Sustainability: A New Vision For Agriculture?
This lesson is salient to the other issue highlighted at Davos 2013: economic growth without overshooting the resource limits of the planet. The examples are many, but I want to zero in on just one: agriculture.
The WEF put out a white paper for the Davos meeting titled Realizing a New Vision for Agriculture, that acknowledged the needs for systems change:
Realizing agriculture’s full potential as a driver of food security, environmental sustainability and economic opportunity requires fundamentally shifting the way
the system operates.
Among the paper’s recommendations was an increased focus on the needs of smallholders – small farmers, declaring “Smallholder improvements are critical to address global hunger and poverty.” In other words, the food security resilience of billions may depend on decentralizing agriculture, supporting local agriculture, and promoting seed diversity -- all only possible if small farmers thrive.
Some of the points and goals listed in support of this focus included:
- Importance of crop diversity, nutritional content and food affordability;
- Lessen agricultural impact on the environment;
- Increase agricultural production by 20 percent each decade and substantially reduce waste;
- Reduce emissions per ton of production by 20 percent each decade;
- Decrease the proportion of rural inhabitants living on less than $1.25/day by 20 percent each decade.
All worthy goals, but in a food-and-water constrained world, it’s an open question whether Big Agriculture will tolerate Small Agriculture in a way that is in harmony with the above goals. We have already seen numerous cases where the global grab for land is pitting foreign corporations and national governments against smallholders. Responsible investments instead of land grabbing exist and can be a model for the future, but it will take a sea change in global governance.
I put the question to Raymond Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America, who attended Davos 2013. I asked him if he felt that the interests of small farmers were really addressed at the WEF. He responded in an email:
“No. It is impossible for the interests of small farmers to truly be addressed in a setting like Davos where their voices are rarely, if ever actually heard. And this time was no different. Frankly, it is a lost opportunity. The attendees -- executives at the highest levels — must understand that the challenges of sustainably feeding the world’s population will only be met if the opinions and concerns of smallholder food producers are heard loudly and clearly, front and center.”
Can globalized corporate agriculture interests really support the needs of small farmers? I asked Offenheiser what his thoughts were on that question, as well. He replied:
"The jury is still out, but partnerships such as those discussed at Davos will benefit small farmers only when principles and safeguards are in place so that small food producers are not saddled with risk when they engage with corporate agriculture."
The word is there again, the one that’s on everyone’s mind: risk.
The lesson of Davos is perhaps that “risk resilience” will require a willingness to up-end the extant power relationships that privilege the big and strong against the small and weak. It will take cooperation, rather than competition, horizontal governance rather than autocracy, and a willingness to let solutions bubble up from below.
That way, when catastrophe strikes, humanity will get stronger.
This article was first published at CSR Wire.
Francesca Rheannon is CSRwire's Talkback Senior Editor. An award-winning journalist, Francesca is cofounder of Sea Change Media. She produced the Sea Change Radio's series, Back to The Future, and co-produced the Interfaith Center of Corporate Responsibility's podcast, The Arc of Change. Francesca's work has appeared at SocialFunds.com, The CRO and E Magazine, and she is a contributing writer for CSRwire. Francesca hosts the nationally syndicated radio show, Writer's Voice with Francesca Rheannon.