On the third annual Agriculture and Rural Development Day taking place in Durban, South Africa on December 3rd, governments will be grappling with an apparently unsolvable conundrum; how to feed a world that recently crossed the seven billion population mark, while reducing the contribution of agriculture to global climate change?
The recent price drop of wheat, maize and other grains offers a much needed relief in a food crisis that has been going on for too long, and has left many people hungry or starving. However, in many countries, the price of some of our basic staples such as bread, rice, flour, milk and meat has continued to rise. And around the world, continuously unstable food prices are making it impossible to predict how much food will cost from one month to the next.
Many of the factors that contribute to hunger and unstable food prices are intimately linked to those that make the world’s farming systems ecologically unsustainable.
One big factor is oil. The industrial farming methods that are used to grow much of the world’s food are highly dependent on oil, not only for fuelling machinery but also to manufacture the chemical fertilisers and pesticides used to maintain high crop yields.
The use of oil in agriculture undermines soil health, pollutes local water systems and erodes biodiversity. Clearing land to make room for agricultural production replaces diverse natural vegetation with farms that grow just one crop. The oil that is needed to run farm machinery contributes, together with the inefficient use of fertilisers and animal feed production, to global greenhouse gas emissions and thus to climate change. Industrial agriculture also ties the cost of farming and hence food prices closely to changes in the price of oil, which have risen sharply over the past few years.
Food production has become increasingly globalised, and the road from farm to fork stretches around the world, with transport and refrigeration adding to increased levels of emissions. With a handful of corporations exerting a stranglehold over the entire supply chain, local communities are losing control over their food and farming systems, driving both hunger and environmental degradation.
In much of the developing world, governments and farmers are pressured by corporations and institutions like the World Bank into growing crops for export instead of for local consumption, usually using intensive farming methods that damage the local environment. With decreasing soil quality, rising costs of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, and giant corporations taking over the food market, small-scale food producers in poor countries are being hit with a double whammy of falling incomes and unpredictable food prices
The COP17 UN climate conference in Durban, South Africa, provides an urgently needed opportunity for governments to find a way forward. On 3 December, the focus of the conference will be on the contribution of agriculture to greenhouse gas emissions; as well as on the urgent need to help the world’s food producers adapt to the impacts of climate change. The simple fact is that the UN conference should focus on changing the way food is produced. There is overwhelming scientific and field evidence[i] demonstrating that farms that grow a mixture of crops while using ecological fertilisation and pest control methods can cut greenhouse gas emissions and produce more food. These ecological farming methods also reduce the dependency on oil, take good care of soil and water systems, and cut farming households’ costs while providing them with more food.
It’s basically a no-brainer. But the powerful corporate interests that benefit from the current system are trying hard to prevent changes to public subsidies, tax systems and agricultural research and outreach needed to foster the transition from intensive to ecological farming systems.
Greenpeace is campaigning hard in Durban and beyond to ensure governments start listening to sense when it comes to food and farming; for the good of people, as well as the good of the planet.
Dr Julian Oram is a senior political advisor for Greenpeace International
Report: Cool farming: Climate impacts of agriculture and mitigation potential
Note: [i] For example, see the results of two long-term studies on organic farming in the United States by the Rodale Institute and Iowa State University, a major compilation of recent trends and statistics and experiences in organic agriculture from around the world, and a study of yield potentials for organic agriculture in both developed and developing countries from the University of Michigan.
Photo: Local farmers begin harvesting the black rice variety of organic rice at the rice art field in Ratchaburi. Greenpeace is calling upon Thailand's government to protect the country's rich heritage and food crops from threats of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and promote sustainable agricultural practices to combat the impacts of climate change.11/21/2009 © Greenpeace / Athit Perawongmetha