Making the shift to sustainable agriculture: 10 principles

Image from GHI's 2015 GAP Report:

Image from GHI’s 2015 GAP Report:

By Katy Wilson

According to the recently released 2015 Global Hunger Index from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), hunger levels remain “serious” or “alarming” in 52 of 117 countries, despite many countries having reduced their hunger scores by at least half since 2000, including Brazil, Azerbaijan and Mongolia. The highest levels of hunger were recorded in Central African Republic, Chad and Zambia. Several new studies and reports suggest that failure to meet countries’ food needs requires the transformation of our food systems and a shift to sustainable farming.

Global Harvest Initiative’s 6th annual Global Agricultural Productivity Report (2015 GAP report), released last week states that for the second year in a row the rate of global agricultural productivity growth (1.72%) falls short of the level needed to feed an estimated 9.7 billion people by 2050 (1.75%). Regionally, the rate of agricultural productivity growth is particularly alarming in sub-Saharan Africa, where by 2030 only 14% of food needs will be met. Across all developing countries the average rate of growth is 1.5%. Stagnating agricultural productivity growth will cause food price increases, greater demand for humanitarian aid and for land to be converted to food production. The report urges productive and sustainable agricultural systems to become a priority.

Zambia, a country with significant levels of food insecurity and rural poverty, is, as believed by GHI, a frontier for growing agricultural productivity and markets, in part due to recent growth in agricultural output, a stable government and investor-friendly policies. The GAP report highlights the country, detailing the diversification of their agricultural systems and their aim of becoming a “regional breadbasket in southern Africa”. As an example, support from the African Development Bank Group (AfDB) and a grant from the Global Agriculture and Food Security Programme (GAFSP) are supporting the Agriculture Productivity and Market Enhancement Project (APMEP), which aims to help boost productivity in six districts, develop irrigation and aquaculture and support agro-processing, value addition and market linkages, directly benefitting some 75,000 people.

Given as key priorities for raising global agricultural productivity are long-term investment in research, development of agricultural extension services, education for farmers and better transport and information and communications technology (ICT) infrastructure. As with many reports dealing with food insecurity and an unsustainable agriculture, the recommendations are broad in scope and difficult to action.

The International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food) are motivating the transition to sustainable food systems by identifying 10 key principles with which to consider in analysing and developing food systems. Specifically we need:

  • Holistic and systemic thinking to combat multiple interconnecting challenge and find integrated solutions.
  • Power-sensitive analysis, considering power relations and the political economy of food systems and security.
  • Transdisciplinary knowledge generation between different fields and actors across food systems.
  • To be critically engaged with all actors in food chains so as to have a frank and full exploration of how to define and develop sustainable food systems.
  • Independent analysis to avoid biased thinking and action.
  • Sustainable in all dimensions, providing food security, environmental gains, health, nutrition, and social, cultural and economic benefits. Sustainability must be the ultimate benchmark.
  • Diverse and resilient in both their ability to sustain and adapt over the long-term as well as to support a diverse array of needs.
  • Democratic and empowering so as to avoid the marginalisation of individuals or groups and prevent the needs of some being overlooked by the more powerful and visible in society.
  • Socially and technologically innovative, both of which will be important for aiding complex change across whole food systems.
  • Adequately measured to account for a variety of dimensions, perhaps requiring new indicators of progress.

Again such principles, while positive and aspirational, are difficult to transform into real change. And this kind of joined-up thinking across sectors is notoriously difficult. IPES-Food also released a report in May 2015, The new science of sustainable food systems: overcoming barriers to food systems reform, which calls for science and policy to become more integrated, to move towards a common language and “resist the narrowing of the analytical lens, and to overcome the fragmentation of food governance spaces”. While this seems easier said than done, initiatives such as the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA), and the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) are involving large-scale stakeholder consultation, multiple framings of issues, challenging of dominant philosophies and the use of diverse knowledge sources.

For our farms and value chains to be transformed to sustainable agricultural and food systems we need to think differently and not only is there plenty of advice for how to shift our mind set but also evidence that, at least at a high level of policy, this may be beginning to happen. Now we need to think about what such thinking really means for those on the ground be they development practitioners or farmers or consumers, and what real action is needed to make agriculture and food sustainable.

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