Agriculture features prominently in the United Nations Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Global Sustainability newly released sustanability report “Resilient People, Resilient Planet: A future worth choosing” (PDF). The message is clear: agriculture is a fundamental component of sustainable development, and smallholder farmers can help the world achieve the necessary transformations.
The report is launched 25 years after the pioneering Brundtland Commission report, which first introduced the concept of sustainable development. The High-level Panel has formulated a new vision for sustainable growth and prosperity, and the mechanisms needed to achieve it.
Agriculture’s threat to sustainable development
The report concludes that today’s agricultural practices are far from sustainable. Increased dependency on fossil-fuel-based inputs - partly a legacy of the Green Revolution -- explains why the global land use sector contributes to an estimated 25–32% of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.
Even though yields are higher than ever before, increasing climate variability puts farmers at risk, which in turn might have negative consequences for production. Population growth is putting an additional pressure on resources; it is calculated that by 2050 the world will have to produce 70 percent more food. This means that in the years to come, we will have to find farming practices that protect and sustain ecosystems and biodiversity, while simultaneously boosting yields.
The problem, however, is that existing policies don’t sufficiently encourage existing sustainable practices that reduce the use of resources and emissions while protecting forests. Nor do they prepare the global agricultural sector for climate change. The scientific community can contribute a lot, and can spur policy makers into action. This echoes a recent analysis by international agricultural experts assessing food and farming outcomes from December’s climate talks.
Smallholder farmers: agents of change
According to the High-level Panel, one untapped resource is smallholder farmers, who have the potential to increase yields, stimulate rural economies and become export earners instead of only purchasing food products. To make this a reality, smallholder farmers need access to assets such as land and agricultural tools, markets, infrastructure and communication tools to check market prices for instance, credit and risk management such as crop insurance and social protection, as well as research and technology transfers.
The CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) promotes the potential of the small scale farmers and seeks continuously to focus on their needs within its research and activities. For example, see our latest work on climate information serivces for farmers, and research on mechanisms for agricultural climate change mitigation incentives for smallholders (PDF).
The CGIAR is a key player for sustainable development
The UN High Level Panel report mentions that the CGIAR is helping to lead research, policy guidance and knowledge-sharing in the field of agriculture. Together with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the CGIAR is seen as playing an increasingly important role for coordinated problem-solving within land management, water and agriculture.
Some of the U.N High-level Panel’s recommendations for agriculture:
- Governments and international organizations should work to create a new green revolution —for the twenty-first century that aims to increase yields (at least double) while limiting resource use and loss of biodiversity;
- Increasing yields should be done through scaling-up investment in agricultural research and development. Research should move quickly from laboratory to the field;
- Governments should work towards agreement on global principles for sustainable and responsible land and water investment deals, including ongoing efforts to promote responsible agricultural investment (RAI);
- Emphasis within RAI is on protecting the rights and livelihoods of poor people who depend on the basic resources land and water, while ensuring environmental sustainability.
Many of these recommendations resonate with the 7 key actions for achieving food security in a changing climate, released by the Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change in November 2011.