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Inter Press Service

Europe Sowing the Seeds of Hunger

Stephen Leahy

"The kind of farming that makes most money in the shortest time is absolutely at odds with the kind of farming that could feed us, and that could continue to feed us," writes biologist and author Colin Tudge. (photo via Flickr user Andrew Stawarz)

LEIPZIG, Germany - Europe is facing a hungry future unless it changes agricultural policies and makes farmers the main participants in agriculture research, a new report has found. And there is little hope of meeting Europe's recently announced goal of reducing the loss of biodiversity in ten years without making those changes.

France is suffering a severe drought but Europe's seed laws prevent farmers from using a wider variety of seeds that could help them cope, says Michel Pimbert of the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), non-profit research institute based in London.

"Our seed laws enforce uniformity. France can only plant approved seeds and those new varieties need a lot of water," Pimbert, the author of the report told IPS.

"Farmers’ freedom to choose the seeds they plant and to use them to develop improved crop varieties and biodiversity-rich farming will be key to Europe’s response to climate change," says Pimbert.

"Europe’s agriculture policies are preventing us from adapting to climate change. They are also bad for biodiversity since they force farmers to use an increasingly narrow range of seeds and animal breeds," he says.

Farmers are handcuffed by a system of seed laws that enforce uniformity and protect patents and intellectual property. In practice this means only the most advanced varieties can be sold on the market. But under intellectual property laws this means farmers must pay for the right to use patented genes and proprietary technologies, mostly owned by large corporations.

Scientists are in the same trap and unable to utilise the full range of seed diversity, says Pimbert.

The net result is dramatic reduction in genetic diversity across a wide variety of crops, finds the Farm Seed Opportunities report released earlier this month. The report is based on findings of the EU-funded Farm Seed Opportunities project which includes public-sector research institutes, peasant networks and organic farmers’ associations from six European countries.

Experts agree that diversity can build resilience in a food production system that will be hard hit by climate change. A diverse combination of plants, trees and animals doubled the yields in 20 countries in sub-Saharan Africa in the last ten years according to a recent report by Olivier De Schutter, U.N. Special Rapporteur on the right to food. De Schutter calls this form of agriculture ‘agroecology’. Not only does agroecology produce more food at lower cost, it improves the health of the soil and also dramatically lowers farming's carbon footprint.

"It is fair to say that between 45 and 50 percent of all human emissions of global warming gases come from the current form of food production," De Shutter said in a previous IPS interview.

The current global food production system is "threatening to kill us all," writes biologist and author Colin Tudge, in the report’s foreword. "The kind of farming that makes most money in the shortest time is absolutely at odds with the kind of farming that could feed us, and that could continue to feed us," Tudge writes.

Agroecological farming works the way nature works, with a wide variety of living things acting synergistically. There is much evidence demonstrating that such methods produce more food and are more sustainable, he says.

Europe's Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) is a success but only in terms of making money for large agri-business corporations and producing large quantities of food at the cost of enormous carbon emissions, pollution, degradation of farmland, dramatic cuts in the numbers of farmers and dumping cheap food onto poor countries, undercutting their farmers says Pimbert. The average age of a farmer in the UK is over 60. "There is a fraction of the number of farmers in western Europe, they all been replaced by machines and captial."

The Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) is the European Union’s system of agricultural subsidies and programmes and is to be reformed in 2013. Currently the CAP is driven by neo-liberal economic policies and that has been a failure, says Carlo Petrini, president of Slow Food International.

"Every community should have the right to choose what to produce without being subjected to external influences dictated by international markets," Petrini said in a statement.

Strengthening support for local farmers must be part of the new CAP, says José Bové, French farmer, activist and vice-president of the European Parliament’s Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development. "If rural communities do not have the chance to take hold of their destiny, then the situation cannot improve," Bové said in a statement.

The new CAP needs to shift research and policy priorities from a near exclusive focus on monocultures to whole farm agroecological approaches and to safeguard the biological diversity upon which our food supplies depend, says Pimbert. "Scientists are not trained to deal with complex systems, so that's a challenge." Farmers also need to be central in that effort with the freedom to exchange seeds and utilise diversity he says.

As it stands today Europe is ill-prepared to cope with climate change. "So far we've been buffered from significant impacts but what is coming is beyond our experience," concludes Pimbert. 

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