By Thomas Pesek,
FAO Senior Liaison Officer and AIARD Board Director
In recent years, there have been many publications and events surrounding The Future of Food and Agriculture. Many of these have concentrated on the unprecedented challenges posed by projected global population growth set against the backdrop of extreme weather. These have all registered cause for concern of one form or another. Yet FAO’s recently released State of the World’s Biodiversity for Food and Agriculture (Executive summary), the first ever global assessment of the state of biodiversity worldwide, issues a thunderous, earsplitting alarm bell for all who care to listen. The report is a thoroughly sobering read that should be keeping us all awake at night.
This first-of-its-kind report presents mounting and worrying evidence that the biodiversity that underpins our food systems is rapidly disappearing by the day – putting the future of our food, livelihoods, health and environment under severe threat. The report warns, once lost, species and biodiversity for food and agriculture cannot be recovered. There simply is no going back once species become extinct.
It’s worth noting that the report itself is significant not only for its sobering key findings but also because of how extremely comprehensive it is. It is the result of more than five years of work, drawing on information provided from 91 country reports (prepared by over 1 300 contributors), 27 reports from international organizations and with inputs from over 175 authors from around the world. As such, this is not merely a superficial snapshot. Importantly, the report also provides the first-ever baseline for policymakers and decision-makers to use in monitoring, measuring and reporting on progress moving forward.
Biodiversity for food and agriculture is all the plants and animals - wild and domesticated - that provide food, feed, fuel and fiber. It is also the myriad of organisms that support food production through ecosystem services – called “associated biodiversity”. This includes all the plants, animals and micro-organisms (such as insects, bats, birds, mangroves, corals, seagrasses, earthworms, soil-dwelling fungi and bacteria) that keep soils fertile, pollinate plants, purify water and air, keep fish and trees healthy, and fight crop and livestock pests and diseases.
The report points to decreasing plant diversity in farmers’ fields, rising numbers of livestock breeds at risk of extinction and increases in the proportion of overfished fish stocks. Of some 6,000 plant species cultivated for food, fewer than 200 contribute substantially to global food output, and only nine account for 66 percent of total crop production. The world’s livestock production is based on about 40 animal species, with only a handful providing the vast majority of meat, milk and eggs. Of the 7,745 local (occurring in one country) breeds of livestock reported globally, 26 percent are at risk of extinction. Nearly a third of fish stocks are overfished, more than half have reached their sustainable limit.
Information from the 91 reporting countries reveals that wild food species and many species that contribute to ecosystem services that are vital to food and agriculture, including pollinators, soil organisms and natural enemies of pests, are rapidly disappearing.
Many associated biodiversity species are also under severe threat. These include birds, bats and insects that help control pests and diseases, soil biodiversity, and wild pollinators – such as bees, butterflies, bats and birds. Forests, rangelands, mangroves, seagrass meadows, coral reefs and wetlands in general – key ecosystems that deliver numerous services essential to food and agriculture and are home to countless species – are also rapidly declining.
The report is not without signs of hope, however. Things are changing, though these efforts needs to be intensified, vastly scaled up and better coordinated. The knowledge, technologies and practices already exist that can make agriculture and the broader food system more biodiversity friendly.
In fact, biodiversity-friendly practices are on the rise. The report highlights a growing interest in biodiversity-friendly practices and approaches. Eighty percent of the 91 countries indicate using one or more biodiversity-friendly practices and approaches such as: organic agriculture, integrated pest management, conservation agriculture, sustainable soil management, agroecology, sustainable forest management, agroforestry, diversification practices in aquaculture, ecosystem approach to fisheries and ecosystem restoration.
One example of this shift featured comes to us from California, where farmers are allowing their rice fields to flood in winter instead of burning them after growing season. This provides 111,000 hectares of wetlands and open space for 230 bird species, many at risk of extinction. As a result, many species have begun to increase in numbers, and the number of ducks has doubled.
So what is FAO doing about all of this? Safeguarding biodiversity has been a major area of focus since FAO’s establishment nearly 75 years ago. For example, the First Session of the FAO Conference held in 1945 identified the need for fishery conservation measures as food shortages in Europe and elsewhere after World War II had stimulated overfishing.
