“The shift to low-carbon agriculture is becoming a matter of urgency,” says UN food expert

Statement by the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter, to mark World Food Day - 16 October 2010

GENEVA – “As the Committee for World Food Security holds its annual session in Rome and celebrates World Food Day, there is little to rejoice about,” says Olivier De Schutter, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food. “Almost one billion people are hungry on Earth. But the worse may still be ahead, since current agricultural developments are also threatening the ability for our children’s children to feed themselves. A fundamental shift is urgently required if we want to celebrate World Food Day next year.”

Current efforts focus on the provision of chemical fertilizers and a greater mechanization of production. “Such efforts are far distant from the professed commitment to fight climate change and to support small-scale, family agriculture,” De Schutter argues. “If we do not specifically target small-scale, family-based agriculture, the solutions pushed today by many public and private actors replicate a model unfit to cope with the climate change challenge.”

In addition, “giving priority to approaches that increase reliance on fossil fuels is agriculture committing suicide,” he says. “Agriculture is already directly responsible for 14 percent of man-made greenhouse gas emissions – and up to one third if we include the carbon dioxide produced by deforestation for the expansion of cultivation or pastures. As a result of climate change, the yields in certain regions of Sub-Saharan Africa are expected to fall by 50 percent by 2020 in comparison to 2000 levels. And growing frequency and intensity of floods and droughts contribute to volatility in agricultural markets.”
According to the UN expert, going further with the current approach would be “a recipe for disaster.” On the eve of World Food Day, Olivier De Schutter pleads for a global promotion of low-carbon agriculture – such as to combine crops, rely on agro-forestry and develop better water harvesting techniques: agriculture must become central to mitigating the effects of climate change rather than a large part of the problem.

There are promising alternatives to the dominant model. In Tanzania, the use of agroforestry techniques and participatory processes allowed 350,000 hectares of land to be rehabilitated in the Western provinces of Shinyanga and Tabora. In East Africa, push-pull strategies to boost maize yields and milk production benefited more than 10,000 households following town meetings, national radio broadcasts and farmer field schools. In Japan, farmers found that ducks and fish were as effective as pesticides in rice paddies for controlling insects, while providing an additional source of proteins.

“These low-technology, sustainable techniques may be better suited to the needs of the cash-strapped farmers working in the most difficult environments,” De Schutter noted. “They represent a huge, still largely untapped potential to meet the needs and to increase the incomes of the poorest farmers.”

“The classic ‘Green Revolution’ approaches should be fundamentally rethought to achieve this. But operating this shift requires that we think together climate change and agricultural development, when the two are too often dealt with in isolation from one another, left to different policy makers. We need to travel the road from Rome to Cancun – home of the next climate change summit in December.”

“To do so, we need to resist the short-termism of markets and elections. Development of longer-term strategies through inclusive and participatory processes could and should clearly identify measures needed, a clear time line, and allocation of responsibilities for action. That may sound utopian, but it is what a human rights approach to agricultural development would call for. What today seems revolutionary will be achievable if it is part of a long-term, democratically developed plan – one that will allow us to develop carbon-neutral agriculture and to pursue everyone’s enjoyment of the right to food through sustainable food production systems.”

The Special Rapporteur is currently in Rome, attending the first session of the Committee on World Food Security since its reform of 2009. He is available for interviews on the results of the session.

Olivier De Schutter was appointed the Special Rapporteur on the right to food in May 2008 by the United Nations Human Rights Council. He is independent from any government or organization.

Learn more about the mandate and work of the Special Rapporteur: http://www2.ohchr.org/english/issues/food/index.htm

For more information and press inquiries, please contact:
Rome – Olivier De Schutter (Tel: +32 488 48 20 04 / email: srfood@ohchr.org)
Geneva – Ulrik Halsteen (Tel: +41 22 917 93 23 / email: uhalsteen@ohchr.org)