09.08.2022 |

Indigenous women are guardians of traditional knowledge, UN experts

Quechua woman in Peru (Photo: A. Beck)

Indigenous women are the backbone of indigenous peoples’ communities and play a crucial role in the preservation and transmission of traditional ancestral knowledge related to food and agriculture as well as in the protection of biodiversity and natural resources. This was one of the messages a group of UN experts conveyed on August 9 on the occasion of the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. The experts, among them Mr. Francisco Cali Tzay, who is Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, urged States to take affirmative action to guarantee indigenous peoples’ full public and political participation. This year’s theme of the day was “The Role of Indigenous Women in the Preservation and Transmission of Traditional Knowledge”. Therefore, the experts put a great emphasis on the crucial role that indigenous women play in their communities as breadwinners, caretakers, knowledge keepers, leaders and human rights defenders. “Indigenous women are active change agents in society and champions of sustainability. Indigenous women are custodians of a collective accumulation of scientific knowledge and technical skills related to food and agriculture, health and medicine, natural resource management, climate change, language, arts, crafts and spiritual practices. This scientific knowledge has a key role to play in safeguarding ecosystems and ensuring environmental justice and equity,” they wrote in a joint statement, adding that indigenous women’s in-depth understanding of botany and animal species is also a powerful tool to mitigate against the catastrophic impacts of climate change.

The experts pointed to the fact that the development, application, preservation and transmission of indigenous women’s knowledge is inextricably linked to the way they use their territory, lands and resources. However, indigenous women often suffer from intersecting levels of discrimination on the basis of gender, class, ethnicity and socioeconomic status. This multiple forms of discrimination, as well as violence against women, create barriers to their development and use of their scientific knowledge. Indigenous women’s rights to self-determination, self-governance and control of resources and ancestral lands have been violated over centuries. Because of their relationship with the land and natural environment, women are disproportionally affected by the loss of lands, territories and resources due to climate change, conflicts, development and the creation of protected areas. Extractive industries on their lands are increasingly depriving them of their access to and ownership of lands. When the natural resources they steward are exploited without their free, prior and informed consent, which happens quite frequently, the knowledge of indigenous women is devalued and their ability to maintain and transmit their scientific and technical knowledge is threatened.

“Historically, indigenous women have been leaders in their communities. The preservation of indigenous peoples’ communities, values and ways of life depend on indigenous women and girls regaining their roles as leaders within their communities,” the statement reads. In order to enable women to do so, States should ensure effective legal protection of indigenous women’s rights to lands, territory and resources and promote the meaningful participation of indigenous women in the management and regulation of their lands and resources. According to the experts, this must include the participation of women in consultation processes on administrative and legislative issues as well projects that may impact indigenous lands, territory and resources, with the aim of obtaining their free, prior and informed consent. “States should take affirmative measures to guarantee equal and full public and political participation of indigenous women, including by establishing and strengthening institutions for indigenous women in leadership roles,” the experts conclude. (ab)

29.07.2022 |

Overshoot: Humanity has exhausted natural resources for 2022

We are living on this planet as if we had another one (Photo: CC0)

July 28 marked Earth Overshoot Day this year – the day humanity has used up all the resources nature can sustainably supply and renew in a year, according to data from international sustainability organization “Global Footprint Network”. For the remaining 156 days of the year, we will be living on resources borrowed from future generations. The date is determined each year by the network, using National Footprint and Biocapacity Accounts data. This is achieved by contrasting the world’s demand on nature (ecological footprint), including demand for food, timber, fibres (cotton) and space for urban infrastructure with the planet’s ability to replenish resources and absorb waste, including carbon dioxide emissions. Global overshoot began in the early 1970s and since then, the date has been creeping up the calendar. The first overshoot day was on December 25, 1971. In the early 90s, it was already reached in mid-October and in 2018, the day fell in July for the first time. After a postponement to August in 2020 due to corona-related lockdowns, we are now living on borrowed time again at the end of July.

The 50-year persistence of overshoot means that the annual deficits have cumulated in an ecological debt of 19 years worth of planetary regeneration, says the Global Footprint Network. This means that it would take 19 years of our planet’s entire regeneration to reverse the damage from overuse of natural resources, assuming it was fully reversible. The result is widespread degradation of ecosystems, a huge decline in biodiversity, excess greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and increased competition for food and energy. These symptoms are becoming more prominent with unusual heat waves, forest fires, droughts, and floods. “Earth Overshoot Day demonstrates that the current system of production and consumption is not compatible with the intention to continue to inhabit this planet,” said Ecuador’s Minister of Environment, Water and Ecological Transition, Gustavo Manrique. “To better protect our natural resources and manage our demand for them, it is necessary to take concrete joint actions aimed at a new development model based on sustainability and regeneration,” he added.

The network’s research also shows the link between resources and food security. By now more than 3 billion people or 38% of the global population live in countries which produce less food than they consume and generate less income than the world average. This means they have inadequate food capacity and a huge disadvantage in accessing food on global markets compared to countries with high relative income. For example, Nepal only produces 78% of the amount of food that it consumes. This risk is amplified by the country’s financial disadvantage: its income per person is merely 9% of the world average. Other countries with the double risk exposure include Rwanda, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Mexico, Iraq, and Iran. Countries with low income and lacking in food biocapacity are therefore particularly exposed to food insecurity. If we include all resources, not just food, the number of people exposed to this double challenge climbs to an astonishing 5.8 billion people or 72% of the world population.

However, the Global Footprint Network also points out that a reversal of the trend is possible and, above all, will also bring economic benefits for the pioneers. “Resource security is turning into an essential parameter of economic strength. There is no advantage in waiting for others to act first. Rather, it is in the interest of every city, company, or country to protect its own ability to operate in the inevitable future of more climate change and resource constraints,” said Mathis Wackernagel, founder of Global Footprint Network. He assumes that these ventures are also more likely to grow in value than assets which contribute to overshoot. Turning the trends around is possible, confirms the network. To renew everything humanity currently demands from nature would take the biocapacity of 1.75 Earths. If humanity delays Earth Overshoot Day by 6 days every year, humanity will be below one planet before 2050. To limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels we would need to move the date 10 days every year. There are many options to achieve this. Cutting food waste by half worldwide, as practiced in many community initiatives around the world, would move the date of Earth Overshoot Day by 13 days. Upgrading urban bicycle infrastructure worldwide, to a level we currently find in the Netherlands, has the potential save 9 days. “The power of possibility gives us examples of how to build the future we need,” concluded Wackernagel. (ab)

07.07.2022 |

Up to 828 million people worldwide are facing hunger, UN report

Healthy diets are not affordable for 3.1 billion people around the world (Photo: CC0)

The world is moving backwards in its efforts to end hunger and malnutrition. According to a new report released on Wednesday by five UN agencies, the number of people affected by hunger globally rose to as many as 828 million in 2021. This is about 180 million more people since the beginning of the 2030 Agenda, with much of the increase (150 million) since the outbreak of COVID-19. This means that a tenth of the global population were chronically undernourished last year. Furthermore, almost 3.1 billion people could not afford a healthy diet in 2020, up 112 million from 2019, reflecting the effects of inflation in consumer food prices. “The challenges to ending hunger, food insecurity and all forms of malnutrition keep growing. The COVID-19 pandemic has further highlighted the fragilities in our agrifood systems and the inequalities in our societies, driving further increases in world hunger and severe food insecurity,” the heads of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), UNICEF, the World Food Programme (WFP) and the World Health Organisation write in their joint foreword to the report.

