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DEVELOPMENT: For a Greener Green Revolution

Paul Virgo

ROME, Oct 26 2009 (IPS) - A new Green Revolution that is truly green is needed to prevent efforts to eradicate hunger colliding with climate change goals, environmentalists say.

The first Green Revolution transformed agriculture in the 1950s and 1960s, when chemicals, irrigation and new crops were introduced to boost yields and help countries such as Mexico and India keep hunger at lower levels than would otherwise have been possible.

But this also came at an environmental cost which some believe would be unacceptable in the coming decades. The world now seeks to meet the soaring demand for food caused by population growth while at the same time taming temperature rises to prevent a global ecological disaster.

“The new Green Revolution must be really green,” Marco Contiero of the Greenpeace European unit tells IPS.

“The dominant industrial farming system that has caused hunger is based on fossil fuels – pouring nitrogen fertilisers into the soil, using herbicides and pesticides made from oil, emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere to transport food from one part of the world to another.

“The whole system supports greenhouse gas emissions. We need a paradigm shift in the way we produce, distribute and consume food.”

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has forecast that world food production must increase by 70 percent by 2050 to nourish a human population likely to reach 9.1 billion in the middle of the century.

The agency said it was “cautiously optimistic” this can be achieved if there are big increases in investment in agriculture in developing countries, which are expected to produce most of the planet’s extra 2.3 billion people.

Participants at a high level expert forum on feeding the world in 2050 at the FAO’s Rome headquarters earlier this month largely agreed, although many also shared Contiero’s concerns that the drive to boost production could conflict with measures to slow climate change.

“It is possible to meet the 70 percent target,” Dr. Jean-Luc Chotte of France’s Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (IRD) tells IPS. “But we need to change our ways in order to produce high quality food and take care of the environment too.

“We have to adjust local practices and to try to reduce the use of fertilisers, otherwise we will have an impact on the environment and greenhouse gas emissions will increase. There is a risk of making the climate-change situation worse, but it is also possible to address both issues, producing more and taking care of the environment.

“We should apply technology in developing countries, but we should adapt it to the local scale, the farmer and family scale, to take care of the impacts of these technologies on family budgets and the environment.” The 2007-08 spike in food prices, which led to a massive increase in the number of malnourished and was caused in part by competition for agricultural resources from biofuels, has already shown the risk that hunger and environmental policies could collide in a big way.

Agriculture currently contributes about 14 percent to greenhouse gas emissions (6.8 gigatonnes, or 6.8 billion tonnes, of carbon dioxide, CO2 a year), the FAO says.

Contiero says that figure rises to over a third if one factors in deforestation for cattle ranching, palm oil plantations and so-called slash-and-burn farming. This is because trees are 50 percent carbon and the CO2 they store is released when they are felled or burned.

But the FAO says the agriculture sector also has the potential to mitigate 5.5- 6 gigatonnes of CO2 per year, mainly through soil carbon sequestration in developing countries. Promoting agricultural practices that, for example, reduce the intensity of tillage so that more crop residue remains in the soil after planting can increase its capacity to capture and retain CO2 and act as a carbon sink, improving soil health in the process.

How humankind seeks to increase food production is therefore bound to have a major impact on climate change.

Contiero says food policies that do not pay sufficient respect to the environment will fail in the long term anyway.

“If we pollute the land and degrade soil, we are not going to be able to grow anything out of it,” he said. “With technologies, people are looking at how much one hectare of land can produce in a season. But the real question is not how much it produces in a year, but how much it produces in the next 100 years.

“Technology has a role to play, but we need technologies that maximise yields over many years and in climatic conditions that will vary much more because of global warming. We need a system based on modern ecological farming practices.”

The effects of climate change are already destined to affect food production, especially in developing countries. Therefore, an agriculture sector that is insensitive to this threat risks shooting itself in the foot.

“The scenarios thrown up by climate change are going to magnify the food security challenge,” Teresa Cavero, head of research at Oxfam’s Spanish section, tells IPS. “One prediction is that climate change will cause agricultural production to fall by 50 percent in the hardest-hit, most vulnerable parts of Africa. There are predictions that crop yields in South Asia will fall by 30 percent by 2050 and overall calorie availability will fall throughout the developing world.”

Dr Warwick Easdown of the Taiwan-based World Vegetable Centre agrees that a radical change of approach is needed.

“If it’s business as usual we’re going to get significant problems. If we continue to focus on things like producing more livestock and producing more grains for livestock production, this is a very inefficient way of producing food,” Easdown tells IPS.

“If we take the model from developed countries and put it in developing countries, we will miss out on those countries’ biodiversity, we will disadvantage smaller producers, and we will reproduce a style of agriculture that has not been kind to the environment.”

Easdown believes it is possible to achieve the necessary increases in yields in developing countries without relying on potentially harmful methods imported from the developed world to mass-produce a restricted number of crops.

“One of the problems has been that many of our agricultural ideas developed in the temperate world and have been transferred to the tropical world – the style of agriculture, ideas of efficiency, monocultures,” he says. “That works well in temperate areas, but when you go to tropical areas, you’ve got more pests, more diseases, more problems, and that style of agriculture does not work.

“We’ve got to learn from tropical areas where you’ve got a lot of small- holders. I work in Taiwan where the average farm size is one hectare and they can produce more than their capacity in vegetables, according to World Trade Organisation rules, and more than their capacity of rice.

“We can learn a lot from tropical areas, where there is a different focus – small-holders and very diverse, more ecologically balanced agriculture. The trouble is that the world’s climate will be more and more tropical. If we try and take temperate approaches and put them in the tropics, we’re going to end up with big problems.”

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