24 December 2011

Food security has jumped up the agenda at Durban climate conference

The impact of climate change on food insecurity is creating growing interest in agro-ecological methods of farming at the COP17 climate negotiations in Durban, says UN advisor Olivier De Schutter

Olivier De Schutter | Ecologist | 7th December, 2011
Agro-ecological methods of farming have been shown to increase food production

The low-key nature of Durban’s COP17 climate talks has produced an unexpected silver lining. With a Kyoto II agreement seemingly in the deep freeze, a key issue has been allowed to fill the void: food security.

New studies from Oxfam, the FAO and the IPCC have painted a stark picture of how climate change is already wreaking havoc on the global food supply, and how much worse this could get. Endemic food shortages and famine are among the most shocking eventualities yet to be thrown up by climate change.

And shocked we should be, such would be the consequences of failing to act. 2010 saw drought in Russia, China and Brazil and flooding in Pakistan and Australia, severely straining the food supply and sending world grain prices through the roof. While this year’s drought in the Horn of Africa has created a humanitarian disaster in an already food insecure region.

These events provide crystal clear insights into the fragility of the food system, and how little it takes to send it out of kilter – and to consign millions more people to hunger.

This awareness of an imminent wholesale food crisis is needed to re-inject urgency into climate talks; but a continuous awareness of climate change is just as necessary in order to keep the food security agenda on the right track.

With food prices spiraling since 2008, a compelling discourse for raising food production is already firmly in place, driving a flood of interest and investment back into agriculture – particularly the ‘under-exploited’ farmlands of the developing world. According to the new orthodoxy, food production will need to be significantly ramped up in order to feed a growing world population, regardless of climate change.

But the danger of this discourse is precisely its indifference to how we produce, who produces for whom, and at what price for climate change and environmental sustainability.

Raising food production 70 per cent by 2050 is the figure habitually wheeled out. Fertiliser and pesticide-driven yield increases, coupled with the ploughing up of rainforests and other remaining carbon sinks, could just about squeeze the extra tonnage of food out of the earth before the self-sustaining capacities of ecosystems are fully saturated. But any approach of this nature is a race against time which will eventually be lost, and through which we will only accelerate the onset of climate change, and its potential to devastate harvests.

What is desperately needed is a change of agricultural paradigm.
The tragedy of rushing headlong into a second ‘green revolution’, where industrial solutions are sought on an industrial scale, is that other solutions are right within our grasp. Literally, in the case of COP17. As I saw first-hand this summer, Durban is at the forefront of a revolution in peri-urban sustainable agriculture. The city is developing a network of six agricultural support hubs to provide agro-ecology training, marketing tips and seeds to its community gardens.

Not far off the coast of South Africa, the food insecure island of Madagascar has shown the capacity to double or triple rice yields by following simple agro-ecological practices. Elsewhere, agro-ecological alternatives such as agro-forestry and integrated crop-livestock production hold real promise of rehabilitating struggling production zones and making them more resilient to the climate challenges to come.

These are diverse, local solutions, but are governed by the same underlying logic: they not only maintain and raise long-term food production, but do so in precisely the places where this food is most needed, and where the resilience of land to extreme weather is sorely in need of being rebuilt.

There is therefore a strong interest in tying the food security and climate change agendas inextricably together around the axis of agro-ecology. Despite the downbeat mood, Durban could chalk up significant progress in the battle for global sustainability, should these lessons be internalised and brought forward.

Big sums of money will most likely be transferred towards the developing world in the remit of food security and climate change initiatives over the coming years and decades. It should not be used to support models of land use and food production which continue to push nature’s self-sustaining capacities too far. Not when real agro-ecological alternativesare at our fingertips.

Olivier De Schutter is the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food

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