Imagining the future of agriculture

So often discussions around agriculture and food security focus on all or nothings: small farms or large-scale industrial farming, organic or conventional agriculture, public sector support or private sector investment. In December 2012, Oxfam asked agricultural experts, champions, farmers and knowledgeable individuals from the field to the United Nations to take part in a two week online discussion about how we can meet the world’s growing need for food in a sustainable and equitable manner. The aim was to move past the disagreements and discourse and to imagine a positive actionable future for agriculture.

image_miniThis task was put to 23 essayists such as Kanayo Nwanze, Director of the International Fund for Agricultural Development, Shenggen Fan, Director of the International Food Policy Research Institute, Susan Godwin a farmer in Nigeria and Harold Poelma, Managing Director of Cargill Refined Oils Europe. These essays were then showcased online for two weeks allowing participants to respond. Both essayists and participants in the discussion were asked to consider the following questions:

  • What if all farmers had adequate risk management systems to deal with climate trends and shocks, as well as with price volatility in input and product markets?
  • What if fossil fuels were no longer required in any form of input to global agricultural production?
  • What if all farmers, male and female, had full and equal control over the necessary resources for farming, and over the outputs of their labour?
  • What if the ideas and innovations of resource-poor farmers leading to improvements of their natural resource base were supported by adequate access to public and private sector investments?

The results of these discussions and the 23 essays, have now been published in a report, entitled The Future of Agriculture.

There was general agreement that  we need to foster creativity and innovation. That while we possess some of the technologies and practices to achieve a more sustainable and equitable agriculture, we will need to test the limits of human creativity and idealism to meet future challenges.

Much of this innovation will come from farmers themselves, who by the nature of their job must respond to unpredictable challenges, and be inventive and adaptable. Putting this vision into action will require political will and leadership. Supporting farmer innovation within established systems, sharing innovations between farmers, linking farmers to markets and to information, and facilitating partnerships. As Roger Thurow, author of The Last Hunger season, explains , to tap into the wealth of information farmers can contribute, we will first need to create a level playing field for all the farmers in the world, most notably smallholder farmers, on whom the majority of the world depends for food.  As Thurow puts it, ” Neglected for so long, they are now indispensable to the future of agriculture and food.”

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