RIO+20 and Sustainable Agriculture: How to Feed the World Without Wrecking the Planet?

In the run-up to RIO+20, the U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD), CGIAR, the global agricultural research partnership, issued a call to action. In this seven-point plan, CGIAR outlines how agricultural research for development can contribute to a more sustainable, food-secure future.

I interviewed Dr. Frank Rijsberman, the newly appointed CEO of the CGIAR Consortium, to find out how agriculture and the environment are now "best friends."

CGIAR is actively engaging in RIO+20, but is this conference not just "Same Story, Different Day"? What is the outcome CGIAR hopes for?

No, I don't think RIO+20 is "just another conference." It is the main venue where all involved in a sustainable future come together. Rio+20 calls for the development of a green economy, a call that resonates around the world. A green economy is resource-efficient, equitable and resilient. It aims to increase food and energy security, while maintaining or enhancing resilience. These are also the goals of CGIAR. The Rio+20 conference has a unique opportunity to contribute more directly to the future we want, by stressing the value of research into the sustainable and productive use of natural resources.

The conference recognizes the need for agricultural research for development: The Zero Draft of the conference's outcome document calls on "all states to prioritize sustainable intensification of food production through increased investment in local food production, improved access to local and global agri-food markets, and reduced waste throughout the supply chain, with special attention to women, smallholders, youth, and indigenous farmers." This is really the core of CGIAR's work, being a global partnership that unites organizations engaged in research for a food secure future.

Now, what outcome do we hope for? CGIAR believes there are no silver bullet solutions. We need to understand and manage complex agricultural systems at the landscape level, assessing not only the productivity of these systems but also their sustainability and impact on the livelihoods of the poor.

But RIO+20 is covering very diverse topics, from urbanization to disaster recovery, employment and green energy, and so on. How prominently is agriculture featured in all of it?

The preparations for Rio+20 have highlighted seven areas that need priority attention. CGIAR's main focus, "food security and sustainable agriculture," is one of those seven areas. But that does not stand by itself, as an isolated topic. We also intersect with other key areas. Let me just take one example: "employment": Did you know that agriculture is the single largest employer in the world? It provides a livelihood for 40 percent of today's global population. It is the largest source of income and jobs for poor rural households. We have similar overlaps with the other Rio+20 key areas: energy, sustainable cities, water, oceans and disaster readiness.

That makes sustainable agriculture probably one of the single most important elements for a sustainable future. It is crucial if by 2050, we want to feed a world population of 9 billion people, without wrecking the planet.

"Feeding the world without wrecking the planet"... but we are doing fine, no? I mean, the world's food production keeps on increasing.

Well, indeed the world food production keeps on increasing, but not at a rate sufficient to feed the growing world population. But you know, it is not just a matter of increasing food production. It is not just a matter of more "intense agriculture," using more fertilizers, more water. ... The real issue we need to worry about is "while driving up production, what are we doing to the environment?"

Take a real-life example of an important wheat growing area in Asia: Farmers, universities and the government worked together to increase the production. As time went by, with the climate shifts, the rain periods became shorter. Farmers now not only use more inputs -- fertilizers -- but also pump much more ground water than before, to sustain the production. It still works today, but if you see that in Gujarat, India, the ground water level has dropped 3 feet per year for decades, the current production levels can't be sustained. For that area, we would need to manage the water more effectively and possibly also shift to a crop that needs less water, grows faster, and is more resilient to the climate shifts.

Problems, problems... At times it might look like the future of agriculture is doomed.

Listen, the future of agriculture might look bleak if you look at all the challenges: Climate shifts, depletion of natural resources, desertification, the massive migration from agricultural productive rural areas to urban areas, where unemployment and poverty reign...

The challenges are enormous, and fundamental: If we can't feed the world, we don't have a future on this planet. Sustainable production of nutritious food with equitable access to natural resources is the basis of any economy, the basis of any society. These are central to the CGIAR agenda. And this is what we are pushing for in Rio+20. But we are not just painting a doomsday scenario. On the contrary, our message is: We, and I am not talking about CGIAR, but we, as in "the global community," we can change the tide, if we want to. CGIAR has a pivotal role in that: We are ready to engage with partners to provide the science-part of the solutions.

So, CGIAR comes to the table at RIO+20 with a set of solutions?

There are no silver-bullet solutions. In our "call to action," we propose seven points for how agricultural research for development can contribute to a more sustainable, food-secure future.

