Un-sustainable agriculture – and what needs to change

March 29, 2011 3 Comments by Molly

Tomorrow the UK’s Chief Scientific Advisor will be in Brussels to speak to EU policymakers about the future of global agriculture. Sir John Beddington’s Foresight report came out in January to much acclaim. 400 experts from around the world contributed to this report, which takes a strategic look at the future of food and farming – and what we’ll need to do to address global challenges, like making food supplies sustainable & affordable, ending hunger, mitigating climate change’s effects and maintaining biodiversity.

Much of the press coverage focused on the fact that the report identified GMOs as one of the possible tools for meeting the world’s need for food – e.g., Genetically modified crops are the key to human survival, says UK’s chief scientist (The Independent),  2.4 billion extra people, no more land: how will we feed the world in 2050? (The Guardian), Britons must swallow fear of GM crops to feed world (The Telegraph).

But to say that this report is only about GMOs would be missing the point.  The report calls for a fundamental policy shift to ensure food security – we need to consider the food system as a whole and we need to make sure that important policy areas are interconnected, like agriculture and climate change.  Most importantly, we need “decisive action.”

It is a wake-up call of the highest order:  limited arable land + a need to produce more food = we need to act, now.   And our current food system, according to the authors, has two pretty important failings: hunger remains widespread and many systems of food production are unsustainable.

2009 report from the UK Royal Society puts the challenge very succinctly: “The global community faces an important choice: expand the area of agricultural land to increase gross production, or increase yields on existing agricultural land.”  If we do not increase yields on existing land, we have to be prepared for human & environmental consequences:  loss of biodiversity, damage to ecosystems and the production of more carbon emissions (and loss of forests!) through deforestation.

Just this week, Jeffrey Sachs, Columbia professor and special advisor to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, commented, “What we’ve not proved is that we can feed the entire planet on a sustainable basis for the long term.”

So what can be done?   They call on policymakers to:

1. Spread best practice.
2. Invest in new knowledge.
3. Make sustainable food production central in development.
4. Work on the assumption there is little new land for agriculture.
5. Ensure long-term sustainability of fish stocks.
6. Promote sustainable intensification.
8. Reduce waste – particularly in high- and low-income countries.
9. Improve the evidence base upon which decisions are made and develop metrics to assess
10. Anticipate major issues with water availability for food production.
11. Work to change consumption patterns.
12. Empower citizens

Are policymakers ready to make sustainable agriculture & food a priority, though?

Seed.Feed.Food’s ‘roving reporter’ Valentina will report back from the The Joint Research Centre and the UK Office for Science event with Sir John Beddington tomorrow & a breakfast meeting at BritCham, so do come back to hear what was said & whether the EU is really ready to prioritise sustainable agriculture.

3 Trackbacks

  1. [...] day in Brussels the issue of food security and future challenges for farming at the conference on ‘Future of Global Food and Farming’. The participants discussed the inefficiencies of the current system, both at the European and [...]

  2. [...] will need to live up to their commitments from the L’Aquila summit.  Last week, in a post on sustainable agriculture, I mentioned that noted economist Jeffrey Sachs is also calling for [...]

  3. [...] farmers’ yields without having negative impacts on the environment.  (I’ve blogged about this here).  Both the UK Foresight report on the future of food and farming and the Royal Society have said [...]

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