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Agriculture and the green economy: the view from Rio+20

How do you make agriculture more sustainable? (© Neil Palmer (CIAT))
How do you make agriculture more sustainable?
© Neil Palmer (CIAT)

With the global population predicted to reach 9 billion by 2050, combined with the trend towards more affluent lifestyles, the need for economic growth is a given. But how to balance that growth with the already precarious state of our natural resource base?

At the Rio+20 Earth Summit, the development of a green economy was a central theme, with the agriculture sector pressing its case to be at the heart of that process. But is the notion of a green economy any different from the concept of sustainable development, and what role should agriculture play in achieving it? There is currently much talk of sustainable intensification, as the means to boost food production while protecting natural resources, such as land, water and energy. But what does this mean in practice, and where should investment be targeted to capitalise on the most promising opportunities?

These were some of the issues New Agriculturist raised with delegates at the 4th Agriculture and Rural Development Day, held as part of the Rio Summit.

How is the green economy different from sustainable development?

The term 'green economy' arose in response to the global financial crisis and carries in it the idea that capitalism can only provide for humanity in the future if markets incorporate environmental and social sustainability much more seriously than before. However, one danger is that some interpretations of the green economy divert attention from social issues to technical issues, and from governance solutions to (barely regulated) market solutions.
Sonja Vermeulen, Head of Research, CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS)

How do you make agriculture more sustainable? (© Neil Palmer (CIAT))
How do you make agriculture more sustainable?
© Neil Palmer (CIAT)

A green economy is more than sustainable development. It is an economy that pursues growth and development objectives while also promoting sustainability through more efficient use of resources. It is the focus on growth and on efficiency that matters here. For this to happen, innovations in biological sciences, in resource management, in agricultural practices and in economic and policy incentives will be essential.
Shenggen Fan, Director General, International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI)

I don't think the concepts behind the green economy are different from sustainable intensification, nor should they be different. The intention of this new terminology is not to divert the attention from sustainability issues but to put them in today's context of difficult economic times. In addition, the 'green economy' aims at re-focusing on the economic pillar, with growth and jobs at the forefront.
Morgane Danielou, Director of Communications at the International Fertilizer Industry Association (IFA) and Farming First spokesperson

I think the concept of a green economy is based on the principles of sustainable development in a way that emphasises the need for reduced carbon emissions, and that recognises the importance of ecosystem functions to human health and well-being. It's in this latter area that we are really beginning to look at how economic development and issues of food security can be achieved in harmony with, as opposed to against, nature.
Colin Chartres, Director General, International Water Management Institute (IWMI)

What is the role of agriculture in the green economy?

Agriculture is an important part of the green economy as a motor of rural development. Around 2 billion smallholder farmers living in developing countries produce about 60 per cent of the world's food, and agriculture is estimated to provide jobs for 40 per cent of the global population.
Dr. Emile Frison, Director General, Bioversity International

Sustainable production of nutritious food with equitable access to natural resources is the basis of any economy (© Neil Palmer (CIAT))
Sustainable production of nutritious food with equitable access to natural resources is the basis of any economy
© Neil Palmer (CIAT)

Sustainable production of nutritious food with equitable access to natural resources is the basis of any economy, the basis of any society. If we can't feed the world, we don't have a future on this planet.
Frank Rijsberman, CEO, CGIAR Consortium

The concept of a green economy presents an opportunity to reconcile economic needs with environmental concerns. Agriculture has immense potential in a green economy to address the unsustainable use of natural resources for food production. The key role of agriculture is to support much needed poverty reduction as well as food and nutrition security while improving efficiency of natural resources use.
Shenggen Fan, IFPRI

There is the opportunity for agriculture to be involved in helping to sequester carbon through improved farm management practices. We can be a player in the alternative fuels market and by using a combination of traditional agricultural approaches and modern technology we should be able to reduce undesirable effects on the environment.
Ron Bonnett, President, Canadian Federation of Agriculture

In agriculture, the green economy is all about doing more with fewer resources, decreasing our footprint per acre in terms of water, energy, soil and greenhouse gas emissions. These changes also lead to less pressure on land, helping us to preserve forests and biodiverse-rich areas.
Tracy Gerstle, Director of Global Policy, CropLife International and Farming First spokesperson

Progress in agriculture since Rio '92

In the last 20 years, the main agricultural strategy has been focused principally on intensifying production and has been successful mainly in producing more of the major staple crops. However, sustainability has not been a major objective and now we are seeing consequences in terms of lack of sustainability as well as malnutrition resulting from imbalanced diets which are rich in energy, but nutrient poor.
Emile Frison, Bioversity International