To start with, we believe in the importance of integrated approaches for sustainable development. The management of agriculture, forests and water must function in a far more integrated fashion than it currently does. A cross-sectorial approach will build bridges to connect institutional silos, and facilitate partnership among agencies across agriculture, community and rural development, energy and natural resources management, and disaster reduction.

What is the role of CGIAR in this?

Research generates science and technology based innovation that is at the heart of the solutions we need; it can also ensure that managers and decision-makers have access to the best possible information to make decisions, and it can support the integration of information across sectors. Research goes beyond technological solutions, however. We need to change the governance and sharing of benefits from a range of ecosystem services. Policies and technologies that improve agricultural productivity and profitability in the short term, may result in the expansion of agriculture into forests and grasslands, contributing to the perception that agriculture is the enemy of conservation.

At the core of your call to action is "sustainable agriculture."

Yes, huge opportunities exist to improve productivity to strengthen livelihoods while maintaining ecosystems. To meet the challenges of food security, while reducing agriculture's environmental footprint, more food needs to be produced using fewer resources and in a more effective and efficient way. While the evidence suggests that this improvement is achievable, it involves engaging with farmers and herders, but also with policy makers, to better manage the systems. For example, in Africa, it was found that the vast majority of cropland is rain fed, with only about four per cent of available water being captured for crops and livestock. Tapping onto this opportunity will not only need technical interventions, but also the right mix of policy incentives and coordination with other development activities.

It does look though, that gradually the amount of natural resources to produce more food is decreasing.

Yes, we need to fully capitalize on the opportunities to restore and better manage degraded systems. One consequence of unsustainable intensification is degraded environments and ecosystems. Currently about 2 billion hectares worldwide could benefit from landscape restoration. While the Rio+20 conference recognizes the challenge of desertification, especially in Africa, and the need to safeguard soil resources, a wide range of restoration options is currently available. A lot of the CGIAR's research aims at scaling out these options and encourage the adoption through community-designed programs.

"Community-designed programs"... focusing on small holder farmers?

Yes, contrary to the focus of the big agro-business, CGIAR concentrates on supporting and strengthening local production groups and small holders. Marginalized food producers, particularly women, need to be included more in the bid for sustainable development. They should be empowered to increase their production and marketing of a wide diversity of adapted and nutritious crops, many of which have been long-neglected by agricultural research. This empowerment can be achieved through a combination of basic agronomic research, strengthened land and water rights, increased access to markets, finance and insurance. While CGIAR concentrates on local research, we enhance local capacity -- where possible -- through community-based farmer organizations

CGIAR has always stressed the importance of biodiversity in agriculture. Was this not tackled in the first Rio conference?

Yes, the first Rio conference, in 1992, established a framework for the conservation of biological diversity. A series of negotiations and agreements since then resulted in the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA), which promotes not only the conservation and use of agricultural biodiversity but also the equitable sharing of any benefits that may arise from its use. As agriculture develops to meet the global challenges, the interdependence of countries, and the importance of facilitated access to plant genetic resources, will become increasingly obvious. Rio+20 should endorse the full implementation of the International Treaty, as a priority for all.

Will improved, sustainable agriculture be the solution for the recurring famines and food security crisis, we have seen?

This is crucial. The conference acknowledges the urgent need to create, strengthen and support safety nets and other programs to help vulnerable populations in all countries to become food secure. Robust emergency food reserves and financial capacity can quickly deliver humanitarian assistance to populations threatened by food crises. Funds that respond to climate shocks can provide rapid relief when extreme weather events affect communities. CGIAR agrees that all these activities are needed, in the current situation. We have, for instance, contributed to the development of climate insurance, like the Index-Based Livestock Insurance Project in Kenya.

But, more importantly, we also need to understand that a clear commitment to the integrated development of sustainable agricultural and food systems would lessen the need for food emergency responses, thus reducing the human toll of disasters and freeing some of the funds normally dedicated to disaster relief.

You, CGIAR, represent the largest publicly funded partnership for agricultural research. So, in one sentence, what is your message for the Rio+20 conference?

Producing enough food without destroying the environment is the greatest challenge facing humanity in coming decades. To meet that challenge, agriculture and the environment can no longer afford to be on opposite sides of the fence. In Rio we will have to show that environment and agriculture are now best friends.