In the end it’s about poverty

Knowledge brokering03 Nov 2010Harm Evert Waalkens

The international conference in The Hague on agriculture, food security and climate change is in full swing. The Netherlands is hosting this conference, and has to be careful not to compromise its important position in the world of agriculture. The Netherlands is a major player in this field. It is the second or third largest exporter of food and food commodities in the world, not only because of the size of the port of Rotterdam, but also because of the country’s substantial food industry. So our role as an agricultural power should not be underestimated. In addition to this, we are a major force in the field of development cooperation, and should do our utmost to maintain this leading position.

The conference opened on Sunday with a spectacular show and the announcement of the agenda items. Henk Bleker gave his first speech as Secretary of State for Economic Affairs, Agriculture and Innovation, or, as I like to refer to him, as Minister of Agriculture. I recognized in him a cautious administrator. He referred too often in his speech to the necessity of taking action and showing leadership. Nevertheless, my political assessment is that the present government is not taking development very seriously. Of course, development cooperation is something we should review, but I believe we are well underway to modernizing this policy area.

On Monday morning, some eminent keynote speakers took us to the heart of the debate. Louise Fresco took ample time to explain once more that it really is time to make the connection between climate change, poverty and hunger, but also that it is not as straightforward as it may seem. Poverty and hunger will persist without climate change as well. This is a valid point, because international agreements to halve poverty by 2015 were already made some time ago. It was in 2000 that Evelien Herfkens, Dutch Minister of Development Cooperation at the time, made a strong case at the UN for adopting the Millennium Development Goals. By adopting these goals, the international community made a pledge that should be honoured.

Louise Fresco’s speech was provocative. She argued that poverty and hunger have always been here. The failure of the market, exasperated by political impotence or an unwillingness to act, has shown that we cannot or do not want to tackle this problem. And to make matters worse, the problem is currently more severe than it has ever been.

Her solutions are simple and understandable. Intensify production, use all technological means available – including genetic modification, if circumstances allow.

I was surprised that there was no reference whatsoever to the social-economical consequences of intensification in her speech. What does that mean for farmers and rural populations, and how will it impact their time-honoured traditions and cultures? Of course, we should cherish these traditions, but we should not cater excessively to them either. We should work side by side with the farmers to achieve more prosperity, focus more on generating income and strengthening rural-urban ties. It was all a bit too technocratic for my taste. The hurdles are often found in social resistance, and how to deal with it.

Still, I was impressed by Louise Fresco’s honesty and involvement in identifying available opportunities.

I am curious what is still to come at this conference, and whether it will yield a Roadmap for Action. Will we be able to put agriculture and food supply issues at the centre of the debate on climate change? One thing is clear, in any case: ignoring the role of agriculture in this policy field, as it was at the major climate change conference in Copenhagen, was a missed opportunity.

So, off to the next conference? I think not. Let’s roll up our sleeves, take the bull by the horns and show some leadership. The point is not to create models and reach agreements about funding and institutions. Hunger and poverty have to be eradicated. It concerns one billion of the poorest people on this planet who don’t know where their next meal is going to come from. Let’s make sure they find a way to survive and improve the prospects for the coming generations.