An evergreen revolution in agriculture

Climate & Natural resources,Food Security04 Nov 2010Elwyn Grainger-Jones

There is lot more potential for agriculture to raise yields, cut waste and be good (or at least not damaging) for the environment. That seems to be a common theme emerging halfway through this conference.

This blog is part of the blog series about the ‘It’s Down 2 Earth’ conference on agriculture, food security and climate change held in The Hague between 31 October and 5 November 2010. The participants discuss the future of agriculture; how it can contribute to food security and be placed at the heart of sustainable development and poverty eradication – and still be an instrument to challenge climate change?

With the slew of worrying statistics on humankind’s impact on land and oceans, this is a refreshing message of hope and opportunity. Too often policymakers are confronted with a false choice between feeding their population and protecting the environment, without realizing there are ways to do both.

Conference sessions have shared an impressive list of approaches that can be used – agro-forestry, conservation agriculture, integrated pest management, watershed management, etc. And as much by coincidence as by design, these approaches typically reduce emissions.

I’ve heard many names this week to describe this growing toolkit – sustainable agriculture, landscape approaches, ecoagriculture, agro-ecological production, etc. IFAD’s President Kanayo Nwanze gave a keynote address on Monday morning where he called for an ‘evergreen revolution’ in agriculture to scale up such agro-ecological policies and investments. Calling for a revolution certainly got people’s attention. He proposed three main ‘planks’ for this revolution:

  • First, it must include smallholder farmers – and not as victims but as viable businesspeople. There are about 500 million smallholder farms, feeding about 1/3 of humanity.
  • Second, it must rapidly scale up successful sustainable agriculture approaches.
  • Third, it must be knowledge-intensive and community-led – empowering local communities to blend traditional knowledge with new, cutting-edge technologies.

Bob Watson also reminded us of the risks of focusing only on boosting production. Statistics on post-harvest losses and then the amount of food which is thrown away are shocking; according to UNEP, post-harvest losses amount to 13%, animal feed 25%, distribution 17.4%, so food left for consumption is only 43.5%).

But the obvious question is: if these approaches are so great, why are they not applied everywhere? There are many – often context specific – reasons.

Perhaps it’s part attitudinal – sustainable agriculture approaches are only now moving centre stage and becoming part of the orthodoxy, which is surprising given how countries such as Brazil have demonstrated the scope for scaling up these approaches (Brazil practices zero-till for about 40% of its cultivatable area).

Perhaps it’s about the way international discussions, government ministries and development finance are structured – issues are separated out from each other to deal with their intense complexity. This creates a disincentive for sustainable agriculture approaches. You can also see this in the way public finance is often provided according to particular global policy goals – biodiversity, emissions mitigation, adaptation, agriculture, health, agriculture production, etc. The reality in IFAD’s experience is that issues converge on the ground.

Perhaps it’s about understandable risk aversion and, in some cases, a lack of applicability. Imagine that you have been farming a piece of land for generations. Yields have been going down steadily for years, but you still have just enough to feed your family. Then you hear from an agriculture extension worker that if you plant acacia trees in your maize field you will be able to double or triple yields. You don’t have the small upfront savings to do this, plus you worry that any change in approach may fail, leaving your family hungry. This is where a small amount of development assistance can make a huge difference, by buffering the risk and helping governments support farmers so this works for them.

The presentations so far reaffirmed a sense I have about how we communicate the case for additional agricultural finance. We need to better explain how the agriculture sector is uniquely endowed with so many investment opportunities that can reduce poverty, increase food security and respond to climate change i.e. investing in agriculture is not just about (the important subject of) food.

There was also a sense that we can scale up sustainable agriculture investments now, even before the carbon market is developed further. Given the challenges in moving forward in negotiations, it may take some time for this to reward smallholders for their ecosystem services. In the meantime, there’s every reason to invest in multiple win programmes with smallholders – that’s what IFAD is getting on with.

The best visual analogy so far came from Ralph Ashton, who likened the challenge of climate change, food security and agriculture to a Rubik’s Cube. For those familiar with this mind-teasing game, it’s a cube where you need to align the six colours to the six sides. It’s easy to get one side right while mixing up the colours on the other sides. The hard part is to solve the cube by getting all sides right at the same time.

This blog was also published on IFAD’s social reporting blog.