Agroecology: A Path to Realizing the Right to Food

Olivier De Schutter | 07.01.2011

Food First Backgrounder, Summer 2011, Vol. 17, No. 2

Agriculture is at a crossroads. For almost 40 years neither the private sector nor governments have invested in agricultural research. In recent years, agrifood companies have increased direct and vertical capital investment to lower costs and ensure the long-term viability of supplies. The global food price crisis of 2007-2008 is now pushing governments to act. However, these efforts to combat hunger and malnutrition will fail if they do not improve livelihoods for the poorest—particularly small-scale farmers—in developing countries. And short-term gains will be offset by long-term losses if ecosystems are further degraded, threatening future ability to maintain current levels of production. Simply pouring money into agriculture will not be sufficient; we need to transition to low-carbon, resource-preserving agriculture. The question is how?

Agroecology can help achieve this goal by significantly improving agricultural productivity in poor, food-deficit countries, while preserving ecosystems and improving the livelihoods.

A Diagnosis

The global food price crisis has led to calls for increasing production. One estimate is that there is need for a 70% increase in overall agricultural production by 2050 (Burney et al. 2010). This assumes meat consumption will continue to increase from 82.28lbs/person/year in 2000 to over 114.4lbs/person/year by 2050, with 50% of total cereal production going to increasing meat production (FAO 2006). Feeding cereals to animals instead of people will consume the annual caloric needs of over 3.5 billion people (UNEP 2009a). Agrofuels are also diverting cereal crops for energy.

Only by supporting small farmers can we help break the vicious cycle that leads from rural poverty to expansion of urban slums.

Today the main cause of hunger is poverty—not a shortage of food. Increasing incomes of the poorest is essential to ending hunger. We need to invest in agriculture, not only to meet growing needs, but also to reduce rural poverty. Because poverty remains so heavily concentrated in rural areas, GDP growth in agriculture is at least twice as effective in reducing poverty as GDP growth in other sectors (World Bank 2008). Only by supporting small farmers can we help break the vicious cycle that leads from rural poverty to expansion of urban slums. The loss of biodiversity, unsustainable use of water, and pollution of soils and water all compromise the continuing ability of natural resources to support agriculture. Climate change, with more frequent and extreme weather events such as droughts and floods and less predictable rainfall, is already impairing the ability of certain regions to feed themselves and destabilizing markets. By 2080, 600 million additional people could be at risk of hunger as a direct result of climate change (UNDP 2007).

Industrial agriculture contributes to climate change, accounting for at least 13–15% of global, man-made greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (Kasterine and David Vanzetti 2010). In fact, the intensity of GHG in industrial agriculture increases faster than its productivity. While agricultural emissions of methane and nitrous oxide grew by 17% between 1990 and 2005, cereal yields increased by only 6% (Hoffman 2010). Industrial agriculture is becoming more carbon-intensive. With no change in policy, the GHG emissions from agriculture could rise by 40% by 2030 (Smith et al. 2007).

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*Olivier De Schutter is the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food