The 2022 edition of ‘The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World’ gives a range of between 702 and 828 million people who were affected by hunger in 2021 to reflect the uncertainty in data collection due to the COVID-19 pandemic and related restrictions. According to the authors, information on actual food availability and consumption in 2020 and 2021 remains scarce and imprecise. If the middle of the projected range (768 million) is considered, the number of undernourished people increased by 46 million since 2020. “There is a real danger these numbers will climb even higher in the months ahead. The global price spikes in food, fuel and fertilizers that we are seeing as a result of the crisis in Ukraine threaten to push countries around the world into famine,” warned WFP Executive Director David Beasley. “The result will be global destabilization, starvation, and mass migration on an unprecedented scale. We have to act today to avert this looming catastrophe.” More than half (56.2%) of the 828 million people who were undernourished in 2021 lived in Asia (465.4 million people), followed by Africa with 289.1 million (34.9%) and Latin America and the Caribbean with 64 million (7.7%).

After remaining relatively unchanged since 2015, the proportion of people affected by hunger (called the prevalence of undernourishment) jumped in 2020 and continued to rise in 2021, to 9.8 percent of the world population. If the upper bound of 828 million people is considered, the figure is at 10.5 %. The numbers show persistent regional disparities, with Africa bearing the heaviest burden with respect to the prevalence of undernourishment. In Africa, 21% of the population were undernourished in 2021, compared to 20.3% in 2020. The situation is especially alarming in Middle Africa, where a third of the population (33.3%) were undernourished last year. This subregion includes countries such as Chad and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In Eastern Africa, 30.8% of the population faced hunger. In Asia, 9.9% of the population were affected while the share was 9.7% in Latin America.

The report not only provides estimates on the number of chronically undernourished people but also on moderate and severe food insecurity. Moderate food insecurity is defined as “a level of severity of food insecurity at which people face uncertainties about their ability to obtain food” which means that people are forced to compromise on the nutritional quality and/or quantity of food consumed at times during the year due to the lack of money or other resources. Overall, nearly one in three people in the world (2.3 billion) did not have year-round access to adequate food in 2021 – an increase of almost 350 million people compared to 2019, the year before the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded. Of those people affected by moderate or severe food insecurity, close to 40% or 923.7 million people were facing food insecurity at severe levels, which means they had run out of food and, at worst, gone a day without eating. Since 2019, these numbers increased by 207 million people. Healthy diets are also now further out of reach for people in every region in the world. In 2020, almost 3.1 billion people could not afford a healthy diet, up 112 million from 2019. This number could even be greater once data are available to account for income losses in 2020.

The report also paints a grim picture of the nutritional situation of the world’s children. An estimated 45 million children under the age of five were suffering from wasting, the deadliest form of malnutrition, which increases children’s risk of death by up to 12 times. In addition, 149 million children under the age of five had stunted growth and development which means they are too short for their age due to a chronic lack of essential nutrients in their diets. Another 39 million children were overweight. “The unprecedented scale of the malnutrition crisis demands an unprecedented response. We must double our efforts to ensure that the most vulnerable children have access to nutritious, safe, and affordable diets – and services for the early prevention, detection and treatment of malnutrition,” said Catherine Russell, Executive Director of UNICEF. “With so many children’s lives and futures at stake, this is the time to step up our ambition for child nutrition – and we have no time to waste.”

The outlook for the future is also quite somber. The ongoing war in Ukraine, involving two of the biggest global producers of staple cereals, oilseeds and fertilizer, is disrupting international supply chains and pushing up the prices of grain, fertilizer and energy. Supply chains were already being adversely affected by increasingly frequent extreme climate events, especially in low-income countries. This has all potentially sobering implications for global food security and nutrition, the report warns. The world is constantly moving further away from its goal of ending hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition in all its forms by 2030. Current projections are that nearly 670 million people (8% of the world population) will still be facing hunger in 2030 – even if a global economic recovery takes place. This is a similar number to 2015, when the goal of ending hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition by the end of this decade was launched under the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. “These are depressing figures for humanity. We continue to move away from our goal of ending hunger by 2030,” said IFAD President Gilbert F. Houngbo. “The ripple effects of the global food crisis will most likely worsen the outcome again next year. We need a more intense approach to end hunger.” (ab)

29.06.2022 |

Rising wheat prices will put millions at risk of hunger, OECD/FAO

Consumers in many countries depend on cereal from Ukraine and Russia (Photo: CC0)

The war in Ukraine is threatening global food security at a time of already elevated global commodity prices and could lead to an increase in the number of undernourished by close to 19 million people in 2023, according to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The goal of eliminating hunger by 2030 is thus unlikely to be achieved. A new report, released by the two organisations on Wednesday, warns that prices of agricultural products have been driven upward by a combination of factors, including the recovery in demand following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting supply and trade disruptions, poor weather in main supplying nations, and rising production and transportation costs. This trend has been further exacerbated recently by the impact of the war on agricultural exports from Ukraine and Russia, two main suppliers of cereals. “Without peace in Ukraine, food security challenges facing the world will continue to worsen, especially for the world’s poorest,” OECD Secretary-General Mathias Cormann said. “An immediate end of the war would be the best outcome for people in both Russia and Ukraine and for the many households around the world that are suffering from sharp price increases driven by the war.”

The “OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook” is published by the two organisations each year and presents production, consumption, trade and price trends for the main farm and fisheries products at regional, national and global levels for the coming decade, such as cereals, oilseeds and oilseed products, meat and biofuels. This year’s edition for the period 2022 to 2031, however, is characterised by the uncertainties caused by the war and its economic implications on the world economy. The report includes a chapter with a short-term assessment of how the war may affect both global agricultural markets and food security because the medium-term impacts cannot be assessed based on the data currently available. The authors summarize what almost everyone has learned from newspaper reports since the outbreak of the war: Ukraine and Russia are among the most important producers and exporters of arable crops in the world, particularly of wheat, barley, maize, sunflower seed and rapeseed. “Based on the average of the last five seasons, Russia and Ukraine accounted for 10% and 3% of global wheat production, respectively. Russia and Ukraine are the first and fifth largest wheat exporters, accounting for 20% and 10% of global exports, respectively,” confirms the report. Both countries played in important role in supplying wheat to global markets, including to the Near East and North Africa region, where wheat is the main staple food. Russia and Ukraine also account for 20% of global barley production, and are the third and fourth largest exporters, respectively. In addition, Ukraine is the world’s largest producer of sunflower seed, followed by Russia. Together, they produce more than 50% of the global output. Moreover, many farmers rely on Russia for fertiliser exports. The World Food Programme (WFP) sourced the majority of the wheat and a large share of other commodities distributed from Ukraine.

