Sowing the seeds for a sustainable future

3 July 2013
ITC News
Enabling the world’s poorest growers to switch to more sustainable ways of increasing food production and agricultural productivity
Agriculture is a direct source of employment and income for millions of people – and a source of food for us all. With the global population expected to exceed 9 billion by 2050, we have no choice but to put agriculture at the centre of sustainable development efforts.

Agriculture already uses 11% of the world’s land surface for crop production, it is responsible for 70% of all water use, and it accounts for 14% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Maintaining the same intensive approach in the use of natural resources and chemical inputs to increase production would take too heavy a toll on the environment. We need to find different ways to produce what we need.

In 2011, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) launched the Save and Grow approach to help many of the world’s poorest growers make the switch to more sustainable ways of increasing food production and agricultural productivity. Through this approach, farmers in developing countries adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change, conserve and restore nutrients to the soil, and make greater use of natural or low-chemical methods for processes such as pest and weed control. Early trials show that growers can lower crop water needs by 30% and energy costs of production by up to 60%. Still, these gains will only go so far unless they are backed by solid and consistent support to improve the economic and social well-being of farmers and other smallholder producers who make up part of the more than 70% of the world’s food insecure people living in rural areas of developing countries.

Investment is key. Farmers in low- and middle-income countries already invest more than US$ 170 billion each year in their farms – or about US$ 150 per farmer. This is three times as much as all other sources of investment combined, four times more than contributions by the public sector, and over 50 times more than official development assistance to these countries. But the current level of investment is not enough and poor families who rely directly on agriculture, fisheries or forests for subsistence and income are often the most vulnerable. They lack adequate access to markets, infrastructure, financial services, resources such as land and water, training and supportive policies.

Truly sustainable development must address all of these issues, including the need for inclusive trade opportunities and support for smallholders who wish to exploit those opportunities.For example, FAO recently released a series of export marketing guides in partnership with Pacific Island Trade and Invest, a regional agency dealing with export facilitation, investment and tourism promotion. These guides walk smallholder producers through issues such as complying with government regulations in target markets, meeting industry standards, and assessing product demand and competitiveness for products like coconuts, coffee and peppers.

FAO also works with the governments of emerging countries to help their producers gain improved information on forest products trade and marketing issues. In the fisheries sector, we provide guidance to countries on clamping down on economically unfair and environmentally unsustainable fishing practices.

We are encouraged that governments are increasingly addressing such issues in their national frameworks and making use of regional and international mechanisms and organizations that support such processes.

In Africa, FAO provided support and guidance for efforts to boost intra-regional trade in strategic food commodities such as cereals, oils and fats, dairy, meat and meat products, sugar and beverages. Today, a variety of obstacles limit intra-African trade, and imports of non-African origin are filling gaps between domestic production and demand when they could be filled by tradable surpluses that exist within the continent.

On the regional and international levels, greater attention also needs to be paid to ensuring the inclusion of countries in processes affecting global trade, and the recognition of the interests of small-scale producers in those processes. Developing countries also need space to articulate trade policies that are compatible with national rural development and food security objectives. Without adequate support in accessing markets, domestic, regional or international, poorer farmers risk remaining food insecure.

Last year’s Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development sent a clear message about the link between food security and sustainability: we will not reach the future we want if millions of people are left behind, suffering from hunger and living in extreme poverty. This idea has also been underscored by the Zero Hunger Challenge, which was launched by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at Rio+20.

The seeds for a sustainable future are sown not only in the ground, but also through information, policy, trade agreements, and action at the local, regional and international levels. The fruits of these efforts will improve the lives of the most vulnerable, and they stand to benefit us all.