Feeding the World Sustainably

The 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro was memorable for its landmark agreements to guide sustainable development worldwide. The first principle of the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development states: "Human beings are at the centre of concern for sustainable development. They are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature." Twenty years later we have yet to deliver on this fundamental principle -- too many people in this world are still not living healthy and productive lives in harmony with nature. Approximately 925 million people are suffering from hunger. We cannot call development sustainable if one out of every seven persons is left behind. At the same time there is hunger, which is senseless in a world that already produces enough food to feed everyone. Hundreds of millions more suffer from obesity and related medical problems.

It follows that eradicating hunger and improving human nutrition must be central to the Rio+20 debate. The upcoming United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development can and should provide the impetus for the world to feed itself more sustainably and more equitably.

The starting point must be the awareness that agricultural systems, which include non-food as well as food products, livestock, fisheries, and forestry, are the main source of food and income for most of the world's poor and food-insecure people, around 75 per cent of whom live in rural areas. Further, the millions of people that manage agricultural systems -- from the very poorest to commercial producers -- constitute the largest group of natural resource managers on the face of the earth.

Thus, agriculture is at the heart of the solution of the sustainability issue, contributing from the environmental, economic, and social sides. If we improve agricultural and food systems, we can improve the livelihoods and health of people, and produce healthier ecosystems as well. The dominant agricultural model we inherited from the Green Revolution of the 1960s, with its emphasis on a narrow range of crops and its heavy use of chemicals, energy and capital, cannot meet the challenges of the new millennium.

Cereal production doubled between 1960 and 2000, but at a huge cost. Collateral damage includes land degradation and deforestation, over-extraction of groundwater, emission of greenhouse gases, loss of biodiversity, and nitrate pollution of water bodies.

As well as affecting the environment and contributing to climate change, agriculture is also one of the sectors most affected by climate change, a phenomenon that isolates farmers, mainly small-scale ones, from formerly agricultural lands.

According to estimates compiled by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), by 2050 we will need to produce 60 per cent more food to feed a world population of 9.3 billion. Doing that with a farming-as-usual approach would take too heavy a toll on our natural resources. Thus, we have no choice but to embark on a greener revolution. We can sustainably increase crop production by using a range of techniques that are more in tune with ecosystems by minimizing the use of external inputs and by helping farmers cope with the weather extremes that increasingly accompany climate change, thereby enhancing their resilience and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This is a kind of farming that is useful and accessible to small-scale farmers by being adapted to the conditions they face with emphasis on local crop varieties, and harnessing traditional knowledge to sustain, rather than fight, natural ecosystem processes.

At the same time, we need to encourage intensive, industrial-scale farmers to greater environmental awareness. This can be done by providing the right incentives for sustainable practices, and penalties for unsustainable ones.

There is no doubt that we can increase food production to 60 per cent by 2050. However, we should not consider the 60 per cent number a foregone conclusion. We must work in ways to feed the world with less.

The truth is that the way we produce, process, distribute, and consume our food is profligate. Roughly one third of all the food produced in the world for human consumption every year -- approximately 1.3 billion tonnes -- is lost or wasted. Industrialized and developing countries squander roughly the same quantities of food -- respectively, 670 and 630 million tonnes.

Food losses occur mainly in developing countries, but this can be reversed by improving infrastructure and increasing investments in the production, harvest, storage, post-harvest, and processing phases.

Food waste is a problem mainly in industrialized countries, with retailers and consumers throwing away perfectly edible foodstuffs. Per capita waste by consumers is between 95 and 115 kilogrammes a year in Europe and North America. In sub-Saharan Africa and South and Southeast Asia, consumers throw away only 6 to 11 kilogrammes a year.

Saving part of the food we squander means we would no longer have to produce 60 per cent more. If we could reduce food waste and loss by roughly just 25 per cent, we would have additional food for about 500 million people a year. A move towards healthier, more sustainable diets would have multiple benefits for public health and environmental sustainability.

We cannot have nine billion people on an animal protein rich diet in 2050. It takes 1,500 litres of water to produce a kilogramme of cereal and 15,000 to produce one kilogramme of meat. Healthier diets will help reduce the pressure on our natural resources and respond to the problem of obesity, which is a growing concern around the world.

However, producing enough food to feed the world does not guarantee food security. Hunger exists today although there is enough food for all. Even if we increase agricultural output in 60 per cent by 2050, we will still have 300 million people going hungry due to lack of proper access to food. Access is central to hunger. Most often the reason people are undernourished is because they cannot grow enough food for themselves, or do not have enough money to buy it.

Intervening against hunger at the global level is important, but we must also act powerfully at the local level because that is where people live and eat. They do not eat in global markets. Over 70 per cent of the world's poor live in rural areas, and improving their livelihoods would be a giant step towards universal food security. If they produce, they can feed themselves and provide food for local markets. Strengthening cooperatives and farmer associations can help them better organize themselves, allowing them more access to opportunities than they would have as individuals.

One innovative approach that is being used increasingly is linking small-scale farming with cash transfers and cash for work programmes. This way, poor families can buy food locally from farmers. It also injects cash into local rural economies, helping to jump-start a virtuous circle in which people previously outside the economy become consumers thereby generating further growth.

It's a win-win solution, such as linking small-scale production with food purchase programmes like school meals. These initiatives provide a new perspective on rural development and food interventions, and move away from traditional emphasis on technology transfer and food aid. Rio+20 must result in transformational changes of mindsets, priorities, policies and investments, in order to put us on a sustainable development path in which the objective of food and nutrition security and a reformed agriculture and food system play a central role. This is a quest that is much bigger than FAO, the Rome-based United Nations agencies or the United Nations as a whole. A more sustainable and food secure future needs to be constructed by all of us, through a dialogue involving international organizations, Governments, the private sector, civil society, and other actors. There is a convergence in the agendas of food security, climate change, and sustainability which is key for a healthier future and one we must explore. Rio+20 offers us the opportunity to do so. We cannot let it slip between our fingers.