The Outlook looks at the global food security impacts of the war by conducting several scenarios with a model that assumes different impacts on the harvest and export levels of all crops in Ukraine, and on the export levels of wheat in Russia for the next marketing season (2022/23). The authors project the impact of these scenarios on international wheat prices. If Ukraine fully loses its capacity to export, this could lead to a 19% increase in the global wheat price. If Ukraine’s export capacity is reduced by 50% and Russia’s exports are 50% of the normal amount, wheat prices would increase by 21%. In the most extreme scenario where Russian exports are reduced by 50% and Ukraine experiences a total loss of its export capacity, wheat prices would be 34% higher than without the war. High food prices are putting millions more people at risk of undernourishment. In a separate analysis, based on the development of international prices, the FAO projected undernourishment to increase by about 1% globally in 2022/23, which means an increase of between 8 and 13 million people in total numbers, depending on the assumed severity of the export reduction. “A scenario simulating a severe export shortfall from Ukraine and Russia in 2022/23 and 2023/24, and assuming no global production response, suggests an increase in the number of undernourished by close to 19 million people in 2023/24. This adds to the recent increase in global undernourishment following the COVID-19 pandemic,” highlights the report. “These rising prices of food, fertilizer, feed and fuel, as well as tightening financial conditions are spreading human suffering across the world,” said FAO Director-General QU Dongyu.

The report also reminds that the global community should not lose sight of the need to work towards achieving the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The authors focus on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 2 (SDG-2) on Zero Hunger as well as the aim to limit global warming to below 2 degrees by 2050 as agreed in the 2015 Paris Agreement and the role agriculture can and must play here. The Outlook projects that, without additional efforts, SDG2 will not be achieved by 2030. Global food consumption is projected to increase by 1.4% p.a. over the next decade, mainly driven by population growth. The projected evolution of diets continues to be largely determined by income levels in the coming decade. In high-income countries, heightened concerns about health and the environment are expected to result in a decline in per capita consumption of sugar and only little growth in the consumption of animal protein. In contrast, consumers in middle-income countries are expected to increase their food consumption and the diversity of their diets, with growing shares of animal products and fats over the next ten years. Diets in low-income countries, however, will remain largely based on staples, and the projections suggest that food consumption will not increase sufficiently to meet SDG 2 on Zero Hunger by 2030. Agricultural emissions will continue to increase. Direct greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from agriculture are projected to increase by 6% during the next decade, with livestock accounting for 90% of this increase. Agricultural emissions are, nonetheless, projected to grow at a lower rate than production, thanks to yield improvements and a reduction in the share of ruminant production. (ab)

16.05.2022 |

Reform food systems to prevent future food price crises, report says

We need to avoid the next ‘perfect storm’ (Photo: CC0)

Failure to reform food systems has allowed the Ukraine conflict to “become a full-blown global food price crisis and a major threat to the food security of millions of people”, leading food experts have warned. According to the special report ‘Another Perfect Storm?’, published by the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food) on May 6th, the current food price crisis could have been avoided but fundamental flaws in global food systems, such as heavy reliance on food imports and excessive commodity speculation, meant that the invasion of Ukraine sparked a third global food price crisis in 15 years. “A new generation is once again facing mounting food insecurity, and it seems no lessons have been learned since the last food price crisis,” said Olivier De Schutter, co-chair of IPES-Food and UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights. “Continuing to rely on a handful of food commodities and countries for global food supplies, combined with predatory financiers betting on food, is a recipe for disaster,” he added.

World food prices continued to see record-breaking highs in April 2022, hitting food insecure countries and populations hard. FAO modelling suggests that in a ‘severe shock’ scenario, which is increasingly likely, the global number of undernourished people will increase by 13.1 million this year. But the FAO food price index had already hit levels as high as 2008 peaks back in January 2022. “In this context, it was inevitable that a supply shock affecting two of the world’s major grain exporting countries would destabilize global markets on some level,” the authors write. For example, 26 countries source over 50% of wheat imports from Ukraine and Russia. In the case of Eritrea, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the figure is 80-100%. However, the food experts doubt that the current food price and food security crises would have been an inevitable impact of this conflict. IPES-Food argues that “a number of underlying rigidities, weaknesses, and flaws in global food systems are amplifying the effects of the Ukraine conflict on food security”. “The world’s food security is built on a house of cards – the whole edifice can tumble when one card falls,” writes Jennifer Clapp, vice chair of IPES-Food and one of the lead authors of the report, in an op-ed for Civil Eats. “The concentrated nature of the global food system creates vulnerabilities, which can have cascading consequences when there are disruptions to any part of it. These economies of scale might be designed for profitable efficiency, when things operate according to plan. But they’re neither stable, resilient, nor dependable in the face of risks, especially for vulnerable people.”

The authors analyse four structural weaknesses that are leaving food systems vulnerable to price shocks. The first problem are food import dependencies of many countries. Global dietary diversity has been declining for decades. Already by 1995, wheat, rice and maize – just 3 of the 7,000 plants consumed by humans – accounted for more than 50% of the world’s plant-derived food energy intake. “In many countries, cash crops have taken the place of more diverse food cropping and nutritionally important foodstuffs,” the report found. “For example, tobacco farming is considered to have displaced vegetables and pulses in Bangladesh, as well as cassava, millet, and sweet potatoes in a number of African countries.” While most countries continue to produce staple crops for domestic consumption, many do not produce enough of them to meet their needs, and have become reliant on large volumes of imports,” according to the authors. Some countries are now 100% dependent on imports of staple foods while being highly indebted. Food importing countries have also become dependent on a limited number of grain exporters. Just seven countries plus the EU account for 90% of the world’s wheat exports, and just four countries account for over 80% of the world’s maize exports. Global trade in staple crops is dominated by a handful of countries and corporations. For example, 70-90% of all grain trade is controlled by four companies: Archer-Daniels Midland, Bunge, Cargill, Dreyfus. This is leading to significant disruptions when a major exporter goes offline, says the report.

