[Perspectives on RIO+20 > Hans Herren ]


No sustainable development without healthy, nutritious and culturally adapted food for all

We need the World Bank, the IMF, all the big foundations, and all the governments to admit that, for 30 years, we all blew it, including me when I was president. We were wrong to believe that food was like some other product in international trade, and we all have to go back to a more responsible and sustainable form of agriculture.”

— Former U.S. president Bill Clinton, Speech at United Nations World Food Day, October 16, 2008

Food, along with agriculture are issues of a different nature in development, trade and research policy. Like former President Bill Clinton, many policy makers have neglected this fact; unlike President Clinton the majority are unwilling to admit their misunderstanding. With the world coming out of two major food crises within the last 5 years, a better understanding of and greater focus on agriculture and rural development are a must if leaders are to come any closer to fulfilling the UN’s Millennium Development Goals and Agenda 21, the latter set in Rio twenty years ago.

These issues have been dealt with, both on a policy and a governance level: in the Rio 1992 process, with a chapter in the Agenda 21, a partnership (SARD), and in a major scientific assessment (IAASTD) coming out of the summit in Johannesburg in 2002, and a two-year cycle of the Conference on Sustainable Development. Nonetheless, we are nowhere near to achieving what is necessary to assure availability and access to healthy and nutritious food to a growing world population on a sustainable basis.

Agriculture and the food system are critical for tackling the challenges addressed in three of the Rio Conventions. Today agriculture and related land use changes are mainly part of the problem – contributing around 30% to greenhouse gas emissions (IPCC 2007) and being heavily responsible for soil degradation and loss of biodiversity. However, these are also among the few sectors holding the potential to significantly contribute to solutions. To unlock their positive potential a paradigm shift in agricultural policy, research and practices is necessary.

Putting greater emphasis on small-scale farmers and especially agro-ecological solutions, which are waiting for implementation already, must be at the center of a new and integrated agricultural system. In 2008 the IAASTD report , which was commissioned in 2002 at the Johannesburg Summit on Sustainable Development by the World Bank and six UN agencies and carried out by over 400 scientists and stakeholders, calls for such a paradigm shift and puts forth a blueprint for action. However agricultural policy on a global level has hardly reacted to the report’s suggestions. Meanwhile the challenges of climate change, population growth, energy needs, and shrinking natural resources have grown. The time to act is now.

The core reason for the lack of response may lie in the fact that responsibilities for agriculture and rural development are widely scattered amongst the three Rio Conventions and the UN system as a whole. All three conventions created in 1992 in Rio -- Conventions on Climate Change, Biological Diversity and Desertification -- deal somehow with agriculture, yet none has agriculture in its title. Therefore work on agriculture in the context of sustainable development is taking place but seemingly uncoordinated. While this situation is not unique to agriculture, being similar, for example, to the field of energy, the importance of agriculture and the food system to economic and social development under tight ecological constraints demands a more coherent approach within the UN system and the Rio Conventions.

This is not easily instituted; nevertheless, an initiative similar to the UN’s Secretary General recently announced “Energy for All” could be launched in the field of agriculture and the food systems. Putting the implementation of measures to achieve sustainable agriculture at the center of global policies could begin the necessary paradigm shift in the short run. Taking a longer-term view, a more permanent change in the global governance structure around agriculture and the food system is needed. While a complete bundling of efforts is most probably unfeasible, the science-policy link definitely has to be strengthened to allow for effective implementation of measured agreed on.

Missing today is a panel or body governed in a participatory and multi-stakeholder manner and reporting regularly on agricultural knowledge, science and technology. With IPCC and the upcoming IPBES, there are two panel structures within the Rio Conventions working on the science-policy link and capable of producing relevant reports.

Although this work will also touch on agriculture, so far there is no single, participatory and multi-stakeholder institution or body pulling together all the relevant scientific knowledge into a coherent, integrated framework to inform agriculture and food system policies. The Committee on World Food Security at FAO is aiming to become this coordinating body but even the reports from its panel of expert are written by few experts and not within a participatory, multi-stakeholder process.

If one is serious about a paradigm change in agriculture and food systems, coordination within the UN system needs to be strengthened and an intergovernmental panel tasked specifically with these areas must be established -- integrating the information from the other panels as well as the work of relevant UN organizations and traditional knowledge.

This body could come out of a reform of existing mechanisms – allowing for a multi-disciplinary and participative process – or through the creation of a new institution. Either way, the IAASTD process, with changes to address the first report’s shortcomings and expanded content to cover all areas of agriculture and food systems, should form the basis of such a body.

The problems are identified, possible pathways to solve them exist - let us then start to change policies and structures that have misconstrued agriculture and the whole food system for over fifty years. The Rio+20 summit is the next opportunity for policy makers – just like President Clinton -- to acknowledge that they have neglected the special role of agriculture far too long and to finally change course in global agriculture.


The opinions expressed in these articles are the sole responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official position of UNEP

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Hans Herren is an internationally recognized scientist and was appointed president of the Millenium Institute (MI) in May 2005. Prior to joining MI, he was director-general of the International Center for Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) in Nairobi, Kenya. He also served as director of the Africa Biological Control Center of International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), in Benin.

At ICIPE, Hans developed and implemented programs in the area of human, animal, plant and environmental health (the 4-H paradigm) as they relate to insect issues. At IITA, he conceived and implemented the highly successful biological control program that saved the African cassava crop, and averted Africa’s worst-ever food crisis.


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