Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Sustainable Agriculture: fact, not factoid

Factoids and facts. In the ‘Just Google It” generation in which we live, both proliferate. But an important distinction exists between the two. Factoids win you pub quizzes. Example One: 2010 was the International Year of the Potato. Example Two: almost a third of the 4,000 known potato varieties are grown in the Peruvian Andes. Facts, in contrast, demand that you get up and take action. Example: Peruvian glaciers above 5,000m (26,000ft) will have almost completely vanished by 2015. Why? Climate change. So what? No more potatoes.

It would seem a semantic distinction were the same story not being repeated the world over. The planet’s capacity to provide the food stuffs that keep us alive are under strain. Warmer temperatures and changing rain patterns are altering farming conditions and impacting agricultural productivity. Earlier this month, the New York Times reported on how Colombia’s coffee harvest is faltering because of higher temperatures and above average rainfall. That’s not just a worry for the country’s producers (many of whom are small farmers with diminutive incomes). It’s a concern for coffee drinkers too. Less supply means higher prices. Global brands such as Maxwell and Folgers have upped their prices by 25% since the middle of last year. 

Global agriculture is coming under threat just as demands on farmers are on the increase. Another jump-into-action fact: the world will have an extra two billion mouths to feed by 2050. And another: demand for agricultural products is expected to double over the same period. Without action, the prospect of food shortages looms large. Food price crises point to what could be around the corner. Over the last three years alone, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation calculates that around 40 million people have been pushed into hunger due to food inflation.

The business world is beginning to respond. At this year’s World Economic Forum, a heavyweight coalition of seventeen multinational food and beverage companies took the podium to call for a “New Vision” for the world’s farming and food communities. Their goal? Sure future access to affordable and nutritious food. Their ‘roadmap’? To be decided.

In the search for possible answers, Ethical Corporation’s latest issue includes a Special Briefing about how large food companies are responding to the pending agricultural crisis. Walmart, Pepsico, Unilever Coca Cola, Cargill and Nestlé are just a few of the enormous players in the food and beverage industry to have recently come out with big commitments around ‘sustainable agriculture’. Strategies range from improving farmer productivity through crop science to introducing environmentally friendly growing techniques (reducing soil loss, cutting back excessive nutrient use, minimising pesticides) and increasing the capacity of food processors (as in the case of General Mills' new 'Partners in Food Solutions' programme).

So far, no one solution has won out. That’s not surprising. Early experiments in sustainable agriculture demonstrate that the right answers depend on a host of factors (geography, soil type, crop variety etc). Nor are the solutions in the hands of private sector alone. World farming requires a complete ‘redesign’, according to the authoritative Foresight Project report ('Global Food and Farming Futures'). For that to happen, it will require no less than an overhaul in public policy, market and trade systems, and consumer behaviour. A fact to act on if there ever was one. 

n.b. as well as an overview of the issues underlying sustainable agriculture, Ethical Corporation's Special Briefing includesexamples of best practice from the food industry as well as an examination of partnerships with civil society organisations.

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