Secondly, the report finds that a number of entrenched obstacles hold back farmers’ ability to shift and diversify their production in response to global market instability and food security needs. These include geographical over-specialisation, trader and governmental preferences for commodity crops and biofuels, and reliance on synthetic fertilizers. For example, regions such as the US ‘corn belt’ or the Argentine ‘soybelt’ have become highly specialized in the production of specific commodity crops. Accumulated investments in these crops create ‘path dependencies’, the authors explain. Commodity-specific skills, training, equipment, networks, and retail relationships are costly to obtain, and might no longer be relevant if farmers shifted to different crops or different modes of production. Thirdly, market failure and speculation are additional problems. According to IPES-Food, evidence suggests financial speculators are likely contributing to exacerbating food price rises and volatility. “In just 9 days in March 2022, the price of wheat on futures markets jumped 54%. This is despite global wheat stocks being high relative to historical trends – global wheat and maize supplies have steadily increased since 2012. Stock-to-use ratios in 2022 for cereals are reasonable at 29.7% in 2022, just marginally below the 2020/21 level, indicating a relatively comfortable supply level.” The authors point out that since the Ukraine invasion began, there has been increased investment in commodity futures and commodity linked funds. Daily trades of one such fund increased up to 100-fold from January to early March. Trade volumes on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange rose, and the share of speculators in the wheat and maize markets increased.

The fourth structural weakness analysed in the report is the vicious cycle of conflict, climate change, poverty and food insecurity that is leaving hundreds of millions of people without the ability to adapt to sudden shocks. The current crisis has shown that hundreds of millions of people lack the income or resources to cope with rising food prices or climate-related shocks. “More than 50% of farmers and rural workers live below the poverty line in several countries in the Global South with the largest rural populations. The poorest populations in low income countries spend over 60% of their income on food, and as such, even small price rises can have devastating impacts – vulnerabilities that were cruelly exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic,” reads the report.

The expert panel warns against short-sighted responses to the crisis that exacerbate current trends, such as suspending environmental regulations, ramping up industrial food production or further promoting export-oriented fertilizer-dependent agriculture. Instead, IPES-Food calls for urgent action to support food importing countries, including through debt relief. The report highlights that actions that enhance the ability of countries to build and sustain social protection systems will provide the greatest and most lasting benefits, as acknowledged by governments in the wake of the 2007-2008 food price crisis. The establishment of a new financing mechanism, in the form of a Global Fund for Social Protection, would enable poorer countries to provide social protection schemes, the authors stress. Ultimately, debt relief/cancellation is essential in order for net food importing low-income countries to be able to pay spiraling import bills, and to put social protection systems in place. “For decades, rich governments and institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have pushed low-income countries to grow crops for export to the rich world and to import staples like wheat and corn to feed themselves,” said Raj Patel, IPES-Food expert and Professor in the Lyndon B Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas. “Now millions of people are left exposed to recurrent food price shocks, countries are in debt, and interest rates are rising. Cancelling debt for food import-dependent countries is essential to help them prevent domestic unrest, protect vulnerable populations, and to rebuild and diversify food production,” he urged.

Another recommendation is to curb excessive commodity speculation and enhance market transparency. “Evidence suggests financial speculators are jumping into commodity investments and gambling on rising food prices, and this is pushing the world’s poorest people deeper into hunger,” confirms Jennifer Clapp. “Governments have failed to curb excessive speculation and ensure transparency of food stocks and commodity markets – this must be urgently addressed.” Moreover, the food experts call on governments to build up regional grain reserves and food security response systems. “It’s alarming to see rising prices and the threat of hunger and food riots return to many countries in Africa. Rebuilding regional sovereign grain reserves is a key to resilience when these sorts of shocks hit – West Africa has made some progress, but it’s a wake-up call and all regions need support to accelerate this,” said IPES-Food’s Mamadou Goïta, Mali who is executive director of Institut de Recherche et de Promotion des Alternatives en Développement Afrique (IRPAD Afrique). In addition, the authors recommend to accelerate steps to diversify food production and restructure trade flows. Steps to rebuild domestic food production over the coming months and years could help to mitigate price spikes and ensure access to staple foods. “Countries need context-specific approaches allowing them to rebuild a degree of self-sufficiency in key staple foods where resources allow, shift to more resilient traditional crops (e.g. millet instead of rice) in tandem with re-diversifying food consumption, and ensure a more diverse mix of local and global supplies,” according to the authors. Finally, IPES-Food points to the need to reduce the reliance on fertilizers and fossil energy in food production through diversity and agroecology. “Agroecology is a form of crisis response, a route to resilience, and a low-cost way to hedge against various shocks,” the authors conclude. (ab)

22.03.2022 |

World Water Day: Report shines a spotlight on potential of groundwater

Groundwater is often used for irrigation (Photo: CC0)

Groundwater is central to the fight against poverty, to food and water security, to the creation of decent jobs, to socio-economic development, and to the resilience of societies and economies to climate change. However, this natural resource is often poorly understood and consequently undervalued, mismanaged and even abused. The United Nations are trying to change this by making groundwater the theme of this year’s “World Water Day”, celebrated on March 22, and of the new edition of the “World Water Development Report” (WWDR 2021), published a day ahead by UNESCO. The report, entitled ‘Groundwater: Making the invisible visible’, describes the challenges and opportunities linked to the development, management and governance of groundwater across the world. The authors argue that the vast potential of groundwater, and the need to manage it sustainably, must no longer be overlooked. Therefore, they call on States to commit themselves to developing adequate and effective groundwater management and governance policies in order to address current and future water crises.

According to the report, groundwater accounts for 99% of all liquid freshwater on Earth. Groundwater currently provides half of the volume of water withdrawn for domestic use worldwide, including the drinking water for the vast majority of the rural population who do not get their water delivered to them via public or private supply systems. Groundwater also provides around 25% of all water withdrawn for irrigation, serving 38% of the world’s irrigated land. The authors estimate that water use will grow by roughly 1% per year over the next 30 years and dependence on groundwater is expected to rise because surface water availability becomes increasingly limited due to climate change. There are many challenges related to groundwater: “Groundwater is being over-used in many areas, where more water is abstracted from aquifers than is recharged by rain and snow. Continuous over-use leads eventually to depletion of the resource,” says the report. Pollution is also a problem in many areas and remediation is often a long and difficult process. “More and more water resources are being polluted, overexploited, and dried up by humans, sometimes with irreversible consequences,” warned UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay. “Making smarter use of the potential of still sparsely developed groundwater resources, and protecting them from pollution and overexploitation, is essential to meet the fundamental needs of an ever-increasing global population and to address the global climate and energy crises,” she added.

