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New UN report calls for transformation in agriculture

Transformative changes are needed in our food, agriculture and trade systems in order to increase diversity on farms, reduce our use of fertilizer and other inputs, support small-scale farmers and create strong local food systems. That’s the conclusion of a remarkable new publication from the U.N. Commission on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).

The report, Trade and Environment Review 2013: Wake Up Before it is Too Late, included contributions from more than 60 experts around the world (including a commentary from IATP). The report includes in-depth sections on the shift toward more sustainable, resilient agriculture; livestock production and climate change; the importance of research and extension; the role of land use; and the role of reforming global trade rules.

The report links global security and escalating conflicts with the urgent need to transform agriculture toward what it calls “ecological intensification.” The report concludes, “This implies a rapid and significant shift from conventional, monoculture-based and high-external-input-dependent industrial production toward mosaics of sustainable, regenerative production systems that also considerably improve the productivity of small-scale farmers.”

The UNCTAD report identified key indicators for the transformation needed in agriculture:

  • Increasing soil carbon content and better integration between crop and livestock production, and increased incorporation of agroforestry and wild vegetation
  • Reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of livestock production
  • Reduction of GHGs through sustainable peatland, forest and grassland management
  • Optimization of organic and inorganic fertilizer use, including through closed nutrient cycles in agriculture
  • Reduction of waste throughout the food chains
  • Changing dietary patterns toward climate-friendly food consumption
  • Reform of the international trade regime for food and agriculture

IATP’s contribution focused on the effects of trade liberalization on agriculture systems. We argued that trade liberalization both at the WTO and in regional deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) had increased volatility and corporate concentration in agriculture markets, while undermining the development of locally-based, agroecological systems that better support farmers.

The report’s findings are in stark contrast to the accelerated push for new free trade agreements, including the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the U.S.-EU Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which expand a long discredited model of economic development designed primarily to strengthen the hold of multinational corporate and financial firms on the global economy. Neither global climate talks nor other global food security forums reflect the urgency expressed in the UNCTAD report to transform agriculture.

In 2007, another important report out of the multilateral system, the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), with contributions from experts from over 100 countries (and endorsed by nearly 60 countries), came to very similar conclusions. The IAASTD report concluded that “Business as Usual is Not an Option,” and the shift toward agroecological approaches was urgent and necessary for food security and climate resilience. Unfortunately, business as usual has largely continued. Maybe this new UNCTAD report will provide the tipping point for the policy transformation that must take place “before it’s too late.”

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