On 17 March the United States Department of Labor reported that in February 2011, wholesale food prices experienced their largest one-month increase (3.9%) since 1974. The news followed announcements that the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization Food Price Index had reached the highest levels since its inception in 1990. Droughts in Russia and China, floods in Australia and unrest in the Middle East have all contributed to the inflated food prices that have pushed the world to the brink of full-blown crisis. This is particularly bad news for the 925 million people worldwide who are undernourished and for the 44 million people who have been driven into poverty since June of 2010 due to rising food prices. In response to the price inflation, the G20, led by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, has made food security a key priority.
In the upcoming year, Sarkozy has vowed to fight high food prices by increasing regulations to curb speculation in commodities markets through greater transparency. Speculative trading in commodities markets is widely thought to artificially drive up food prices, although no concrete studies have been able to link the two. In addition to market regulation, the G20 will reiterate the need for investment in agriculture.
Despite the positive attention paid to food prices, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to food, Oliver De Schutter, has stated concerns that the international community is overlooking root causes and long-term solutions. Regulation may decrease fluctuations in market prices in the short-term, but in the long run a greater crisis is looming: by 2050, agricultural output will have to increase by 70% to accommodate the demands of a world population of 9.1 billion people, up from 6.7 billion currently. Although output increases of 150% were achieved from 1962 to 2006, this was accomplished during the unprecedented Green Revolution, and the United Nations estimates that at best current technologies could increase yields by 50%. In the face of such shattering statistics, the G8 in 2009 committed to finding $22 billion to invest in food security over a three-year period. This year the G20 has “reiterated the need for long-term investment in the agricultural sector in developing countries”; however, De Schutter has noted “the most pressing issue regarding reinvestment in agriculture is not how much, but how”.
On 8 March, 2011 De Schutter presented a report entitled “Agro-Ecology and the Right to Food” at the sixteenth session of the United Nations Human Rights Council. The report advocates for agro-ecology and a right to food approach as long-term solutions to increasing agricultural yields. The right to food encompasses an individual’s right to “available, accessible and adequate” food. This right has been broadly recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 25), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (Article 11) as well as in human rights treaties protecting vulnerable groups such as women, children and the disabled.
Agro-ecology encourages availability, adequacy and accessibility through farming methods which increase agricultural productivity while empowering and improving the lives of small scale farmers and preserving ecosystems. This approach detours from industrial farming techniques that rely heavily on fuel and fertilizer and instead seeks to harness knowledge of natural processes to create agricultural systems benefit the environment while increasing crop yields and resistance to climate variations and pests. For example, in Malawi, farmers have planted “nitrogen fixing” trees that have reduced the need for fertilizer subsidies and have increased crop yields. In addition, in Asian countries, ducks and fish have been found to be as effective as pesticides in reducing insects in rice paddies. They also provide an extra food source for farming families and reduce weeding labor. A 2006 study of 286 sustainable agriculture projects in 57 countries cited in De Schutter’s report, found that the introduction of such techniques increased crop yields by 79%. In addition to increasing crop yields, agro-ecology focuses on small-scale farmers and their access to markets as well as the dissemination of their local knowledge to benefit others. The system thus targets the food supply of the most impoverished communities.
Agro-ecology and the right to food approach, if implemented, could offer a long-term solution to meeting the needs of the population by 2050. While focusing on the immediate problems of food prices and market transparency is necessary, the G20 would be irresponsible not to put tangible plans in place to prepare for the larger food crisis ahead. As stated by De Schutter, increased investment will not make a significant difference if the funds are continually funneled into unsustainable agricultural methods that do not benefit small-scale farmers.
In tandem with their current efforts, the G20 should make the implementation of agro-ecology through the right to food approach a core goal by investing in rural infrastructure and agricultural research, assisting in disseminating knowledge, supporting farmer’s organizations and networks and improving producer access to markets. Availability, accessibility and adequacy should thus be the core G20 approach to food and agriculture.
In addition, G20 countries should also consider practices in their own countries that could have a significant positive effect on the availability of the food. In his report De Schutter highlights the inefficiency of using grain to feed livestock for meat in developed countries and recommends reallocating that grain to the mouths of the hungry. Reports from the United Kingdom and France suggest that decreasing waste by extending “sell by” dates on food and accepting the use of genetically modified (GM) foods could increase the global food supply. As Sandrine Paillard, contributor to the French study stated “the world can properly feed 9 billion people by 2050, but it will depend on what’s on our plates and what is wasted from our plates”.
The G20 should thus redefine their approach to agriculture in terms of the right to food and agro-ecology and take a look within to see what internal practices could be altered to avert a crisis in 2050.