One chapter of the report provides an overview of the role of groundwater in agriculture, the sector with the largest use of the resource at a global level. “As population and income growth drives demand for more intensive and higher-value food production, for which groundwater is well suited, irrigated agriculture, livestock and related industrial uses, including food processing, are becoming increasingly reliant on this resource,” says the report. Approximately 70% of global groundwater withdrawals, and even more in arid and semi-arid regions, are used in the agricultural production of food, fibres, livestock and industrial crops. Regions heavily reliant on groundwater for irrigation include North America and South Asia, where 59% and 57% of the areas equipped for irrigation use groundwater, respectively. In Sub-Saharan Africa, where the opportunities offered by the vast shallow aquifers remain largely underexploited, only 3% of farmland is equipped for irrigation and only 5% of that area uses groundwater. The provision of cheap energy for pumping groundwater for irrigated agriculture is a problem epecially in water-scarce countries because it can lead to groundwater depletion and declining water quality. Another threat to groundwater quality is the use of fertilizers and pesticides in agriculture. Nitrate, from chemical and organic fertilizers, is the most prevalent anthropogenic contaminant in groundwater globally. Insecticides, herbicides and fungicides can also pollute groundwater with carcinogens and other toxic substances. The authors find that laws and regulations to prevent or limit pollution from agriculture, and especially their enforcement, are generally weak. Policies addressing water pollution in agriculture are thus urgently needed.

The report highlights that groundwater – which is distributed over the entire globe, albeit unequally – has the potential to provide societies with huge social, economic and environmental benefits, including climate change adaptation. The quality of groundwater is generally good, which means it can be used safely without requiring advanced levels of treatment. Groundwater is often the most cost-effective way of providing a secure supply of water to rural villages. With regard to climate change adaptation, the capacity of aquifer systems to store seasonal or episodic surface water surpluses can ensure that more freshwater is available over the entire year as aquifers have lower evaporative losses than surface reservoirs. “Decision-makers must begin to take full account of the vital ways in which groundwater can help ensure the resilience of human life and activities in a future where the climate is becoming increasingly unpredictable” says Gilbert F. Houngbo, Chair of UN-Water and President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). “Improving the way we use and manage groundwater is an urgent priority if we are to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030.”

The report also contains recommendations on what needs to be done to unlock groundwater’s full potential. First, it is necessary to collect more data on groundwater. The authors emphasizes that groundwater monitoring is often a ‘neglected area’. An entire chapter is dedicated to “Building and updating the knowledge base”. The authors mention that the private sector, particularly, the oil, gas and mining industries, already possesses a great deal of data, information and knowledge on the composition of the deeper domains underground, including aquifers. As a matter of corporate social responsibility, they should share these data and information with public sector professionals. Second, environmental regulations need to be strengthened in order to avoid groundwater pollution. According to the WWDR, preventing contamination requires suitable land use and appropriate environmental regulations, especially across aquifer recharge areas. Prevention measures listed in the report include: prohibiting or limiting certain polluting and water-using activities; limiting the use of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers; restricting certain cropping patterns; reducing animal grazing intensity; reclaiming agricultural land; and managing drainage. Third, it is necessary to reinforce human, material and financial resources. In many countries, the general lack of groundwater professionals among the staff of institutions and local and national government, as well as insufficient mandates, financing and support of groundwater departments or agencies, hamper effective groundwater management. Governments should use limited financial resources more efficiently through tailored initiatives. The authors also write that in many countries, publicly funded activities in other sectors contribute to the depletion or pollution of groundwater resources, e.g. farm subsidies that encourage crops with high water demands. Reforming harmful subsidies and aligning them with groundwater policies should also be part of the water financing agenda. “Unlocking the full potential of groundwater will require strong and concerted efforts to manage and use it sustainably. And it all starts by making the invisible visible”, the authors conclude. (ab)

11.03.2022 |

FAO: Food prices hit a record high as war puts food security at risk

Russia and Ukraine are major wheat exporters (Photo: CC0)

World food prices are skyrocketing: International prices for major agricultural commodities reached a record high in February, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) reported on March 4th. The war in Ukraine could not only lead to severe food shortages in conflict hotspots but also cause food prices to rise even higher as the war is likely to impact wheat and fertilizer exports from the region. This could also threaten food security in other regions, especially in the world’s poorest countries that rely on foodstuffs and fertilizers from Ukraine and Russia. According to a new information note published by the UN food agency, the number of undernourished people could increase by up to 13.1 million people in 2022/23 if the reduction in food exports by Ukraine and Russia and the rise in food prices continue.

In February, the FAO Food Price Index, which measures monthly changes in international prices of a basket of commonly-traded food commodities (cereals, oilseeds, dairy products, meat and sugar), jumped to an all-time high of 140.7 points, up 3.9% or 5.3 points from January and a staggering 20.7% compared to a year earlier. It is the highest price spike in the long history of the FAO index. Last month, food prices even exceeded the previous top of February 2011 when the index averaged 137.6 points. Food prices were also lower during the food price crisis in 2008 when the index peaked at 132.5 points. The bad news is that the new record high does not even depict the consequences of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine because the index averages prices over the whole month. This means that the market effects of the war will not be visible before April when the more up-to-date figures for March will be released. The February rise was led mainly by a large increase in the prices for vegetable oils. The Vegetable Oils Price Index, a sub-index, rose by 8.5% from the previous month, mostly driven by increased prices for palm, soy and sunflower oils. The main reasons were reduced export availabilities of palm oil from Indonesia, lower soybean production prospects in South America and concerns about lower sunflower oil exports due to disruptions in the Black Sea region. The prices could continue to increase because Ukraine and Russia are the world’s main producers and exporters of sunflower seed oil. Between 2016/17 and 2020/21, the two countries together produced just over half of the global output of sunflower oil. In 2020, Russia and Ukraine exported 3.6 and 6.8 million tonnes of sunflower oil respectively. However, in Ukraine, shipments of sunflower seed oil have come to a virtual halt due to conflict-induced logistic bottlenecks at port facilities and the suspension of crushing operations across the country, the FAO writes in its new information note. The consequences will become visible in the next Vegetable Oils Price Index for March.

The FAO Cereal Price Index averaged 144.8 points in February, up 3% from January and 14.8% from one year ago. World wheat prices increased by 2.1%, largely reflecting uncertainty about global supply flows from Black Sea ports. International maize prices rose by 5.1% month-on-month due to a combination of continued concerns over crop conditions in South America, uncertainty about maize exports from Ukraine, and rising wheat export prices. Russia and Ukraine together account for almost 30% of internationally traded wheat. The Russian Federation stood out as the top global wheat exporter in 2021, shipping a total of 32.9 million tonnes or the equivalent of 18% of global shipments. Ukraine was the fifth largest wheat exporter in 2021, exporting 20 million tonnes of wheat and holding a 10% global market share. The two countries also accounted for 19% of the global output of barley in the period between 2016/17 and 2020/21. In 2021, Russia exported 5.15 million tonnes of barley while Ukraine shipped 5.6 million tonnes. Over the course of 2021, international prices of wheat and barley rose 31% over their corresponding levels in 2020, according to FAO, but “concerns over crop conditions and adequate export availabilities explain only a part of the current global food price increases,” said FAO economist Upali Galketi Aratchilage. “A much bigger push for food price inflation comes from outside food production, particularly the energy, fertilizer and feed sectors,” he added. In 2021, Russia was the world’s top exporter of nitrogen fertilizers and the second leading supplier of both potassic (K) and phosphorous (P) fertilizers. Russia’s trade and industry ministry told the country’s fertilizer producers to temporarily stop exports at the beginning of March. Many countries in Eastern Europe and Central Asia have an import dependency of well over 50% on Russian fertilisers, for all three ingredients. The FAO warns that with the prospect of a trade embargo on Russia's exports, or a self-imposed export restriction, the global fertiliser market would be subject to “considerable disruptions”.

