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Food for all

October 14, 2011

Industrial agriculture will not suffice to provide food for a growing world population, say experts. Instead, sustainable and eco-friendly practices should be promoted. This requires a change of mindset in politics.

A pig in a field
Experts say incidental benefits of greener farming are under appreciatedImage: AP

One billion people on our planet don't get enough to eat. It's estimated that by the middle of this century, there will be more than nine billion people living on earth. Current agricultural practices are among the biggest threats to the environment.

This means that unless more sustainable approaches are developed, the planet will become even less able to feed its growing population. The equation 'more input equals more output' no longer holds true in agriculture.

Companies protest

Soy bean harvest
Big areas of land are used to plant animal feed like soy beansImage: DW-TV

When the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) was launched in 2008, it caused a stir.

The assessment was initiated by some of the world's biggest international institutions – the World Bank, World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization, the FAO – and it arrived at some uncomfortable conclusions for conventional agriculture.

The report suggested that eco-friendly agricultural practices and small-scale farmers needed much more support. It also issued a stern warning on genetic engineering as well as agricultural chemicals and the patenting of seeds.

Many members of the IAASTD were outraged and left the working groups - among them, chemical and seed processing giants like Monsanto, Syngenta und BASF. Some countries made it clear they did not agree with some of the report's conclusions.

Critics also alleged that the report was influenced by "certain ideologies." Three years later, things are different. Some of the report's conclusions have been recognized as fact by politicians worldwide, according to Tobias Reichert, a consultant for world trade and food with the non-governmental organization Germanwatch.

U-turn possible in EU

Tobias Reichert specializes in European agricultural politics, and has noticed the debate within the European Commission changing towards supporting more sustainable and eco-friendly agricultural policies.

In 2013, the EU will reform its agricultural policies and redefine the foundations of its agricultural subsidies.

Reichert says these changes alone would herald the start of a new era. The European Union has been subsidizing local agriculture extensively. According to Reichert, that has a detrimental impact on the environment in Europe because much of the subsidies go to industrial agriculture.

In addition, these subsidies also lead to an uneven distribution of food on a global scale.

Thousands of turkeys
The more the cheaper - but industrial livestock farming has other costs.Image: picture-alliance/Carmen Jaspersen

"There are two reasons why industrial agriculture, especially in Europe, has a negative effect on the global food situation: When you look at animal farming in particular, industrialization in the EU has led to the production of far too many animal products. That means that we've developed bad nutrition habits in Europe," said Reichert, adding that excess production also led to an oversupply of goods from the EU in developing countries.

Subsidized hunger

Consumption of subsidized meat and dairy products on the current scale leads to massive expenses in public health systems. Obesity has become a major challenge for Europeans and US-Americans in particular.

One billion people on this planet are threatened with starvation, while more than one billion people are obese.

Yet meat and dairy products are still heavily subsidized in industrialized countries. Excess products are exported - to other industrialized countries, to emerging nations or developing countries. It's impossible for farmers there to compete with the subsidized prices the EU goods sell for.

Ukrainian farmers protesting
Subsidized exports destroy local agriculture outside the EUImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The result? Exports from industrialized countries are destroying local agriculture - be it in Russia, Asia or Africa. In addition, jobs are lost and food insecurity increases in rural areas - where poverty rates are highest.

Biofuels on the rise

The system is also bad for the environment.

Forest land is cleared for animal feed and ethanol crops, because the meat and dairy industries need feed for their livestock - and because demand for biofuels is on the rise. That means soil which could be used to plant crops for food is lost, according to Todzro Mensah from the organization 'Amis de la Terre' in Togo.

In the African country, a British company is planning to lease 40 million hectares of land to plant Jatropha, Mensah said. Jatropha is considered one of the best candidates for biodiesel production. "Poverty is the main problem. It is all about fighting poverty," said the Togolese environmental activist.

Rethinking distribution

Lobby groups are therefore calling for an about-face in agricultural and development policies. For decades, rural development played a marginal role in international development policies, which were rather focused on promoting local industry.

It is cheaper to buy food on the world market than producing it locally. As a consequence, rural areas in particular are affected by poverty and hunger, and migration into cities continues to be on the rise worldwide.

Children in North Uganda
Poverty is largely a rural phenomenon - like in North Uganda.Image: DW

This mindset could be changing gradually: A number of African countries have announced plans to invest ten percent of their budgets into rural development. Projects to promote rural development are also being taken up in donor countries' portfolios again.

System change

The question is not how much but rather where the money is invested, according to Hans Herren, the President of the Millennium Institute and Deputy President of IAASTD 2008. Herren spent decades working in developing countries himself as an agricultural expert and suggests producing food where it is needed.

It is largely a political challenge, he says, because it requires a completely different agricultural system.

"We won't need these big seed companies who want to control everything…the farmers will be in charge in a system which is regenerative, sustainable, which will fulfill the needs of the people of the future."

That would allow for production of more and higher-quality food to a growing world population, Herren said, and would also have a lesser impact on the environment.

Report: Helle Jeppesen (nh)
Editor: Nathan Witkop