Friday, June 20, 2008

Unnatural roots of the food crisis

Gonzalo Oviedo
VIEWPOINT
Gonzalo Oviedo

As representatives of the world's governments gather to address shortages in major foodstuffs and rising prices, Gonzalo Oviedo counsels them to focus on ecosystems. The modern business-dominated agricultural industry, he argues, promotes the degradation of nature - and that, in turn, means less and worse food.

Rice sacks in Thai shop. Image: AFP/Getty
Four plant species - wheat, maize, rice and potato - provide over half of the plant-based calories in the human diet

Feeding the world requires healthy ecosystems and equitable governance.

The current model of market-driven food production is leaving people hungry.

It has turned food into a commodity subject to all the market failures that create inequities and negative impacts on the environment.

We have a global food crisis.

A myriad of events are convening the international community to reflect on the urgent situation.

Just in the past month, the UN Commission on Sustainable Development and the UN Convention on Biological Diversity focused considerable attention on agriculture and food security.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon created a special task force to respond to the crisis and soaring food prices.

And this week, in Rome, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is hosting a high-level summit on world food security, climate change and bioenergy.

But this crisis has been long coming. Unsustainable agricultural policies and technologies, inequitable trade rules, agricultural subsidies that distort the markets, and the systematic marginalisation of small producers lie at the heart of the problem.

In addition, there is chronic under-investment in agriculture in developing countries, and a real neglect of the basic premise that ecosystems have to be in good shape in order to provide good food.

Costs of production

The past 50 years have seen massive expansion of agriculture, with food production more than doubling in order to meet demand.

Red Irish lord. Image: AFP/Getty
Neglecting ecosystem concerns has provoked a fisheries crisis too

But it has left us with 60% of all ecosystem services degraded, accelerated species extinction, and huge loss in genetic diversity.

Currently, four plant species - wheat, maize, rice and potato - provide more than half of the plant-based calories in the human diet, while about a dozen animal species provide 90% of animal protein consumed globally.

We have already lost three-quarters of the genetic diversity of agricultural crops.

As the agricultural frontier has expanded, those farmers previously dependant on a more diverse source of livelihood have converted to cash crops.

As traditional varieties and breeds die out, so too do the traditional knowledge and practices of local farmers. Those same practices could now be critical in adapting to climate change.

The focus on agricultural commodities rather than on food production to meet the basic needs of people has undermined diversity and self-reliance, and left farmers vulnerable to volatile markets, political instability and environmental change.

Increased food production in some parts of the world has been at the expense of natural and semi-natural ecosystems that provide us greater long-term security.

In Britain, studies have shown that hay production is higher in meadows with a greater number of species.

Amazingly, there is very little attention being paid to what fundamentally underpins all of our food systems - biodiversity and the services provided by ecosystems

In Australia, crop yields are higher in regions where native biodiversity has been preserved.

In the seas, too, areas with a higher number of conserved species generate more fish for humans to catch and eat.

There are many other examples from land and sea to show that a healthy environment means more food and a greater capacity to survive natural disasters.

The current food crisis, meanwhile, will only be exacerbated by climate change, with southern Africa and South Asia expected to be particularly badly affected.

Market transformation

So what are the solutions to feeding a growing world population in the face of climate change?

We have been hearing about a Green Revolution for Africa, major irrigation and fertilisation programmes, genetically modified seed varieties, as well as banning the use of crops for biofuel production.

Amazingly, there is very little attention being paid to what fundamentally underpins all of our food systems - biodiversity and the services provided by ecosystems, such as soil, water and resilience to disasters.

We need to attack market failures and change the economic rules of current food production systems.

Hydroponic facility in Cuba. Image: AP
Developments such as hydroponics can reduce farming's use of resources

We must eliminate agricultural and fisheries subsidies that support elites in the North, and get rid of protectionist measures in OECD countries for agricultural products.

We have to allow for value-added trade for the benefit of the South, and expand fair trade and labelling processes that create incentives and add benefits to producers in the South.

We must change food production systems, moving from the existing model based on high inputs (such as fertilisers) accessible through markets, to systems based on locally available and more environmentally-friendly inputs.

We need to create alternative trade rules and circuits that reduce the payout to middlemen and big agribusinesses.

We must have greater investment, including by bilateral and multilateral development co-operation, to support food production systems that feed the poor and supply local markets.

The governance model related to natural resources has to change. We must expand small farmers' and landless peasants' access to productive assets in countries of the South - lands, water sources and fisheries.

There needs to be a shift away from the prevailing model of concentration of land in small groups of big landowners who are dropping food production for local markets and moving to big industrial production of commodities that produce no local benefits.

Gonzalo Oviedo is senior advisor on social policy with IUCN (formerly the World Conservation Union)

The Green Room is a series of opinion articles on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website

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