In the 1950s FAO adopted the International Plant Protection Convention, a multilateral treaty for the application of phytosanitary measures by governments to protect their plant resources from harmful pests introduced through international trade. In 1983, FAO established what is today known as the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, which specifically deals with biodiversity relevant to food and agriculture.
FAO is working at the global level to promote policy coherence on these issues within the UN system and across our 194 Member State Governments to build consensus and promote action. Importantly, FAO is also working to build bridges between the agricultural sector and the environmental sector. Towards this end, FAO launched in 2017 the Biodiversity Mainstreaming Platform which is coordinating action across sectors, countries and regions In May 2018, FAO convened a Global Multi-stakeholder Dialogue on Biodiversity Mainstreaming across Agricultural Sectors. Moving forward, FAO is convening regional dialogues on Biodiversity Mainstreaming, the next one of which will be held in the Latin American and Caribbean region later this year and another thereafter in Asia in 2019.
At the end of day, alarming reports such as this one really matter most if they ultimately trigger action and change. And this report describes in great detail challenges and trends that at times may seem utterly impossible and without solutions. Yet if you read the report more closely, you will also find that these seemingly impossible challenges are actually great opportunities in disguise. So let us all exploit these windows of opportunity to act. Now. The future of food and agriculture depends on it, and on us.
The full report can be found HERE.
By Chuck Chopak,
DAI Global Practice Lead, Resilience
AIARD Director and Membership Committee Chair
I am, to put it diplomatically, a “seasoned” development professional. So seasoned that I did my Peace Corps service in the early 1980s. Ndjiarème, a tiny village in northern Senegal, was a dry, harsh environment. In the five years I lived there it seemingly rained only a handful of times. The farmers saw their staple millet crops fail in several of those years and eventually abandoned growing millet altogether. While these events seemed normal to me at the time, I realize now that I was living in a momentous multiyear drought that would change the lives of the village families irrevocably.
Understanding the ability of households and communities to absorb and adapt to shocks and stresses—whether a single dry season or a chronic drought as I witnessed in Ndjiarème — is at the core of an emerging discipline in development work: resilience.
When you’ve been working in international development as long as I have, it can be easy to assume you’ve seen it all before, that new trends in development thinking are fads, or “old wine in new bottles.” Resilience thinking is anything but. While resilience does, of course, contain elements of what we have learned from work in developing countries over the years (old wine can be pretty good, no?), the way resilience is currently envisioned marks a fresh departure from the past.
Three significant aspects of the new approach to building resilience merit the attention of all of us gathering for the AIARD’s 55th annual conference, where we will be focusing on resilience in global food systems.
What is Resilience?
There are several definitions of resilience, some of them sector- or donor-specific, but I find USAID’s a useful guide to thinking about how resilience can be operationalized for development programming. USAID defines resilience as “the ability of people, households, communities, countries and systems to mitigate, adapt to and recover from shocks and stresses in a manner that reduces chronic vulnerability and facilitates inclusive growth.”
Shocks and stresses are features, not bugs
Shocks and stresses are something that people, households, communities, countries, and systems anywhere must face, whether you live in the developed world or an emerging nation. While this statement seems obvious, we haven’t actually “mainstreamed” factoring shocks and stresses into our development planning and programming. Efforts to address the underlying causes of stresses—such as climate variability, population pressure, cultural practices (i.e., around water, sanitation, and hygiene), weak institutions, limited service provision, poor infrastructure, and degraded natural resources — have had some success. But on the whole, we haven’t done enough to build the capacity of vulnerable populations—those that hover around or below the poverty line — to withstand anticipated shocks and stresses.
In some countries and regions — such as the Sahel (drought and locusts), Nepal (earthquakes), South Sudan (civil insecurity), and Haiti (drought, floods, hurricanes, and earthquakes) — recurring crises are readily apparent and often in the news. In other countries, shocks are less frequent. In both cases, the simple truth is that shocks are normal occurrences, they can be anticipated, and their impact can be mitigated through programs that focus on building resilience in people, communities, institutions, or systems.