There are also deep concerns about the waning ability of families in embattled areas in Ukraine to feed themselves. The war could exponentially increase the number of food insecure households, as farming families and owners of small agricultural operations flee conflict-affected areas. “In 2021, one in four people in Eastern Ukraine were already food insecure as a result of various challenges and the COVID-19 pandemic, with 1.1 million people in need of food and agricultural assistance,” said FAO Director-General QU Dongyu. The current war could further jeopardize peoples’ access to food and cause hunger among affected communities. By directly constraining agricultural production, limiting economic activity, and raising prices, the conflict will further undercut the purchasing power of local populations, with consequent increases in food insecurity and malnutrition. According to FAO, about 30% (12.6 million people) of Ukraine’s population lives in rural areas. Agriculture is key to Ukraine’s economy and livelihoods of rural communities, accounting for 9% of GDP. The coming weeks will be critical as farmers need to prepare their land for sowing vegetables in the middle of March. In addition, between February and May, farmers need to start preparing land for planting wheat, barley, maize and sunflower. The agency’s preliminary assessment suggests that, as a result of the conflict, between 20 and 30% of the areas under winter cereals, maize and sunflower seed in Ukraine will either not be planted or remain unharvested during the 2022/23 season, with the yields of these crops also likely to be adversely affected.

But the war will also have impacts on food security beyond the region as disruption of production and exports from the region could push food prices beyond their current 10-year highs. “This is not just a crisis inside Ukraine. This is going to affect supply chains, and particularly the cost of food,” warned David Beasley, Executive Director of the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP). “Now we’re looking at a price hike that (…) means more people are going to go to bed hungry.” Disruptions to international food markets resulting from the conflict could potentially put pressure on import-reliant countries. Especially countries from the group of Least Developed Country (LDC) and Low-Income Food-Deficit Country (LIFDC) rely on Ukrainian and Russian food supplies to meet their consumption needs. For example, many countries situated in North Africa and Western and Central Asia are highly dependent on wheat imports of from Russia and Ukraine. Overall, almost 50 nations are dependent on both countries for over 30% of their wheat import needs. Eritrea even sourced the entirety of its wheat imports in 2021 from both Russia (53%) and Ukraine (47%). Many of these countries, already prior to the conflict, had been grappling with the negative effects of high international food and fertilizer prices. If the conflict results in a sudden and prolonged reduction in food exports by Ukraine and Russia, it could exert additional pressure on international food commodity prices, according to FAO. The food agency’s simulations suggest that under such a scenario, the global number of undernourished people could increase by 8 to 13 million people in 2022/23, with the most pronounced increases taking place in Asia-Pacific, followed by sub-Saharan Africa, and the Near East and North Africa. “In a year when the world is already facing an unprecedented level of hunger, it’s just tragic to see hunger raising its head in what has long been the breadbasket of Europe,” added Beasley. “The bullets and bombs in Ukraine could take the global hunger crisis to levels beyond anything we’ve seen before.” (ab)

28.02.2022 |

Climate change is a “mounting threat” to ecosystems and humans, IPCC

Droughts will become more frequent (Photo: CC0)

Human-induced climate change is causing widespread disruption in nature and threatening the wellbeing of billions of people around the world, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has warned. “The rise in weather and climate extremes has led to some irreversible impacts as natural and human systems are pushed beyond their ability to adapt,” according to the report published on February 28 by the panel’s Working Group II. The scientists estimate that 3.3 to 3.6 billion people live in contexts and areas that “are highly vulnerable to climate change”. People and ecosystems least able to cope will be hit hardest. Livelihoods have already “been affected through changes in agricultural productivity, impacts on human health and food security,” the authors write. “The report is a dire warning about the consequences of inaction. It shows that climate change is a grave and mounting threat to our well-being and a healthy planet,” IPCC chair Hoesung Lee said during the press conference. “It also shows that our actions today will shape how people adapt to climate change and how nature responds to increasing climate risks.”

The Working Group II report is the second instalment of the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) and considers over 34,000 cited references. The 3,675 pages were prepared by 270 authors from 67 countries supported by a large number of review and contributing authors. Working Group I had already published a first instalment about the physical science basis of climate change in August 2021. The new report examines the impacts of climate change on nature and people around the globe, reviews vulnerabilities and the capacities and limits of the natural world and human societies to adapt to climate change. Its Summary for Policymakers (SMP) was approved on February 27th by 195 member governments of the IPCC in a virtual session that was held over the previous two weeks.

The first section deals with observed and projected impacts and risks. “Human-induced climate change, including more frequent and intense extreme events, has caused widespread adverse impacts and related losses and damages to nature and people,” is the first headline statement. The IPCC warns in a press release that “increased heatwaves, droughts and floods are already exceeding plants’ and animals’ tolerance thresholds, driving mass mortalities in species such as trees and corals. These weather extremes are occurring simultaneously and have exposed millions of people to acute food and water insecurity, especially in Africa, Asia, Central and South America, on Small Islands and in the Arctic.” Moreover, economic damages from climate change negatively affect sectors such as agriculture, forestry, fishery, energy, and tourism. People are faced with decreasing yields, hunger, the destruction of homes and infrastructure, and the loss of property and income, “with adverse effects on gender and social equity”. The vulnerability of ecosystems and people to climate change differs substantially among and within regions but in general, the most vulnerable are disproportionately affected, says the report. “Vulnerability is higher in locations with poverty, governance challenges and limited access to basic services and resources, violent conflict and high levels of climate-sensitive livelihoods (e.g., smallholder farmers, pastoralists, fishing communities).” The authors project that the future of ecosystems will strongly depend on human influence, such as unsustainable consumption and production, increasing demographic pressures, as well as persistent unsustainable use and management of land, ocean, and water. “While agricultural development contributes to food security, unsustainable agricultural expansion, driven in part by unbalanced diets, increases ecosystem and human vulnerability and leads to competition for land and/or water resources.”

