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Farming needs smart, sustainable solutions: Report

Richard Black, April 2 2012, New York Times News Service

Major changes are needed in agriculture and food consumption around the world if future generations are to be adequately fed, a major report warns. Farming must intensify sustainably, cut waste and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from farms, it says. 

The Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change spent more than a year assessing evidence from scientists and policymakers. Its final report was released at the Planet Under Pressure conference. The commission was chaired by Sir John Beddington, the UK government’s chief scientific adviser. 

“If you’re going to generate enough food both to address the poverty of one billion people not getting enough food with another billion (in the global population) in 13 years’ time, you’ve got to massively increase agriculture,” he said. “You can’t do it using the same agricultural techniques we’ve used before, because that would seriously increase greenhouse gas emissions for the whole world, with climate change knock-ons.”

Farming is probably responsible for about one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions, although the figure is hard to pin down, as a large proportion comes from land clearance, for which emissions are notoriously difficult to measure. 

Although there are regional variations, climate change is forecast to reduce crop yields overall – dramatically so in the case of South Asia, where studies suggest the wheat yield could halve in 50 years. 

“We need to develop agriculture that is ‘climate smart’ – generating more output without the accompanying greenhouse gas emissions, either via the basic techniques of farming or from plowing up grassland or cutting down rainforest,” Beddington said. 

The techniques needed in different regions vary according to what is appropriate, said Dr Christine Negra, who coordinated the commission’s work. 

“In places where using organic methods, for example, is appropriate or economically advantageous and produces good socioeconomic and ecological outcomes, that’s a great approach,” she said. “In places where, using GMOs, you can address food security challenges and socioeconomic issues, those are the right approaches to use where they’ve been proven safe.” The commission’s recommendations go a long way beyond farming methods, however. It says the economic and policy framework around food production and consumption need to change to encourage sustainability, to raise output while minimising environmental impacts. 

Farmers need more investment and better information; governments need to put sustainable farming at the heart of national policies. 

Professor Tekalign Mamo, who advises the Agriculture Ministry in Ethiopia, said models already existed for many of the transformations needed. One, highlighted in the report, is Ethiopia’s Productive Safety Net Program, inaugurated in 2003 with the involvement of the government and international partners. 

India’s guarantee of employment in rural areas, Vietnam’s progress with no-till rice farming (which reduces greenhouse gas emissions from soil), and moves to give women secure land ownership in five southern African countries are also highlighted in the report. But it also recommends changes in developed nations – for example, around food waste. Before last December’s UN climate conference in South Africa, the commissioners had advocated incorporating sustainable agriculture into the UN climate convention’s discussions. 

The commission was established by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, the global network of institutions working on food and poverty issues. 

The Planet Under Pressure conference is a gathering of academics, campaigners and business people in London designed to inform policymaking in the run-up to the Rio+20 summit in Brazil in June. 



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