Linking humanitarian and development assistance
Countries susceptible to recurring crises have received large volumes of humanitarian assistance. Indeed, USAID spent about three-quarters of its humanitarian assistance funding in just 10 countries. While these billions of dollars are crucial in saving lives, the overall impact hasn’t proved long-lasting, as evidenced by malnutrition indicators — such as stunting and wasting — that in countries such as Niger remain at or above the World Health Organization’s severe or emergency levels.
Linking humanitarian and development efforts in countries liable to recurring crises is an important step forward. The approach is to coordinate and optimize such efforts through joint analysis, planning, and implementation of activities. Several significant multidonor activities in the Sahel and East Africa illustrate the evolution of this new thinking, including the USAID Partnership for Resilience and Economic Growth in the arid and semi-arid areas of northern Kenya, and USAID Joint Planning Cells in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel. In these contexts, USAID brings together relief and development teams to “layer, sequence and integrate” their efforts toward the shared goal of building resilience.
Efforts to support inclusive economic growth, environmentally responsible development, and strong government and civil society institutions can be undone if we fail to anticipate, plan for, mitigate, and respond to shocks and stresses. This backsliding is particularly pernicious for marginalized and disenfranchised people who can easily fall below — or further below — the poverty line.
The 2007–2008 world food price crisis is a good example. This systemic shock radically disrupted global food markets, resulting in huge price spikes, the brunt of which was borne by urban populations and poor rural households in developing countries. Some — such as Burkina Faso, Mozambique, Senegal, Indonesia, and Egypt — saw food riots; in Haiti, the violence contributed to the ouster of the Prime Minister. In the wake of the crisis, in 2008 and 2009, an additional 70 million and 80 million people, respectively, lapsed into malnourishment.
The events of a decade ago confirmed that the global food system is an interconnected web where significant shocks or longer-term stress can reverberate globally. As we gather for this year’s AIARD conference — under the theme of “Resilience in global food systems: what does this look like and what will it take?” — we find ourselves at an important moment, compelled to reflect on how we can build resilience in food and other systems. In part because of factors such as climate change, shocks and stresses are occurring more frequently and with more severity. While we will never eliminate shocks and stresses entirely, it is our task to ensure that by building the capacity of people, communities, and systems to absorb and adapt to disruptive forces, we can minimize the human impact in terms of poverty, hunger, and malnutrition.
By Bob Rabatsky,
AIARD President 2017-2018
Senior Vice President at Fintrac
Water availability is the most limiting factor to the production of food. The trends in safe water availability and use are improving, but still present a major challenge. According to the United Nations (UN), since 1990, the proportion of people using an improved water source increased from 76 to 90 percent. But nearly one half of the world’s population face water scarcity at least one month per year, and each year over 360 thousand children under the age of five die due to diarrhea, related to poor sanitation. It is estimated that 70% of all freshwater extracted from aquifers, rivers, and lakes is used in agriculture. This is concerning because by 2050 the UN estimates that two billion people, or 20% of the world’s population, will be living with the risk of reduced access to fresh water, and of course, this threat will be the most severe for the world’s poorest, many of them farmers.
Water and agriculture
Water availability and management are crucial to food production, which is increasingly at risk as more people, cities, and industries compete for fresh water. Not surprisingly, given their populations, India and China lead the world in, “water withdrawal,” or use for agriculture, using 688 and 388 billion cubic meters (BM3) respectively (FAO 2010). The U.S., in comparison, uses 175 BM3, but with a population approximately one third the size of China or India, uses an equivalent amount per capita as India and far more than China.
