Priorities for the smart-agriculture agenda

News05 Jan 2011Evert-jan Quak

Before, during and after the conference The Broker asked participants to compile comments and their views on the issue. This resulted in a lively blog about the urgency of implementing a new agricultural model. An overview of the remarks made by contributors were published in the newsletter ‘Mondiaal’ (January 2011) of the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs, Agriculture and Innovation (EL&I). This article gives an overview of the remarks contributors made. A second article refers to the way how to move forward with the outcome of the conference.

Agriculture is back on the global development agenda. And if implemented in a smart way, the idea is that agriculture can help significantly to solve some of our global problems such as food insecurity, land degradation, poverty and climate change. In the past, the emphasis was on technology and knowledge exchange to increase productivity. But technology alone cannot fix a collapsing ecosystem, writes Girma Girma Balcha, director of the Institute of Biodiversity Conservation and Research in Ethiopia on The Broker blog. ‘Africa did not benefit from the Green Revolution. At present change in climate has its own negative effect on agricultural development. (…) We need to restore natural ecosystem in which smart agriculture is ensured by way of securing lands, forests, water, etc. In Africa, for example, we need Green Development, and this is the primary option to feed the growing poor population.’

The Farming First Coalition recognizes in particular the need to focus on farmers. ‘Farmers must be at the centre of our efforts to ensure that research programs, as well as training and other services, are effective and respond to actual needs.’ The future will require a mosaic of solutions to be applied, and efforts in research, infrastructure and services must reflect the fact that viable long-term solutions require collaboration between all groups involved and be localized and driven by farmers’ needs.’

The challenges for livestock production

Two side-events on livestock were organized, by FAO and by Agri-Profocus at the ‘It’s Down 2 Earth’ conference. These events yielded different – and in some way contradictory – conclusions. Read more in the blog written by Katrien van ‘t Hooft, ETC the Netherlands.

Additionally, she suggests that women farmers should become specifically targeted recipients of programmes and funding because of their vital roles in the agricultural workforce, household food procurement and preparation, and family unit support.

Menghestab Haile of the World Food Program liaison office in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, agrees. ‘Women’s role in agriculture encompasses the entire food system cycle starting from production to consumption,’ she writes. ‘Even though women do most of the agricultural work and managing the family food security their role in agricultural planning and national policy formulation is marginalized and their concerns are not taken into consideration.’

Haile continues, ‘Talking from an African perspective, it would be important to first understand and reflect on the current characteristics of agriculture and develop a community-led strategy to address the priorities of those communities urgently.’ For example for food preparation women require fuel – wood and water that they have to fetch. And this has a critical link with the environment and climate change issues.

At the conference, some enthusiastic voices were heard for inclusion of soil carbon in carbon markets, as Dave Gustafson from Monsanto writes in his blog. ‘All growers should be allowed to participate in carbon markets, and be explicitly credited for sustainable yield gains, which result in major avoidance of GHG emissions.’ Actually, the roadmap is more reserved, calling for carbon finance to be explored and for knowledge gaps in monitoring soil carbon to be addressed.’

But according to Richard Ewbank from the British development organization Christian Aid, the inclusion of soil carbon markets is not the solution for farmers. ‘While much is being made of its market possibilities, linking soil carbon and carbon markets is not the solution for mitigation or adaptation in the agricultural sector. The roadmap should facilitate a more balanced assessment of soil carbon trading which recognises both practical and strategic challenges.’

Ewbank continues. ‘Money from a speculative market is neither steady nor reliable, and could undermine food security and livelihoods in developing countries. Small-scale farmers and herders need stable, predictable and long-term support to achieve sustainable and resilient agricultural development, rather than resources overly reliant on volatile financial markets, creating yet another risk for them to manage.’

Heading for a quadruple win by including environmental sustainability

While the conference roadmap refers to the ‘triple win of climate-smart agriculture to face climate change and support agriculture and food security’, what about a quadruple win that also includes environmental sustainability and safeguards biodiversity. Read more in the blog written by Alison Rosser, PhD, Senior Programme Officer: Biodiversity, Biomass and Food Security of UNEP-WCMC

Another risk to climate-smart agriculture is patent rights. Ben Tax is director of Rijk Zwaan, a vegetable breeding company in the Netherlands. ‘Without plant breeding, food supplies would be immediately endangered which, in practice, would have consequences for the world’s very poorest people in particular,’ writes Ben Tax on The Broker website. ‘Yields need to be increased in order to be able to feed the growing world population; and pests and diseases come in never-ending, new manifestations, for which plant breeding offers solutions in the form of resistant varieties. Especially in developing countries, growers need such varieties in order to be able to build up a profitable business in times of climate change.’

Developing a new vegetable variety takes, on average, six to twelve years and requires huge investments. In order to be able to earn back these investments a special regime of intellectual property rights, the so-called Plant Breeders’ Rights (PBR), was created, which also contributes to more sustainable agriculture and horticulture. ‘PBR temporarily affords the developer of a new variety the exclusive right to market that variety. At the same time, other breeders are allowed to use the same variety in order to develop new, further-improved varieties. This is called the breeders’ exemption and ensures that innovation does not grind to a halt, but that competing breeders continue to vie with each other to develop ever better varieties.’

The Californian example

California developed an agricultural programme, the AgVision, with multiple cross-sector goals to bridge government agencies and industry. Read more in the blog written by A.G. Kawamura, Secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

However, in recent years, patent rights have appeared. ‘Patent law does not contain a breeders’ exemption. This has the effect that other breeders cannot use these plants any more for further breeding. For this a licence is needed, which can be denied or issued only under stringent conditions. This slows down the speed of innovation – not helpful at a time when all available innovation power in agriculture is needed. In my opinion, it is also highly undesirable that the law allows or even encourages monopoly positions at such a strategic place in the food chain.’

How do we bring such a diversity of subjects together in a farmer-based agricultural programme? One blogger, A.G. Kawamura, Secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, understands the problems because he works on an agricultural programme, AgVision (See blue box), which has multiple cross-sector goals, But a closer look at how to go forward with the roadmap and how to prevent the stalling of all the positive developments that could emerge from the conference in The Hague, will be outlined in the article ‘What’s the way forward?’.

See also:
The way forward
It’s Down 2 Earth