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Q&A: Planting the Seeds for Sustainable Development

Rousbeh Legatis interviews JOSÉ GRAZIANO DA SILVA, director-general of the Food and Agriculture organisation of the United Nations (FAO).

UNITED NATIONS, Jun 19 2012 (IPS) - By now, the dilemma is well recognised but hardly solved: as the global population grows, resources become increasingly scarce. Indeed, food production will have to increase by a whopping 60 percent by 2050 in order to meet the future demand for food and agricultural products.

Agricultural practises, naturally, are key to addressing this problem, and as such, play a key role in sustainable development. “We need to save and grow,” says José Graziano da Silva, director-general of the Food and Agriculture organisation of the United Nations (FAO).

Da Silva advocates for farming practises with increased productivity and a reduced environmental impact, such as “no-till farming, conservation agriculture and integrated pest management that allow for productivity increase but with a smaller environmental impact”.

José Graziano da Silva, director-general of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO). Credit: FAO News

“But we cannot have sustainability only in the production side,” da Silva adds. “We also need to look at food loss and waste. Between production and consumption the world loses or wastes over 1.3 billion tones, the equivalent of one-third of the annual food production.”

While food loss occurs mainly in developing countries and has to do with lack of adequate post-harvest facilities, waste is concentrated in industrialised countries where edible food is thrown away.

The FAO has introduced methods of sustainable crop production intensification (SCPI) in its guide “Save and Grow”. It focuses on sustainable intensification, meaning a productive agriculture that conserves and enhances natural resources.

IPS correspondent Rousbeh Legatis spoke with da Silva about current issues surrounding sustainable agriculture and development. Excerpts from the interview follow.

Q: A reversal of decades of land reform appears to be underway in recent years, with speculators and private interests taking control of perhaps 200 million hectares of land from poor farmers in Africa, Latin America and Asia. Should land rights be on the agenda of the Rio+20 Earth Summit?

A: Yes. Having rights of tenure recognised is one of the most basic needs for poor farmers worldwide. It is the minimum basis to encourage him or her to invest and to use natural resources sustainably.

Recently we took an important step forward in this, with the endorsement by the Committee of World Food Security of the specific guidelines on tenure rights in the context of food security. These guidelines represent a milestone. For the first time, governments, civil society and the private sector reached a consensus over a set of rules to ensure that poor families have their tenure rights respected.

Building on this foundation, we now need to tackle another challenge: the principles of responsible agricultural investment. While the guidelines provide an overall framework to ensure the good governance of tenure rights, the principles for responsible agricultural investment should guarantee that investments serve the needs of all stakeholders and enhance rather than compromise food security.

Q: If agriculture is a driver of sustainable development, why is this importance not reflected in the direct financial support and political commitment of the international community? How can such support and commitment be gained?

A: Food prices had been falling since the early 1970s, making agriculture unprofitable in many developing countries and forcing the world to get used to a just-in-time supply to be bought at international markets. The food crisis of 2008 was a wake-up call.

It is now clear to everyone that we need to invest in agricultural areas in developing countries, where over 70 percent of the world’s hungry population is concentrated. Among them are many of the world’s over 500 million small-scale farmers, most of whom depend on agriculture for at least part of their livelihoods.

Agriculture is a key part of strategies for sustainable development. But agriculture is practised by hundreds of millions of individual farmers, livestock keepers, fishers and foresters – most of them dispersed and often distant from political processes. They do not necessarily have the same voice that their urban counterparts do.

The recent food and economic crises have focused the attention of both national policymakers and the international community on the challenges facing agriculture and rural populations, so we now have an opportunity and an obligation to address those challenges, not only through financial support but also by making agricultural and food systems fairer and more efficient.

Q: The Rio+20 effort recognises that major changes are needed to the global food system, given the fact that more than a billion people go hungry every day. Do you think governments have the political will to look at real alternatives to a failed industrial agricultural production system?

A: We should avoid the perception that there is only one global agricultural production system – in fact, changes are needed in diverse agricultural and food systems at all levels and in all countries.

These include measures to increase productivity and reduce food losses and waste, for example, by establishing and protecting rights to resources, especially for the most vulnerable; incorporating incentives for sustainable consumption and production into food systems; and promoting fair and well-functioning agricultural and food markets.

National governments and the international community have demonstrated renewed commitment to addressing these challenges, and we need to continue pressing forward with such commitments and their implementation.

Q: What are the most pressing existing flaws in food and agriculture governance? Could you give concrete examples of useful Rio+20 outcomes that would overcome these over the next two decades?

A: Ultimately, success in eradicating hunger and the transition to sustainable patterns of consumption and production will depend on the decisions of billions of individuals, both producers and consumers.

Conditions and incentives that are conducive to sound decision-making will be needed, including mechanisms for identifying and managing trade-offs that can arise in pursuing these multiple objectives.

This, in turn, requires building fair and effective governance systems – systems that are transparent, participatory, results-focused and accountable – at levels from the global to the local.

We already have the technology available for more sustainable production, but small-scale farmers need help adopting them.

The transition from our current model of agricultural production to a sustainable one has a cost. In the past, the poorer have paid a greater share of transition costs and received a smaller share of benefits. This is an unacceptable imbalance and one that needs to change.

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