Global agriculture has reached a turning point. Without any major changes to our current production, distribution and consumption systems, it will be unable to feed the planet’s 9 billion inhabitants in 2050.
This was the background to the 9th Forum for the Future of Agriculture, shored up by a strong video message from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon: “True progress demands new food systems that focus on health, protect the environment, promote social justice, empower women, and advance development in communities,” he warned.
According to the head of the UN, all of this work will help to achieve the 17 sustainable development goals set for 2030 that were adopted by the UN last September.
An unsustainable food chain today
As many of the day’s subsequent speakers recalled, we simply cannot continue doing things the same way as in recent decades.
“The footprint of agriculture boggles the mind,” said Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General. “It consumes 70% of the world’s fresh water resources, 70% of the antibiotics, and, by some assessments, is responsible for 70% of the loss of biodiversity on our planet today.”
Similarly, Tim Benton of the Global Food Security Programme reiterated the fact that “our food chain’s carbon footprint represents one-third of all global greenhouse gas emissions.”
This assessment is further compounded by deforestation – the size of Greece each year – which is the result of agriculture that erodes and degrades the soil.
Promoting a new model thanks to technologies and small farmers
Moreover, the reason that agricultural practices need to change is because agriculture itself is an integral part of sustainable development solutions.
“It is essential to invest and create new products, technologies, processes and friendlier business models to support them, improve their resilience and enable them to produce more in a sustainable way,” said José Graziano da Silva, Director-General of the FAO.
And the sector has the capacity to do this. Bernard Giraud, Director of the Livelihoods Fund, said that “there is enough knowledge, technology and capital to develop a large-scale, impactful model. The biggest challenge is to give small farmers – who fulfill 70% of the world’s food needs – the keys they need.”
This opinion is shared by Shane Brennan, External Affairs Director at the CLA: “You can blame agriculture for this or that, but it will be agriculture that solves the problems, so we need to work with farmers on how we are going to meet the sustainable food challenge together.”
Bernard Giraud also said that it will be essential to develop investment mechanisms that are both suitable for the unique features of family farming and able to support large-scale projects.
Change will be impossible without collaboration
Above all, this new world order will require close collaboration between every player in the food chain. In addition to practical solutions for changing production methods, the participants argued for more contact between public and private – and also for a change in consumer behavior.
Jeffrey Sachs, Columbia University Professor and Director of the Earth Institute, successfully summarized all of these different points of leverage: “This is a profound challenge that will require the best of science, policy, business and civil society operating together in a bold and cooperative manner.”