A New Vision for Sustainable Agriculture for Rio+20 Summit

A renewed global commitment to sustainability at Rio+20 will miss the mark if it does not explicitly address the needs and opportunities in agriculture.
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The new vision for sustainable development that will emerge this week from the Rio+20 Earth Summit must recognize the significance of agriculture in economic growth, food security, poverty reduction and long-term environmental sustainability. On June 18 in Rio de Janeiro, at the fourth Agriculture and Rural Development Day (ARDD), nearly one thousand people, half in person and half participating virtually, committed to work together toward a sustainable global food system. The event was convened by some of the world's leading agricultural organizations.

Watch: Sustainable Agriculture is Our Common Future

Participants heard that "the future belongs to the organized" and, according to Ann Tutwiler, deputy director general of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the leadership of the future will happen through networks like the one brought together for ARDD.

Sustainable agriculture must be at the heart of the green economy. Providing livelihoods and jobs for 40% of today's global population, agriculture is the single largest employer in the world. GDP growth from agriculture generates at least twice as much poverty reduction than any other sector. Rising food prices threaten the nutritional security of the 1.4 billion people living in poverty who spend as much as 70% of their income on food. It's clear that Kanayo Nwanze, president of International Fund for Agricultural Development, has it right -- we must transform subsistence farmers into farmers who make money.

To feed a global population of 9 billion people by 2050 will require a 60 to 70% increase in global food production and a 50% rise in investments in food, agriculture and rural development. Unabated climate change could cost the world at least 5% of GDP each year and seriously undermine the ability of small-scale farmers to provide food for their families and national and global markets. We must take heed of the reminder from Dyborn Chibonga, CEO of the National Smallholder Farmers Association of Malawi, that "the hand hoe is an instrument of mass urbanization" and step forward to develop and disseminate appropriate technologies for meeting gaps in yields, in livelihoods and in climate resilience.

More than a third of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions result from a combination of farming and land-use change. More global consumers are demanding climate-intensive foods such as meats and oils. As food production rises to meet global demand, agricultural GHG emissions are expected to rise by about 30-40% above 2005 levels. Every dollar invested in improving agricultural yields results in 68 kgC fewer GHG emissions. We must make these investments to rise to the challenge posed by Rachel Kyte, World Bank Vice President for Sustainable Development, to move beyond a 1950s-style approach to nitrogen fertilizers.

In its report on Achieving Food Security in the Face of Climate Change, the Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change made a clear case for significantly increasing global investment in agriculture and food systems. From the 1980s into the 21st century, there was a 22.5% decline in official development assistance (ODA) to agriculture that is only now starting to reverse course. The Commission has called for long-term commitments for financial and technical assistance organized around nationally owned frameworks and support for research, extension and infrastructure that enables vibrant, multi-benefit agriculture in different regions, farming systems and landscapes.

With leadership from Brazil and a number of other countries, the last 2 decades have produced solid evidence that the farming, livestock, fisheries, and forestry sectors offer lasting solutions to poverty and food and nutrition insecurity. We must help farmers to increase the production and marketing of a wide diversity of adapted and nutritious crops, through basic agronomic research, strengthened land and water rights, increased access to markets, finance and insurance, better access to advisory services and enhanced local capacity. And as former Irish President Mary Robinson, told us "social issues are not separated from technical issues and forestry, agriculture, nutrition, energy and land rights are interconnected." [watch Mary Robinson's talk: Science for the people: the climate justice approach]

Rio+20 must ensure the integration of agriculture, forestry and fisheriesThroughout the world, agriculture, forestry and other activities that meet human needs for food, fiber and energy are fundamentally and increasingly interconnected. Experience has shown that we must invest in an integrated landscape approach that improves agricultural productivity and rural livelihoods, while also addressing threats to forests, water, and biodiversity. Isolated solutions will not be enough. Brazilian Minister of Environment, Izabella Vieira Teixeira, called on everyone in the ARDD network "to move beyond silos." Landscape approaches require that we work across sectors and across ministries of finance, forestry, agriculture, fisheries and energy to achieve broader partnerships, coordinated regulatory frameworks and appropriate economic incentives. Harmonized forest and agriculture policies and scaled up investment can boost food production, biodiversity and carbon stocks by minimizing the harmful effects of agriculture on the environment through more efficient management of water, soils and agricultural inputs. Involving smallholders, especially women farmers, in policymaking can improve the resilience of food production.Rio+20 must commit to knowledge generation and extension for sustainable agricultureThe challenges facing the food system have become increasingly complex, but we have the tools we need. A sustainable, equitable food system will be knowledge intensive and we will need information and tools to "adapt and react to ever-changing challenges" as Carl Hausmann, CGIAR Consortium Board Vice Chair, encouraged us to do. To revitalize knowledge systems for large- and small-scale farmers, we must enhance interactions among land managers and researchers through education and extension services. Closing yield gaps while sustainably intensifying agricultural production on the existing land base is our best pathway to conserving the natural systems underlying agricultural productivity and human wellbeing. Brazil has set a target to reduce the agricultural sector's carbon dioxide emissions by 4.9 to 6.1% by 2020. Supporting scientific research is crucial. CGIAR has a realigned work program with a US$1 billion per year investment in sustainable agriculture.Rio+20 must establish a process to produce an SDG for sustainable food systemsTo get the full value of our investments in sustainability, we must be able to measure progress on the ground as well as track our collective progress toward a sustainable food system. The Rio+20 negotiations must support a process towards deriving a Sustainable Development Goal that integrates food security and social and environmental sustainability along with a clear mandate for quickly developing targets and indicators to guide progress. We need an explicit link between food security and the steps needed to ensure farmers can successfully meet food needs. For instance, farmers need access to value added and collective marketing options and rural women need secure land tenure. A clear commitment to sustainable agricultural systems that prioritize food and nutrition security will lessen the need for emergency humanitarian responses and enable resources to be directed to capacity building and preventive research.

Sustainable agriculture is our common future. We can minimize the environmental footprint of farming while increasing food production. There are many examples of success and a broad consensus on what it will take for agriculture, fisheries and forestry to be a central part of a transformed food system that meets food and environmental needs. A renewed global commitment to sustainability at Rio+20 will miss the mark if it does not explicitly address the needs and opportunities in agriculture.

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