The world needs to "wake up before it is too late" and usher in a paradigm shift in agriculture that moves away from industrial agriculture in favor of “mosaics of sustainable regenerative production system" that favor small-scale farmers and local food production, a new report from a UN body states.
However, the call from the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) flies in the face of the goals laid out by trade deals now being negotiated including the secretive Trans Pacific Partnership.
The report—Wake up before it is too late: Make agriculture truly sustainable now for food security in a changing climate (pdf)—was written with contributions from over 60 experts, and finds that "urgent and far-reaching action" is needed to address the "collective crisis" of "rural poverty, persistent hunger around the world, growing populations, and mounting environmental concerns."
The UNCTAD report was welcomed by groups who have long advocated for agroecological approaches, including GRAIN, La Via Campesina and the ETC Group.
“Long before the release of this report, small farmers around the world were already convinced that we absolutely need a diversified agriculture to guarantee a balanced local food production, the protection of people's livelihoods and the respect of nature,” Elizabeth Mpofu, general coordinator of La Via Campesina, said in a statement.
However, as the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) points out, the approaches the report advocates are incompatible with the free trade agreements like the TPP. In its contribution to the report, IATP
focused on the effects of trade liberalization on agriculture systems. We argued that trade liberalization both at the WTO and in regional deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) had increased volatility and corporate concentration in agriculture markets, while undermining the development of locally-based, agroecological systems that better support farmers.
The report’s findings are in stark contrast to the accelerated push for new free trade agreements, including the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the U.S.-EU Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which expand a long discredited model of economic development designed primarily to strengthen the hold of multinational corporate and financial firms on the global economy. Neither global climate talks nor other global food security forums reflect the urgency expressed in the UNCTAD report to transform agriculture.
Ulrich Hoffman, senior trade policy adviser at UNCTAD, also noted the barriers trade policies have on achieving the "truly ecological intensification" transformation laid out in the report. The Guardian reported that
Hoffman acknowledged it would be difficult to implement the agenda the report was suggesting. "Subsidies are a key hurdle … at a national level but also [in terms of] dealing with subsidies in the context of the WTO [World Trade Organization]," he said. There must be more scrutiny of agricultural subsidies, he argued, including those that appear to promote environmentally sustainable farming, as there were "ample opportunities for abuse or misuse."
In addition, the report notes that resilient agricultural practices can play a significant role "in dealing with resource scarcities and in mitigating and adapting to climate change." But these kinds of soil-building, organic practices are not those fostered by free trade deals that support giant agribusiness firms that use monocultures and industrial farming.
“We cannot solve the climate crisis without confronting the industrial food system and the corporations behind it," stated Henk Hobbelink of GRAIN, which also contributed to the study.
Peasant farmers group La Via Campesina was among a number of ecological farming advocates who stated that "to confront the climate emergency we need to dismantle the WTO and the free trade regime." The groups wrote:
These export-oriented economies also bleed Mother Nature in order to exploit the most out of it provoking disruptions in the environment as we are seeing now with climate change, biodiversity loss and the destruction of ecosystems. This is the capitalist logic – nature is just a thing to be exploited for profit.
The real beneficiaries of this [sic] imbalanced trade rules of the WTO are the transnational corporations since in reality, they are the ones that have more “comparative advantages” than fledgling national and domestic infant industries. In a world of free trade flows - as the WTO aspires – transnational corporations are free to enter and move between countries, choosing those with cheap labor and relaxed regulations and at the same time able to exit and move out just as easily after it has exhausted and grabbed the natural resources, leaving in several cases, their toxic waste.