The report differentiates between risks in the near term (2021-2040) and mid to long-term risks (2041–2100). There is high confidence that “global warming, reaching 1.5°C in the near-term, would cause unavoidable increases in multiple climate hazards and present multiple risks to ecosystems and humans.” Beyond 2040 and depending on the level of global warming, climate change will lead to numerous risks to natural and human systems: “Climate change will increasingly put pressure on food production and access, especially in vulnerable regions, undermining food security and nutrition.” Droughts, floods and heatwaves will become more frequent, intense and severe and continued sea level rise will increase risks to food security in vulnerable regions from moderate to high between 1.5°C and 2°C global warming level. “At 2°C or higher global warming level in the mid-term, food security risks due to climate change will be more severe, leading to malnutrition and micro-nutrient deficiencies, concentrated in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, Central and South America and Small Islands,” the authors warn.

The second section deals with adaptation. The authors observe progress in current planning and implementation of adaptation measures but “adaptation progress is unevenly distributed”. They note a certain short-sightedness because “many initiatives prioritize immediate and near- term climate risk reduction which reduces the opportunity for transformational adaptation.” The good news is that there are feasible and effective adaptation options which can reduce risks to people and nature. With respect to agriculture and food security, the scientist say that “effective adaptation options, together with supportive public policies enhance food availability and stability and reduce climate risk for food systems while increasing their sustainability.” According to the report, effective options include “agroforestry, community-based adaptation, farm and landscape diversification, and urban agriculture”. There is high confidence that “agroecological principles and practices, ecosystem-based management in fisheries and aquaculture, and other approaches that work with natural processes support food security, nutrition, health and well-being, livelihoods and biodiversity, sustainability and ecosystem services”, the authors write. These services include pest control, pollination, buffering of temperature extremes, and carbon sequestration and storage. “Healthy ecosystems are more resilient to climate change and provide life-critical services such as food and clean water”, said IPCC Working Group II Co-Chair Hans-Otto Pörtner. “By restoring degraded ecosystems and effectively and equitably conserving 30 to 50 per cent of Earth’s land, freshwater and ocean habitats, society can benefit from nature’s capacity to absorb and store carbon, and we can accelerate progress towards sustainable development, but adequate finance and political support are essential.”

The IPCC underlines that integrated, multi-sectoral solutions that address social inequities and differentiate responses based on climate risk and local situation will enhance food security and nutrition. Finally, the authors point out that “adaptation strategies which reduce food loss and waste or support balanced diets (as described in the IPCC Special Report on Climate Change and Land) contribute to nutrition, health, biodiversity and other environmental benefits.” Pörtner added: “The scientific evidence is unequivocal: climate change is a threat to human wellbeing and the health of the planet. Any further delay in concerted global action will miss a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a liveable future.” (ab)

22.02.2022 |

Global organic market grew considerably in 2020

Organic products at the market (Photo: CC0)

Organic farmland and retail sales both continued to show strong growth worldwide, according to a new report published by FiBL and IFOAM – Organics International. Almost 75 million hectares were farmed organically at the end of 2020, representing a growth of 4.1% or 3 million hectares compared to the previous year. These are the latest figures of the 23rd edition of “The World of Organic Agriculture”, presented on February 15th at this year’s digital edition of BIOFACH, the world’s leading trade fair for organic food. The report collects data on 190 countries with organic farming activities. Australia has the largest area farmed organically with 35.7 million hectares, but it is estimated that 97% of the farmland there is extensive grazing areas. Argentina is second when it comes to organic agricultural land (4.5 million hectares), followed by Uruguay (2.7 million hectares), India (2.6 million hectares) and France (2.5 million hectares). Due to the large area of organic farmland in Australia, half of the global organic area lies in Oceania (35.9 million hectares). Europe had the second largest area (17.1 million hectares), followed by Latin America (9.9 million hectares).

Currently, only 1.6% of the world’s agricultural land is farmed organically, but many countries have far higher shares. In 18 countries, 10% or more of all agricultural land was under organic management in 2020, up from 16 countries in 2019. The top five countries with the largest share of organic land were Liechtenstein (41.6%), Austria (26.5%), Estonia (22.4%), Sao Tome and Principe (20.7%) and Sweden (20.4%). However, 54% of the countries for which data is available had less than 1% of their agricultural land under organic management. According to the report, there were 3.4 million organic farmers worldwide and their number increased by 7.6% compared to the previous year. However, the authors point out that calculating precise figures is difficult here because some countries only report the number of companies, projects or growers groups which may each comprise many individual producers, hence the total number might even be higher. More than half of the world’s organic producers (53.7%) live in Asia, while Africa is home to 24.7% and Europe to 12.4% of organic producers. The country with the highest absolute numbers is India with 1.59 million farmers, followed by Ethiopia (219,566) and Tanzania (148,607 farmers).

Consumer demand for organic products across the globe showed its highest growth ever in 2020. Global retail sales of organic food and drink exceeded 120 billion euros in 2020 and experienced a total increase of 14 billion euros from the previous year. The publishers of the yearbook explain that the COVID-19 pandemic led to a significant increase in demand for organic products in many countries, but there were also challenges: “The effects of the pandemic are visible in retail sales data. As people stayed home and began to cook more often and health, environment and climate change have become big issues, organic retail sales increased rapidly. However, at the same time, in the food service sales decreased in many countries”, says Helga Willer, who is in charge of the yearbook at FiBL. In 2020, the United States was the leading market (49.5 billion euros), followed by Germany (15bn euros) and France (12.7bn euros). Many markets showed extraordinarily strong growth rates. The Canadian market grew by 26.1%, while market growth in China and Germany was at 23% and 22.3% respectively. Looking at the shares the organic market has of the total market, the leader is Denmark with 13%, followed by Austria with an organic market share of 11.3% and Switzerland with 10.8%. Swiss consumers spent the most on organic food with 418 euros, followed by per capita consumer spending in Denmark (384 euros), Luxembourg (285 euros) and in Austria (254 euros).

