Sustainable Agriculture is the Only Future

Monday 21 November 2016

The majority of the world's farmers are small-holders, struggling to keep up with price fluctuations and shifting trends, as we all must. In many parts of the world climate change has begun to affect people's ability to grow food, while political upheavals, exponential population growth, mass migrations and competition for resources are all combining to make this a gut-wrenchingly interesting epoch in which to live. These challenges are facing us at a time when the natural world is going into free-fall. Natural systems are being debilitated by soil erosion, forest clearances, pollution and urban expansion, and all of this is exacerbated by global warming. We are permanently changing the make-up of our planet.

Meanwhile life goes on. Consumerism offers people everywhere a lifestyle choice in which they can avail of cheap food, goods and clothing. The trappings of success were never more affordable. Yet, the world is divided between those who profit from this arrangement and those who struggle to survive within it. Wealth distribution has never been more unequal. The highly competitive global marketplace is hard to regulate, so when authorities try to raise standards, companies simply move production to less restricted environs. The result has left many people scratching their heads. We saw how eager our own government was to try and prevent Apple from being forced to pay €13 billion in taxes, for fear of upsetting them. It's the same story the world over, as administrations bend over backwards to accommodate big businesses who have so much power. All of this is bad from a social point of view, but it is also dangerous from a future planning perspective, especially in terms of food security.

In 2013 the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) published a 341-page food security report which warned that “continuing rural poverty, persistent hunger around the world, growing populations, and mounting environmental concerns must be treated as a collective crisis.” It highlighted the fundamental importance of farming communities around the world to the safeguarding of human health everywhere. The report noted that trade deals seem to treat agriculture the same as any other industry, recommending “that [it] should strive to enhance productivity, based on specialisation, economies of scale and industrialisation of production methods. But this runs counter to the need for strengthening rural livelihoods, food security and such agricultural practises, which respect the planetary boundaries through enhancing the reproductive capacities, the latter being the essence of real sustainability.” Indeed, many trends seem to threaten the ability of mankind to feed itself into the future.

Climate Change is taking effect much sooner than expected. Professor Andy Challinor, from Leeds University is lead author of a recent study, said: “Our research shows that crop yields will be negatively affected by climate change much earlier than expected. Furthermore, the impact of climate change on crops will vary both from year-to-year and from place-to-place – with the variability becoming greater as the weather becomes increasingly erratic.” It had been thought that Europe's temperate climate could withstand a couple of degrees rise in global average temperatures, but Challinor's research casts doubt on this: “As more data have become available, we’ve seen a shift in consensus, telling us that the impacts of climate change in temperate regions will happen sooner rather than later.” The onus is on agriculture, as the biggest polluters, especially in the industrialised world, to come up with solutions. The UNCTAD authors outlined this in their 2013 study mentioned above: “It is necessary to rethink current food security strategies, including the role and system of agricultural trade in the light of global warming. [...] Agriculture has to contribute to mitigating climate change and must augment its carbon sink capacities, rather than remaining a major source of greenhouse emissions.”

So much for burying our heads in the sand. Ireland has become quite good at this. Last year we sought special dispensation for agriculture from our climate obligations. Concerned groups like Environmental Pillar, an association of over a dozen heritage and wildlife organisations, already lambasted our climate policies as unrealistic and aspirational to the point of indifference. We might rouse ourselves if a sudden shock comes along. This is not as unlikely as it might seem.

As most people are aware, food scarcity affects up to a third of the earth's population. At present, large food relief interventions are taking place in Syria, Iraq and South Sudan. While all of these crises have been exacerbated by human conflict, climate change has also played a part. As any historian will tell you, food security in peacetime is as essential to preventing war as any diplomatic mission. The French and Russian revolutions were both primarily about bread. We think of the political aftermath, with its proselytizing about the haves and have-nots, but those who tore down the Bastille were not thinking of liberty or fraternity, they were thinking about their bellies. These events were long ago and many would not consider them as examples for today, but the same rule still applies.

High wheat prices in 2010 and 2011 as a result of droughts in Russia, Ukraine, China and Argentina led to riots across South America. They also fuelled what we call the Arab Spring, popular revolts that saw the downfall of Gadaffi in Libya, Morsi in Egypt as well as the tragic ongoing civil wars in Yemen and Syria.

Conversely, when a population is well-fed you can just about do whatever you want to them and they won't resist you. Indeed, one of the results of international trade keeping food prices artificially low is that agri-companies are merging with impunity, while maintaining that false economy at the expense of farmers. Many people think this is also endangering our ability to feed ourselves into the future. According to the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES): “New technology and data-driven synergies could lead to three companies controlling 60% of seeds and 70% of agrochemicals worldwide with still greater oligopoly possible – a historic power shift throughout global agricultural inputs and even greater crop and livestock vulnerability through uniformity.” With less diversity on the business end, there's less need to invest in future proofing, Success seems inevitable. But this is not necessarily the case.

Former US Department of State Director of Policy Planning Anne-Marie Slaughter described in 2011 how the international diplomatic environment has changed in the last century: “The Cold War world was like chess. The 21st century world is more like tennis, where the wind, heat, possible rain delay and your opponent's relative health and form on any given day all affect the speed, trajectory and spin on the ball coming at you.” Slaughter says “food shortage, drought, migration and human security are issues in a society that can later unfold to big issues between states” but, she says, “food security lacks two important qualities to be taken seriously in Washington, D.C., she added: 'It's not immediate, and it's not sexy.'” But what is overlooked by many is that it does promise great returns on investment.

Indeed, it need not be costly, it can and should turn a profit. Research released by the Business and Sustainable Development Commission (BSDC) suggests that proper investment in renewable technologies and sustainable agriculture could be worth US$2.3 Trillion per annum. The report asserts that: “With an annual investment of US$320 billion, fully pursuing these sustainable opportunities would deliver a 7-fold return on investment.” Paul Polman, chief executive of Unilever agrees with the findings, based on his own company's experience. He said in a statement: “At Unilever, we have helped hundreds of thousands of smallholder farmers improve agricultural practices, enabling them to double or even triple their yields.”

Our preparedness for cataclysmic events is not what it once was. In the aftermath of World War II the UN began to store dried goods so that interruptions to crop production like war and natural disasters would not affect the ability of the planet to feed itself. Now there are too many people to store enough food for them all, or perhaps too little will-power to do it. We cannot rely on warehouses to get us out of a pinch. We must strengthen our own systems to be able to withstand the challenges ahead.

It is true that even conglomerates have individuals who also care about the future. It is not always apparent when we see, for example, what fracking companies are willing to do to get permission to drill, but occasionally business people remember we all must share the planet. Indeed businesses are beginning to lead on this and in some respects governments have fallen behind the trend, because of their affiliation with out-dated modes of thought. There is a hope then, that with studies such as that of the BSDC our leaders will see the growth and profitable potential of sustainable small-scale agricultural production, as it is our only hope for a secure and well-fed future. But we cannot rely on others to solve these problems and we must all think hard about ways to secure our future in these uncertain times.

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