Feeding people needs to be agricultural priority

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Until the current global grain shortage the issue of hunger had largely slipped from the rich world’s consciousness. But the food crisis being reported in our papers and on our televisions isn’t a strange blip that will go away. It’s a reminder that hunger is a real and persistent issue for the billion people worldwide who live on less than a dollar a day.

Malnutrition in mothers and their young children will claim 3.5 million lives this year and millions more will survive but fail to thrive because of chronic food shortages.

What’s more, progress in meeting the Millennium Development Goal of halving the number of hungry people by 2015 has been disturbingly slow and to make matters worse UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned that the global food crisis threatens to wipe out seven years of progress in the fight against poverty.

But there is some hope of a growing consensus that our business as usual approach to feeding the planet isn’t good enough. Last week, 54 countries backed by the World Bank and most UN bodies called for radical changes in world farming to avert increasing regional food shortages, escalating prices and growing environmental problems.

The report of the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development reflects a growing consensus among the global scientific community and most governments that the old paradigm of industrial, energy-intensive and toxic agriculture is a concept of the past.

The key message of the report is that small-scale farmers and agro-ecological methods provide the way forward to avert the current food crisis, meet the needs of local communities and safeguard the environment.

Such an approach would end the diversion of land and food crops to produce biofuels. But using plants to fuel our cars isn’t the only misguided agricultural development driving global hunger and deforestation which the international community needs to address.

In the past 50 years, worldwide meat production has increased fivefold and consumption has soared. At any one time we share the planet with nearly 1bn pigs, 1.3bn cattle, 1.8bn sheep and goats and 15.4bn chickens: twice as many as there are humans to eat them.

Rather than increasing our capacity to feed people, the growth in meat production is a serious threat to food security. Growing plants to feed animals, rather than humans, uses more land and water to produce less protein than growing plants for direct human consumption.

What’s more the demand for livestock feed and pasture is the single biggest driver of both deforestation and green house gas emissions, both of which are already impacting most on poor communities.

To have any hope of feeding the planet and protecting the environment we need to prioritise the production of food for people.

This is the first of the six pillars of food sovereignty, an approach which asserts the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.

The food sovereignty approach, which was agreed at an international meeting in Mali in 2007, in addition to focusing on food for people also:

Values Food Providers and respects their rights;

Localises Food Systems, bringing food providers and consumers closer together;

Puts Control Locally over territory, land, grazing, water, seeds, livestock and fish populations;

Builds Knowledge and Skills that conserve, develop and manage localised food production and harvesting systems; and

Works with Nature in diverse, agro-ecological production and harvesting methods that maximise ecosystem functions and improve resilience and adaptation, especially in the face of climate change.

There are thousands of food sovereignty activists, farmers and producers putting exactly these principles into practice every day. Along with the authors of the international agricultural assessment together they might just have the answer to both the problem of hunger and the environmental damage that old, industrial agriculture has inflicted on the planet.

Let’s hope so.

This was cross posted to Ode Magazine