Let’s all come Down2Earth

Climate & Natural resources,Food Security16 Nov 2010Nathalie van Haren

One thing that was persistently repeated during the ‘It’s Down2Earth’ conference about agriculture, food security and climate change, which took place in The Hague, is that we need a paradigm shift. Buzzwords like climate-smart agriculture, mitigation and financial mechanisms revolved as a mantra. While improving food security, agricultural practices and the livelihoods of small-scale producers through up-scaling local successes, advancing fair land tenure systems and eliminating distorting international trade policies received much less attention.

An exception was Louise O. Fresco, professor of sustainable development in international perspective at the University of Amsterdam, who warned that the world is experiencing more than a climate crisis. Agriculture should not only be addressed from a climate change point of view. Climate change policies will not tackle unsustainable agricultural practices, the global transfer of fresh water and nutrients from production to consumption areas and hunger and poverty in rural areas. According to her, we should refrain from concentrating on climate change only and look for integrated solutions for the global crisis.

Likewise, Robert Watson, professor of environmental sciences at the University of East Anglia, used the stage to focus our attention on the outcomes of the IAASTD (International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology Development). The IAASTD is an international evaluation of agricultural knowledge, science and technology, and the effectiveness of public and private sector policies and institutional arrangements.

He stated that the world needs affordable food for which the farmer gets a fair price, while practicing sustainable and climate-proof agriculture. To solve the food and agricultural crises, business as usual will not work. To fulfil our food and energy needs while conserving current natural resources, crucial elements are intensification of agriculture, improvement of tenure systems, access to financing services for small-scale producers, feminization of agricultural extension services (as 80% of African farmers are female and 80% of extension service personnel are male) and elimination of distorting trade systems. Therefore, the ecological footprint of agriculture worldwide needs to be reduced and it is imperative that small-scale producers are central to the discussion.

And that is the crux: farmers! Where were they in this conference? Only two farmers gave a presentation: Don McCabe from Canada (plenary) and Dutch dairy farmer Joop de Koeijer (side event). One could easily assume that the conference was talking about them rather than with them. McCabe articulated so eloquently why this was a lost chance: ‘Farmers all over the world want to feed their families and they all hate lousy policies. Good policies result in good practice, bad policies will be worked around. Therefore, involve farmers in policy discussions’. So, while this conference invited so many high-brow people to come to The Hague to talk about agriculture, food security and climate change, why didn’t the organization invite more farmers, and especially farmers from Africa, to share their views and solutions?

Although the conference had many interesting speakers and was certainly a great event to network, some observations can be made:

  • By failing to involve all sectors of civil society engaged on these issues, the real issues that matter were not discussed. The debate during the conference was largely about the rather perverse idea that developing countries should advance their agriculture in order to compensate the greenhouse gas emissions of developed countries. In doing so, the conference diverted the world’s attention away from food insecurity, unsustainable commodity chains and climate change hazards for producers in developing countries.
  • Tools and strategies that are needed to address food security, improving rural livelihoods and climate change have been widely discussed in the IAASTD and there are many successful initiatives endorsed by small-scale producers. How to bring these further, and how to scale-up these things happening in practice, remain key unanswered questions.

The conference talked about a paradigm shift. However, a paradigm shift involves a new system of models and theories and a critical mass that rejects the current paradigm. Therefore, we need the opinions of new thinkers and the innovative practices of do-ers in order to come up with real solutions. It seems that there is still a wide gap between talking about a new paradigm and actually wanting to walk the talk.