The report not only includes facts and figures but also an evaluation of the United Nations’ Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) that took place in autumn 2021. Three authors from IFOAM International looked specifically at the role agroecology and organic agriculture played at the UNFSS, an event that from the outset earned heavy criticism from various movements that questioned its inclusivity. Unlike hundreds of other organisations that withdrew from the process due to the corporate capture of the summit, IFOAM decided “to engage in the process with a critical eye, consistently promoting agroecology and organic farming in all the different elements of the process,” the authors write. Their conclusion is that agroecology did not get sidelined in the UNFSS process because “the agroecology narrative could clearly be captured in various papers” produced by the so-called action tracks and “agroecology and organic agriculture were also named by numerous state representatives who expressed their commitment to agroecological transition.” However, “the most tangible result of the efforts to mainstream agroecology in the UNFSS was probably the creation of a ‘Coalition for the Transformation of Food Systems Through Agroecology and Regenerative Agriculture’, with a mandate to ensure that agroecology and organic agriculture are seen as progressive and pioneering within the UNFSS and in any subsequent process.” The authors conclude that “there are growing opportunities for the organic movements worldwide to get engaged in transformational decision-making processes aiming to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in the years to come.” (ab)

09.02.2022 |

The 70% battle: Small farms still feed the world, open letter

Small farms feed the world (Photo: CC0)

The long-standing debate about which farms feed the world has gained new momentum as eight civil society organisations are criticizing the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) for supporting a report that downplays the contribution of small-scale food producers to the global food supply. Over the past couple of years, the figure calculated by civil society organisations (CSO) and researchers that around 70% of the world is fed by small-scale farmers and other peasants, was frequently quoted and confirmed by new studies. The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) estimated that small producers even provide 80% of food in large parts of the developing world. However, two recent papers claim that small farms only feed about one third of the world’s population and one of them is authored by the FAO. Eight organisations with long experience working on food and farming issues, including ETC Group and GRAIN, have now written to FAO Director General QU Dongyu, sharply criticizing the UN food agency for spreading confusing data. The open letter calls upon FAO to examine its methodology, clarify itself and to reaffirm that peasants (including small farmers, artisanal fishers, pastoralists, hunters and gatherers, and urban producers) not only provide more food with fewer resources but are the primary source of nourishment for at least 70% of the world population.

The open letter, as well as a background paper published by ETC Group, refer to two problematic studies: First, a 2018 publication by data scientist Vincent Ricciardi and his colleagues from the University of British Columbia (Ricciardi et al.) that uses a data model built on formal crop production data and estimated the contribution of smallholders to be closer to only 30% of food supply. Second, a study published in 2021 as FAO research in the journal “World Development” authored by Sarah K Lowder et al. which concludes that small farms only produce 35% of the world’s food using 12% of agricultural land. “Whether small or large producers feed the world (…) really matters in setting policy to battle global hunger. For this reason, a closer look at these two papers is warranted,” says ETC Group and this is what they did in their backgrounder. They conclude that the two papers should not be relied upon to guide changes in policy due to a number of concerns.

One problem of the studies is that they significantly limit how a “small farmer” is defined by excluding other peasants and small producers from their calculations. The 2021 report proposes to clean up confusion created by a 2014 FAO paper which states that nine out of 10 of the world’s 570 million farms were ‘family farms’ and produced around 80% of the world’s food. However, the civil society organisations criticize that the definition used in the new studies is at odds with that of the UN Decade of the Family Farm (2019 – 2028) as proposed by FAO and IFAD. According to that FAO/IFAD terminology, ‘family farms’ encompass “models in agriculture, fishery forestry, pastoral and aquaculture, and include peasants, indigenous peoples, traditional communities, fisher folks, mountain farmers, forest users and pastoralists.” FAO’s 2021 publication, however, confines small farms to crop production and some on farm livestock keeping. Its updated estimates are that there are more than 608 million family farms around the world, occupying between 70 and 80% of the world’s farmland and producing around 80% of the world’s food in value terms. But the crucial point is the percentage attributed to small-scale farms:

Lowder et al. write: “These family farms must not be confused with small farms (those smaller than two hectares), which, according to our estimates, account for 84% of all farms worldwide, but operate only around 12% of all agricultural land and produce about 35% of the world’s food.” This 2 ha land area threshold for describing a ‘small farm’ is strongly criticized by the authors of the open letter. “The paper’s arbitrary 2 ha limitation contradicts the conclusions of the FAO Chief Statistician who, on the basis of a 2018 consultation in which more than 50 states participated, rejected a universal landholding threshold and instead set out a number of relative metrics to define small farms differently on a country by country basis.” The signatories affirm the right of peasants to self-identify and also note that nationally-defined descriptions of small farms appear to average 5 ha or in the range of 25% of all farmland. The backgrounder also highlights that average sizes of farms described as small are far higher in some regions such as Latin America, the Caribbean and North America. According to a dataset compiled by GRAIN, the average ‘smallholder farmer’ in North America holds 67.6 ha of land and in Latin America and the Caribbean, the average size of a small farm was found to be 9.7 ha.

The CSOs also accuse Lowder et al. of discounting or ignoring recent FAO and other reports which found that peasant farms produce more food and more nutritious food per hectare than large farms. “We are surprised that this latest publication from FAO undermines its long-held view that small farms are more productive than large farms. Despite having only 12% of the land, the 2021 paper acknowledges that small (under 2 ha) farms produce 35% of the food – suggesting that small farms should be almost three times more productive. Despite this, the authors declare themselves neutral on small farm productivity,” the open letter says. The CSO criticize that without evidence, the study maintains that policymakers are wrongly focused on peasant production and should give greater attention to larger production units. Lowder et al. seem to fear that the attention of international organizations may be diverted away from larger farms which hold the vast majority of agricultural land. “It would be difficult, if not impossible, to have an unbiased picture of the state of large scale and corporate agriculture if international organizations focus only on smallholders and small farms. This would hide important information on all types of farms, which will also be critical to achieve a number of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs),” they wrote. The CSOs say that no data is offered by Lowder et al. to substantiate policy biases toward peasants. “Nevertheless, the study has a point – just not the one it wishes to make. Policymakers need to understand why the industrial food chain produces so little food while consuming most of the world’s agricultural land and resources. Policy makers should ask themselves why they are investing huge commercial subsidies, land and other incentives on an industrial system that has so much power and profitability, and is so destructive to our environment and food security,” they conclude in their letter to the FAO.

Finally, the signing organisations strongly disagree with the study’s assumption that food production is a proxy for food consumption and that the commercial value of food in the marketplace can be equated to the nutritional value of the food consumed. “Both studies only measure agricultural production which is an inaccurate way to understand who feeds the world (a matter of consumption, not production). They claim to debunk the 70% estimate while mis-characterising what it describes,” the authors of the ETC backgrounder write. The 70% estimate which was also used by ETC Group in a report published in 2009 was more of a relative consumption claim. “It did not count total production but instead tried to understand the relative importance for food security of two parallel food systems: the peasant food web and the industrial food chain,” ETC Group said. Many people may draw their food provisions primarily from the food basket of the peasant food web, and not from the grocery stores and long links of the industrial food chain,” ETC Group explains. Those in the peasant food web may or may not grow all of their own food, trade with neighbours and sell the surplus in local markets. This web largely operates outside of global financial markets, may be unrecognised by formal trade surveys and often employs more agroecological production methods. In addition, the CSOs mention that industrial sectors food loss and waste – including deliberate over-production (and over-consumption) are not discussed in the paper despite its market emphasis. “We remain convinced that peasants not only grow a majority of the world’s food but are substantially more successful in meeting the nutritional requirements of food insecure populations,” the open letter says. (ab)


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