Modern plant breeding has helped increase yields (© Neil Palmer (CIAT))
Modern plant breeding has helped increase yields
© Neil Palmer (CIAT)

Farmers have continued to innovate in all kinds of impressive ways that have increased yields per unit of land, energy, labour and other inputs. However, yield increases per annum are declining and are being outstripped by the global shift towards richer diets and, to a lesser extent, by population growth.
Sonja Vermeulen, CCAFS

Modern plant breeding has helped increase yields; the importance of soil fertility management has become clearer; integrated pest management is being mainstreamed. Knowledge and policy options have also been generated with regard to sustainable and efficient use of water, land, forestry, and to protect biodiversity. But implementation of these policies has been hindered by lack of political will and weak capacity at the country and community levels.
Shenggen Fan, IFPRI

Since the last Rio conference we have made a number of steps towards a greener agriculture. We have a better understanding of our soils, and the interaction between soils, fertilizer application and productivity. However, increases in productivity have not been shared equally around the world. While most developed countries have seized new opportunities, many developing farmers do not have the access to the tools that could help lift them out of poverty and protect and enhance their soil and water quality.
Ron Bonnett, Canadian Federation of Agriculture

We assumed that the Green Revolution's productivity gains would continue indefinitely and consequently attention was diverted from agriculture and investment in agricultural R&D. Yield increases then started to stagnate as population kept growing. In spite of this we have continued to see major advances in irrigation technologies, crop breeding, integrated pest management and GMO technologies. However, the impact of agriculture on the environment has often continued to be overlooked.
Colin Chartres, IWMI

How to make agriculture more sustainable?

Agricultural biodiversity can play a key role in improving the sustainability and resilience of farming systems. We have seen a tremendous simplification of the production systems and our diets over the last 20 years. This model is not sustainable for our land and for our diets. In the next 20 years, if we want to improve lives, nutrition and sustainability at the same time, we need a different model of agriculture, based on broader use of agricultural biodiversity.
Emile Frison, Bioversity International

We need to achieve more crop per drop of water, per acre of land, per measure of inputs (© Neil Palmer (CIAT))
We need to achieve more crop per drop of water, per acre of land, per measure of inputs
© Neil Palmer (CIAT)

Enhancing sustainable productivity must be the centre of efforts to make agriculture both environmentally sound and economically dynamic - we need to achieve more crop per drop of water, per acre of land, per measure of inputs. This is essential to ensure the surface of land under cultivation does not expand, in order to preserve biodiversity and natural carbon sinks.
Morgane Danielou, IFA

To achieve sustainable intensification, we need to optimise water, crop and fertiliser productivity, reduce contaminated runoff and soil erosion, and maintain river and groundwater quality and quantity for the benefit of downstream users and the environment. This is easier said than done, but it is the challenge that we have to confront and we can do this safe in the knowledge that in the developing world there is major scope to increase yields towards biological potential.
Colin Chartres, IWMI

Challenges and opportunities for the future

The great opportunity for the future is to support farmers with large 'yield gaps' for whom small increases in inputs - often knowledge and research rather than chemicals or energy - will greatly improve yields.
Sonja Vermeulen, CCAFS

The greatest challenge for agriculture is to feed a bigger and richer global population, on increasingly degraded land, with less water, and in the face of more extreme weather events, while also being asked to provide more environmental services, more bioenergy and more raw materials for industry. Agriculture and farmers worldwide have the potential to come up to the challenge, but investments into research to develop new agricultural technologies, improved practices, innovative policies and better institutions are urgently needed.
Shenggen Fan, IFPRI

Will the need for increased productivity come at the expense of the environment? (© Neil Palmer (CIAT))
Will the need for increased productivity come at the expense of the environment?
© Neil Palmer (CIAT)

In developing countries with rapidly growing populations, the need for increased productivity may come at the expense of the environment. This doesn't have to be the case if we accelerate attempts to generate more energy for agriculture on farm via biofuels and biogas, recover urban wastes and reuse them as fertilisers, and invest in water saving technologies and conservation agriculture. However, the greatest challenge is finding the money to invest in these technologies, and the capacity building and support structures needed to facilitate their adoption.
Colin Chartres, IWMI

The transition to a green economy in agriculture requires supportive enabling environments that promote investments, entrepreneurship and innovation. It also requires a keen focus on inclusivity, ensuring that smallholder farmers and particularly women and youth are able to engage. Global trade rules need to be sensitive to these challenges and the WTO addresses this issue by supporting developing countries to invest public funds into agricultural crops important for food security and inclusive economic growth.
Tracy Gerstle, CropLife International

Date published: July 2012


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