter risks given that failure could mean their being unable to produce anything the following year.
Farewell to the Africa cliché
Jean Kaahwa, a Ugandan farmer who is also on the boards of several young farmers’ associations, called on the participants to bid farewell to obsolete notions of African farmers. The latter were long in the process of shifting from subsistence to market-oriented farms; traditional ways of production were increasingly being replaced by inclusive business models. Moreover, many well-trained young people from the African middle classes were nowadays re-entering the agricultural sector because they regarded it as an opportunity to earn money. “It is not agriculture that young people are interested in but agrobusiness,” Kaahwa maintains, and can also present a solution to face structural change with: “Technology makes agriculture sexy!” And this solution has long been put into practice, for example through young farmers communicating on livestock diseases or crop pests via what’s app groups.
“Not cash is king, but knowledge is king,” Joris Baecke, former president of the European Council of Young Farmers (CEJA), declared. Sustainable agriculture was only feasible through sharing knowledge, through lifelong learning. He summarised what he understood by this hackneyed phrase in a brief statement: “To me, sustainable agriculture means that I will be handing over the farm in a better state than it was in when I took over.”
How to cope with environmental externalities?
Jason Clay, Vice President of World Wildlife Fund/USA, holds that one of the most important issues is how the ecological footprint of agriculture can be reduced. He stresses that after all, 70 per cent of biodiversity loss can be traced back to food production, and that the sector also plays a prominent role in water pollution and soil degradation. In his opinion, better management of natural resources has to go hand in hand with a reduction of food losses and more conscious consumption. A further approach he suggests to achieve sustainability is to pay farmers for environmental services, e.g. for soil carbon sequestration. Clay also reminded the meeting that the bottom 25 per cent of producers represented a mere 10 per cent of output but 50 per cent of impact on natural resources. “We should best invest in the ones most behind,” he demanded. Joachim von Braun, Director of the Center for Development Research (ZEF) at Bonn University/Germany, only accepted this from a humanitarian or hunger reduction perspective, but not from a growth perspective. “Such an approach will not facilitate feeding the world,” von Braun stressed. Jason Clay put his demand into more precise terms: “We will need to help these farmers get better or get out of agriculture.”
Silvia Richter, editor, Rural 21
More information:GFFA Berlin e.V. Website