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New Report Links Food, Climate and Agricultural Policies

September 24, 2011 (Un)Sustainable Farming, Environment, News 2 Comments

Jonathan Latham and Allison Wilson

Understanding of the ‘problem’ of agriculture took a giant step forward in 2007 with publication of the UN IAASTD report. This report, which was as important for agriculture as the IPCC reports have been for the climate, pinpointed a move to ecology-based agriculture as the key to meeting many other fundamental needs such as clean water, safe food and sustainability. What the IAASTD didn’t do, at least directly however, was to focus on politics, especially the obstacles to progress in improving agriculture.

A new report, The Wheel of Life:  Food, Climate, Human Rights and the Economy (Sept. 2011), released by the Center for Food Safety (CFS) and the Heinrich Böll Stiftung Foundation, usefully complements this deficit. It does this in part by drawing attention explicitly to some common myths on which support for conventional production-oriented solutions for agriculture are based. Among these myths are that hugely enhanced food production will be required in the future, that biotech (GMO) seeds are needed to solve hunger and mitigate climate change, and that traditional agriculture is wasteful and inefficient.

The Wheel then examines how major current crises—hunger, climate change, and ecological degradation—are deeply interlinked. Despite the evident linkages, however, government and international institutions typically address these issues as if they were disconnected from one another. Thus the IPCC, for example, still has not adequately considered agriculture as a contributor to climate change. The consequence of this disconnect, The Wheel of Life points out, is that many policies do not tackle root causes and therefore negative global trends have tended to intensify.

Confronting global hunger is one example identified in the report. Leaders on each end of the political spectrum uniformly assert that economic growth is needed to address hunger and poverty. Yet economic growth is typically conducted via industrial activities that contribute to climate change, which in turn, negatively impacts the ability to grow food.

Similarly, in addition to their effects on climate change, economic and trade policies can spur growth for a few while undermining the ability of small-scale farmers and rural communities to provide food for local populations. The Wheel of Life suggests these complex interactions help explain why, even though economic growth indicators have risen in many countries over the last decade, hunger rates have increased too, especially within the last several years.

To successfully remedy social injustices, climate change, and agriculture, The Wheel of Life argues that political action is needed that incorporates social and ecological needs. And it notes that while governments dither on climate change and agricultural reform, agribusiness is already positioning its products as the preferred solutions. The strategy proposed by The Wheel of Life is to incorporate civil society input into political and economic discussions. Some countries, such as Germany, already have productive dialogues with civil society, but in the US and Britain, for example, interactions are negligible. To encourage cooperation the report also provides a list of civil society organisations with compatible aims in the areas of climate change, agriculture, environment, human rights, women’s rights, and migration.

The Wheel concludes that lasting solutions to hunger and other major crises of our day must, above all, be guided by fundamentals of ecology.

“Policies and practices must begin with the ecological imperative in order to ensure authentic security and stability on all fronts—food, water, livelihoods and jobs, climate, energy, and economic,” writes report author Debbie Barker, international director at the Center for Food Safety.  “In turn this engenders equity, social justice, and diverse cultures.”

Currently there are "2 comments" on this Article:

  1. Congratulations on issuing this report; I look forward to reading it.

    One important correction regarding the IAASTD. As a lead author on the IAASTD global report, I would like to point out that the IAASTD did indeed address “politics” very explicitly, including the “obstacles to progress in improving agriculture.” The finding on agroecology was only one of 22 key findings in the Global Report; the Synthesis report and each of the five regional reports had many additional findings that bear directly on politics, institutions, corporations, governance, trade, markets, and the political economy of the food system.

    The Synthesis Report (as do the global and regional reports) devotes considerable attention to equity – identifying both historical and existing constraints as well as policy/political options for action to overcome those challenges. The historical and continued role and contributions of civil society in both the realm of AKST (agricultural knowledge, science, technology and innovation) and in politics/ the political economy of the food system is addressed in many places throughout the reports.

    The IAASTD also examined issues of power and control in the food system; the role, power and influence of corporations; the adverse impacts of corporate concentration on equitable and sustainable development; issues of global trade, markets, governance and the role of institutions (i.e. laws, rules, norms, treaties, international agreements, etc) as well as of institutional arrangements — and how as a result of differential power dynamics, one development narrative or paradigm has been privileged over others, with what consequences for our collective ability to face new and emerging challenges of the 21st century – in particular, global climate, water, energy and biodiversity crises.

    The reports can be found at http://www.agassessment.org

    You are quite right that civil society must have a central role in political and economic discussions and decisions. Interestingly, the IAASTD process itself exemplified the point you make, as civil society was engaged not only as authors, reviewers and editors throughout the process, but also in the IAASTD’s governance (holding seats on the Multistakeholder Advisory Bureau that was charged with overseeing the entire 5 year process) and in intergovernmental plenary negotiations and deliberations. The IAASTD’s governance structure was pathbreaking in this sense, particularly for a UN-led process.

  2. Over the years links can change. This report is still vitally important, so if anyone is interested, you can find it here:
    “The Wheel of Life: Food, Climate, Human Rights, and the Economy,” by Debbie Barker (Center for Food Safety), published by the Heinrich Böll Stiftung Foundation; September 2011 (110 pages)

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