UN study: Sustainable ag needs a paradigm shift

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Producing more food is not the way to solve the world’s burgeoning population over the next 20 to 30 years, according to a new study published by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA). The study suggests that policy talks need to move away from the contention that “more production” is the answer. Instead, what is needed is a new perspective to meet the food needs of the world.

The study goes so far as to say the idea of producing more is outdated and unresponsive to current needs. It claims that the current path is creating its own set of problems for the world that hit the environment and health particularly hard.

Main actors in the agricultural sector are “not heading in quite the same direction,” the study says. Discussions are increasingly oriented toward ecological approaches, however many governments, international agencies, multilateral and bilateral institutions have been slow to respond to that rising dimension, while “a few food companies and NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] are taking the lead instead,” it says.

“Corporate power has grown to easily rival the influence and effect of the state, changing the dynamics of local and global food systems,” the authors say, and there is a need to have public policy and private sector investment choices integrated toward a common and shared good.

The study is part of the Sustainable Development in the 21st Century (SD21) project, which is implemented by the Division for Sustainable Development of DESA.

The study highlighted the top trends and challenges.

  1. We now face astonishing levels of waste, 30–40 percent of all food, and at every step of the food cycle.
  2. We are aiming at the wrong goal. For the first time in history, we have as many overweight people as undernourished people and the consequences of our emerging dietary habits are on a disastrous trajectory for human health and for ecosystem health. 
  3. Despite their increasing importance, the current trends in livestock and biofuels are likely to contribute to more food-related crises due to their inefficient use of food-related resources.
  4. Pressures on food prices are likely to continue since they are exacerbated by volatile market dynamics, inadequate global coordination and the multiple effects of population growth, energy markets, climate change, land degradation and water scarcity.
  5. Concentration in supply puts us at increasing risk. With more than 50,000 edible plants in the world still, over well half of our food comes from only three.
  6. Governance is shifting. The main actors are not heading in quite the same direction. Agriculture discussions are increasingly oriented toward ecological approaches that recognize the limits imposed by natural resources and toward improved social outcomes.
  7. Agriculture is one of the biggest threats to a healthy environment. It uses most of our available fresh water and some 20,000–50,000 km2 of potentially productive lands are lost annually through soil erosion and degradation, much of it in developing countries.

The study also pointed out the areas where leaders agree to focus. Nine key areas of consensus have emerged as the key paths of action:

  1. Organized small and medium farmers, fully including women farmers, should be a primary focus of investment – recognizing that private enterprise will play a significant role in many solutions.
  2. Define the goal in terms of human nutrition rather than simply “more production.”
  3. Pursue high yields within a healthy ecology – they are not mutually exclusive and policy and research must reflect that.
  4. Impel innovation and the availability of diverse technologies suitable in different socioeconomic and ecological contexts.
  5. Significantly reduce waste along the entire food chain.
  6. Avoid diverting food crops and productive land for biofuels, but explore decentralized biofuel systems to promote energy and livelihood security that also diversify and restore rural landscapes.
  7. Insist on intelligent and transparent measurement of results – we cannot manage what we cannot measure.
  8. Develop and adapt public and private institutions that can effectively respond to these new goals.
  9. Motivate and reward investments and business systems that result in measurable impacts to the “public good.”

To read the report, click here.  

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