In the emerging economies, where many of us work, the vast majority of agriculture is conducted by 500 million smallholder farmers. They farm two hectares or less and provide all or part of the household income for 2.5 billion people, or one-third of the world’s population, as well as significant portions of food consumed in these countries. With the exception of India, which has made significant investments in irrigation infrastructure (35% of the land is irrigated), these farmers are dependent on rainfall for agriculture production. For example, only 4% of African land area is irrigated. As climate change impacts rainfall patterns, these farmers face uncertain food production on an annual basis. With little in the way of savings, credit access or insurance, a bad year means selling animals and other assets to pay for food and other necessities. The World Bank and others have documented that as a result of these uncertainties and the lack of an adequate safety net such as subsidies or crop insurance, these smallholder farmers are reluctant to invest in better seeds, fertilizers, pest management products, and other productivity-enhancing technologies, dooming them to food insecurity and poverty. Additionally, poor yields also contribute to local and regional food shortages and price hikes. Getting water availability and use rights is in everyone’s best interest.
Technologies and water use
Technologies that can address uncertain rainfall and other climate risks are increasingly becoming available and affordable in these markets. Through innovative donor-funded programs such as Feed the Future Partnering for Innovation, Powering Agriculture: An Energy Grand Challenge for Development, and Securing Water for Food, companies that have developed and are commercializing innovative technologies are provided incentives to focus their marketing and sales efforts to these challenging last mile markets. The technologies include low-cost mini drip irrigation kits, drought-tolerant seeds, biological products that improve soil organic content, treadle and solar pumps, weather tracking systems, and crop and animal insurance products. And of course, to ensure that a technology is properly deployed and will work as advertised, these programs can either work directly with their commercial partners or team with other development programs to provide adequate aftersales service and training support in both the technology use and in basic good agricultural practices (GAPs). Successful early deployment of technology is critical to scaling. Farmers who effectively use a technology and demonstrate increased productivity and earnings, as a result, are the best product marketing that a company can wish for.
Policies on water use
Government policies also have a significant influence on the availability and affordability of water for agriculture. Laws and traditions in many countries allow for unlimited access to surface and subsurface water which can result in soil and fertilizer/chemical runoff, declining aquifers, pollution, and soil damage from salt buildup. Interesting work is being done in assessing individual country performance on water use policies and practices. A “Water Use Scorecard,” similar to the ranking that the World Bank uses for doing business in ranking country-by-country policies, but instead looks at factors such as water use, potability, and climate risk, is being developed by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Enabling Environment for Food Security project. Look for the scorecard to be available soon. The Chicago Council on Global Affairs just released a report titled “From Scarcity to Security: Managing Water for a Nutritious Food Future” where it calls for policies and coordination between governments to address the growing need for fresh water, expected to increase 30-50% over current levels by 2050. And business and non-governmental organizations are ahead of governments in many cases in developing consortia of business and foundations to address water and climate. For example, the Ecosystem Services Market Consortium was recently formed by Archer Daniels Midland, Bunge, Cargill, General Mills, Indigo Agriculture, Mars, McDonalds USA, Noble Research Institute, the Soil Health Institute and The Nature Conservancy to advance the development of a market-based system to promote land stewardship and build healthy soils, sequester carbon, and conserve water on the earth’s productive agricultural lands. Good policy is good business!
The challenges are immense, but certainly, the technologies and the know-how exists to use water more efficiently to both produce food and supply clean water that the world will need to support 10 billion people. The approaches and technologies need to be more evenly distributed, and success requires the public and private sectors to have to continue to collaborate and coordinate in this effort.
Some of the many fantastic resources for exploring water include:
University of Oxford Our World in Data
United Nations Water
World Bank Water
Feed the Future Partnering for Innovation
Powering Agriculture: An Energy Grand Challenge for Development
Securing Water for Food
Enabling Environment for Food Security
Chicago Council report From Scarcity to Security: Managing Water for a Nutritious Future
Ecosystem Services Market Consortium
By Russ Webster, AIARD Vice-President
Founder and President of Grow to Market
Like many holiday celebrations around the world, the American tradition of Thanksgiving centers around family, friends, and — of course — food. We gather, we feast, we share stories, we laugh, and we give thanks for our many blessings. To prepare for Thanksgiving we shop, cook, serve, eat, and sometimes eat again. This is the process that most of us typically see – shop, cook, eat, shop, cook, eat, repeat. It makes me hungry just thinking about it!
