Wednesday, 18 February 2009

A real green revolution is needed – Achim Steiner of UNEP

Starving poor led food riots in at least 33 countries in 2008; the under-funded FAO warns they are happening again this year.

The United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) Nairobi meeting from 16-20 February aims at solving world environmental, financial, food and energy crises by creating a Green Economy.

“We need a Green Revolution in a Green Economy but one with a capital G”, says UN Under-Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner. “We need to deal with not only the way the world produces food but the way it is distributed, sold and consumed, and we need a revolution that can boost yields by working with rather than against nature. Over half of the food produced today is lost, wasted or discarded as a result of inefficiency in the human-managed food chain. There is evidence within the report that the world could feed the entire projected population growth alone by becoming more efficient while also ensuring the survival of wild animals, birds and fish on this planet. Simply ratcheting up the fertilizer and pesticide-led production methods of the 20th Century is unlikely to address the challenge. It will increasingly undermine the critical natural inputs and nature-based services for agriculture such as healthy and productive soils, the water and nutrient recycling of forests, and pollinators such as bees and bats.”

UNEP's just-released report The Environmental Food Crisis: The environment’s role in averting future food crises states:
  • food prices may increase by 30-50 per cent within the next few decades, due to drought, biofuels, high oil prices, low grain stocks and commodity speculation
  • the food supply of the poor has already been hit by rich countries' overfishing and ethanol subsidies
  • global warming threatens 25% of world food production
  • meat consumption is rising rapidly, depleting grain stocks, deforesting the tropics, and chasing the poor off the land
  • “green” biofuels should be produced from food wastes, switchgrass, straw and even nutshells
  • 30 million tonnes of “trash fish” and “bycatch” are dumped annually. These could be used to increase fish farming and aquaculture production, without increasing pressure on wild fish stocks.
Climate change is a key threat to feeding earth's 9 billion people by 2050 -- yet another reason, says UNEP, that “Governments at the UNFCCC negotiation in Copenhagen in 300 days’ time must agree on a deep and decisive new global deal.” UNEP proposes mechanisms to
  • control global food prices
  • set up an international micro-finance fund for small-scale farmer productivity in developing countries.
  • end rich counties' agricultural subsidies and dumping
  • develop second generation biofuels based on wastes rather than on primary crops
  • mitigation measures to adapt to extreme rainfall and drought on continents such as Africa
  • aid to diversified and organic farming [see below - Ed.]
  • enhance the “nature-based” inputs and “environmental services”: natural pollinators, water supplies, genetic diversity.
Organic farm in Africa: courtesy of Urban Sprout blog.

UNEP cites wasteful business-as-usual practices:
  • US losses and food waste are estimated at 40-50%
  • US markets are not working: while food banks go empty, ~25% of freshfruits and vegetables are lost between the field and the table
  • food waste is half of Australia landfill
  • 30% of food purchased in the UK is not eaten
  • 30% of fish landed in Africa is lost, discarded, or spoiled
  • similar losses elsewhere in developing countries
  • 20-40% of the potential harvest in developing countries is lost to pests and pathogens
  • this will increase with global warming
  • also, rotting food gives off methane, one of the worst greenhouse gases
  • land degradation will reduce African yields by another 1-8 per cent
  • need for regional R&D in agriculture: only 13% of global investment is in Africa, versus 33%+ in Latin America and 40%+ in Asia. What should be done? for example, Nigeria is researching use of solar dryers to preserve the onion crop
  • a threat to irrigation for 50% of Asia’s cereal production, Himalaya glaciers are receding
  • water scarcity may reduce future world crop yields by ~12 %
  • croplands are swallowed up by urban sprawl
  • Sub-Saharan Africa population will grow from o.77 to over 1.7 billion by 2050
  • the phony “Green Revolution”: artificial fertilizers, pesticides, increased water use and cutting down of forests, will result in massive decline in biodiversity.
  • 80 per cent of all endangered species are threatened by agricultural expansion; Europe has lost over 50 per cent of its farmland birds; similar impacts are felt in N America
Organic farming in Africa

A UNEP / UNCTAD study of 114 small-scale farms in 24 African countries found:
  • organic farming doubled yields, reaching more than 125% in east Africa
  • this outperformed both traditional methods, and chemical-intensive conventional farming
  • environmental benefits: improved soil fertility, water retention, drought resistance
  • organic markets will continue to grow from $23 billion in 2002 to $70 billion in 2012
  • improved local education and community cooperation.
Similar studies have been made by FAO and IAASTD. Here is an example from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia -- TenaKebena video of a small-scale community agriculture and reclamation project.

See also 8 other UNEP videos and graphics on climate change impacts; Sustainable Land Use Forum Jan 2009 in Ethiopia; IDRC study Cities Feeding People (1994) on urban agriculture; City Farmer links; Sidewalk Sprouts blog; FAO – GIEWS Global Information and Early Warning System; Miguel Altieri, Small farms as a planetary ecological asset: five reasons...; corporate funding of African organic farms; previous posts tagged food.
Photo by John Morgan: urban agriculture project in Havana.

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