February 24, 2011
Some of the most financially successful companies in the world? Absolutely. Exploiters of workers and the environment? Some say so. The newest solution to global food insecurity and natural resource conservation? Apparently so.
These seven global companies, along with ten others spanning the agricultural value chain (including BASF, Bunge Limited, General Mills, Metro AG, Nestlé, PepsiCo, SABMiller, Syngenta, Unilever, and Yara International) are at the center of a new strategy presented at the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland on January 28th. Announced by Rajiv Shah, Director of U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the strategy is called “Realizing a New Vision for Agriculture: A roadmap for stakeholders” and aims to increase food production in an environmentally sustainable way while spurring economic growth. Each decade, the initiative aims to: (1) increase agricultural production by 20% to eliminate hunger and undernourishment; (2) reduce greenhouse gas emissions per tonne of production by 20%; and (3) decrease rural poverty by 20%.
Why is a “new vision for agriculture” needed? First and foremost, even in our world of plenty, nearly a billion people remain undernourished, 98% of who live in developing countries. The world’s population continues to grow at a rate of about 200,000 people per day, putting greater pressure on food production systems. At the same time, the intensity of food consumption is growing in emerging markets such as China; as people’s incomes rise, so does their demand for meat and dairy products, foods which are much more land and energy-intensive to produce. Another challenge arises as urban populations grow. We passed the point at which just as many people live in urban areas as do rural areas in 2007. This trend of urbanization will likely continue, requiring additional resources for packaging, shipping, storing, and distributing food to urban populations.
More food is needed, but it must be produced in environmentally sustainable ways if we expect the earth to continue to support us. The 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment revealed the horrifying extent to which humans have degraded the natural environment through our efforts to secure food, water and fuel (most of this damage has occurred over the past 50 years). One of the most alarming repercussions of human activity on the environment is global climate change, which will have dire consequences for health – including food security – in the coming years. Agriculture both contributes to and is threatened by environmental degradation and climate change. Additionally, the current agricultural system is heavily reliant on oil, and considering that oil is believed to have reached global peak production, the food system must undergo a massive transition if it is to function in a world of energy scarcity.
Recognizing many of these challenges, the New Vision for Agriculture describes a “virtuous cycle” in which improved policy, infrastructure, and market structure support innovative tools to fundamentally shift the way the agricultural systems operate in developing countries. It emphasizes the importance of aligning profit incentives with agricultural development so that investors and farmers have “the incentive to innovate, resilience to endure risk, and capital to advance.”
Enter the big 17. According to the New Vision for Agriculture, in order to spark a cycle of skill and investment, the private sector must be engaged as an active partner. Why is the participation of the private sector – and specifically these 17 corporations – necessary? According to the World Economic Forum, these multinational companies have the capacity for “innovation, investment, and growing markets.” Through President Obama’s Feed the Future initiative, the New Vision for Agriculture will create new public-private partnerships to scale up agricultural growth in food-insecure countries.
Not everyone is thrilled by these developments, however. Many in the sustainable food movement are up in arms, revolted by the idea that infamous corporate giants with track records of environmental destruction, human rights violations, and the pursuit of profits at the expense of all else will be leading the charge. Rather than supporting unsustainable models of agriculture that are based on proprietary corporate-controlled crops and high levels of pesticide and fertilizer use, the sustainable agriculture movement has called for USAID to invest in organic, sustainable agriculture to support local food economies in developing countries. Unlike conventional or industrial agriculture, sustainable agriculture is a dynamic, holistic, and place-based approach to food production that considers long-term ecological and societal benefits and, as several members of the CLF community describe, recognizes that natural resources are finite and that there are limits on economic growth.
While public-private partnerships theoretically benefit development efforts by contributing additional resources and technical expertise, they also bring a myriad of ethical concerns about conflicting interests and underlying motivations. In this case, the sustainable agriculture movement is correct to question the sagacity of the U.S. partnering with companies whose expertise lies in the industrial agriculture system, a system that has been show to be environmentally catastrophic, resource-intensive, and largely unsustainable.
The bottom line is that nearly a billion people need access to a stable source of food. The U.S. certainly has a role to play in helping address international food security, but rather than being driven by profit, the vision for achieving this should be molded by the wisdom of the hundreds of thousands of farmers who already till the soils of the developing world and the understanding that feeding the world today is important, but creating an agricultural system that can also feed the world tomorrow is the much more difficult challenge.
– Melissa Poulsen