What most of us don’t see are all of the steps connecting farm to store – the processors, packers, cold-storage operators, transporters, warehouse operators, packaging facilities, grocery store managers, and stock clerks. Imagine for a minute a can of cream-of-mushroom soup (I grew up in the Midwest, and this was a CRUCIAL ingredient for green-bean casserole…). How many businesses and workers are involved in that can of soup? Many!
In the U.S., according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), food and agriculture accounted for 11 percent—about 21.6 million full and part-time jobs—of total employment in 2017. Of these 21.6 million jobs, about 2.6 were on-farm, 15.7 were accounted for in food services—food and beverage stores, restaurants, and bars, etc.—and the remaining 3.3 were in other food and agriculture related industries. In addition to jobs, the U.S. food and agriculture sectors are characterized by high levels of mechanization at all stages of value addition and public support for funding needed infrastructure including roads, energy, and communications.
Levels of employment in developing countries are, by contrast, much higher percentagewise. In Africa, an estimated 60 percent of the workforce is engaged in agriculture, and countless small, micro and informal businesses are working to move food from the farm gate to local, urban, and in some cases export markets. Their distinct disadvantage, however, is not having access to capital equipment, finance, and infrastructure needed to efficiently and safely build farm-to-table linkages. This contributes to tremendous levels of food loss before getting to consumers, which in turn becomes a major contributor to hunger and malnutrition. In fact, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), about 1/3 of food produced globally is either lost or wasted. In industrialized countries, waste occurs primarily at the retail or post-consumer levels, whereas in developing countries most occurs post-harvest and in processing, before reaching consumers.
There are a lot of issues to be addressed in overcoming world hunger and malnutrition. One that deserves more of our attention is just what’s being discussed here: capturing food that is already produced (meaning nutrition too) and delivering it safely to consumers. This of course will require broad stakeholder engagement, from both the public and private sectors. It also means helping entrepreneurs and business owners, primarily small- and medium-sized, to adopt better food safety and food processing practices into their business models, as well as developing markets and consumer demand for their higher-quality, higher-cost food products. Good food can be good business.
So, this Thanksgiving, think about all of those folks who played a part in setting your table, starting with the farmer, right up to the stock clerk. Think too about their peers in developing countries, and the similar-yet-different challenges they face, and how important their role is in feeding a hungry world. And, if you do eat green-bean casserole, thumbs up!
By Gretchen Neisler, AIARD President
Vice Provost for International Affairs, University of Tennessee - Knoxville
Fall has brought its splendor to our weather and forests and as many societies turn to celebrating the harvest season and giving thanks for the bounty of food produced, there are still 815 million people suffering from hunger. It is the silent killer – each year it is killing more people than malaria, tuberculosis and AIDS combined.
Today, the FAO celebrates the World Food Day to commemorate the founding of the Organization in 1945. “The commemoration promotes worldwide awareness and ACTION for those who suffer from hunger and for the need to ensure food security and nutritious diets for all.” (www.fao.org)
As an organization, AIARD and its members are steeped in the work of alleviating hunger, enhancing food production, and changing policies to reduce household food insecurity. While we know the facts that surround food insecurity and malnourishment, I hope you will take a moment to reflect on the progress that has been made after reading this – “out of the 129 countries monitored by FAO, 72 have already achieved the target of halving the proportion of people who suffer from hunger by 2015; over the past 20 years, the likelihood of a child dying before age five has been nearly cut in half, with about 17,000 children saved every day; extreme poverty rates have been cut in half since 1990.” (www.fao.org)
Now, take another moment and renew your commitment to the work that still needs to be done. What can you focus on for the next 12 months that will have a positive impact on this issue? Where can you maximize your network to instill change and modify behaviors for different outcomes?
Happy fall y’all from my new post at Rocky Top! I look forward to connecting with you and marveling at the good work being done to achieve #ZEROHUNGER and the great leadership we have in AIARD.
The mission of the AIARD BLOG
The mission of the AIARD Blog is to highlight and share thoughts, ideas and work from people who have devoted their careers to global agricultural development and hunger alleviation.