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farmer holds seedlings

A farmer holding seedlings was featured in a report released September 14, 2021 by a trio of United Nations organizations. (Photo: Hend Younis/Food and Agriculture Organization)

UN Report Calls for 'Repurposing' $470 Billion in Agriculture Support to Serve People and Planet

"Governments have an opportunity now to transform agriculture into a major driver of human well-being, and into a solution for the imminent threats of climate change, nature loss, and pollution."

Jessica Corbett

Ahead of three upcoming summits, a trio of United Nations organizations on Tuesday released a report highlighting how billions of dollars in governments' support for agriculture worldwide could be repurposed to transform the global food system in a way that benefits both humanity and the planet.

"By shifting to more nature-positive, equitable, and efficient agricultural support, we can improve livelihoods, and at the same time cut emissions, protect and restore ecosystems, and reduce the use of agrochemicals."
—Inger Andersen, UNEP

"Governments have an opportunity now to transform agriculture into a major driver of human well-being, and into a solution for the imminent threats of climate change, nature loss, and pollution," said Inger Andersen, executive director of the U.N. Environment Program (UNEP), in a statement.

"By shifting to more nature-positive, equitable, and efficient agricultural support," Andersen said, "we can improve livelihoods, and at the same time cut emissions, protect and restore ecosystems, and reduce the use of agrochemicals."

The UNEP released the report (pdf) with the U.N. Development Program (UNDP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) before world leaders head into high-stakes talks about the interrelated issues of the global food system, nature loss, and the climate emergency.

After next week's U.N. Food Systems Summit (UNFSS), a biodiversity event is scheduled for next month and a climate conference known as COP 26 is set to kick off at the end of October.

The new report warns that the public support mechanisms for agriculture, totaling about $540 billion annually, "are actively steering us away from achieving" the Sustainable Development Goals and the aims of the 2015 Paris agreement. It calls for "repurposing" 87% of this support, or about $470 billion, to meet global environmental and social goals.

"Agricultural policies, while shaping what food is produced, also have impacts well beyond the farm gate," the report emphasizes, noting the effect on not only nutrition, health, equity, and efficiency but also nature and climate—due to planet-heating emissions; carbon sequestration; soil, freshwater, and forest preservation; and biodiversity loss.

Billions of dollars in price incentives and production-related subsidies each year "are inefficient, distort food prices, hurt people's health, degrade the environment, and are often inequitable, putting big agribusiness ahead of smallholder farmers, a large share of whom are women," the agencies explained in a statement.

"Repurposing agricultural support to shift our agri-food systems in a greener, more sustainable direction—including by rewarding good practices such as sustainable farming and climate-smart approaches—can improve both productivity and environmental outcomes," said Achim Steiner, UNDP's administrator. "It will also boost the livelihoods of the 500 million smallholder farmers worldwide—many of them women—by ensuring a more level playing field."

While recognizing that there is "no one-size-fits-all optimal repurposing strategy," the report includes six steps for governments to craft their own:

  • Step 1: Estimate the support already provided.
  • Step 2: Identify and estimate the impact of the support provided.
  • Step 3: Design the approach for repurposing agricultural producer support, including identifying needed reforms.
  • Step 4: Estimate the future impact of the repurposing strategy.
  • Step 5: Review and refine the repurposing strategy, prior to implementation.
  • Step 6: Monitor the outcomes of the new agricultural producer support.

"This report, released on the eve of the U.N. Food Systems Summit, is a wake-up call for governments around the world to rethink agricultural support schemes to make them fit for purpose to transform our agri-food systems and contribute to the Four Betters: Better nutrition, better production, better environment, and a better life," declared Qu Dongyu, FAO director-general.

In anticipation of the UNFSS, animal and climate justice advocates last month called for the application of carbon pricing to meat and dairy products. A pair of recent analyses has underscored how animal agriculture substantially contributes to global heating.

"This report, released on the eve of the U.N. Food Systems Summit, is a wake-up call for governments around the world to rethink agricultural support schemes."
—Qu Dongyu, FAO

As Common Dreams previously reported, the upcoming event as well as a July pre-summit have provoked backlash from hundreds of civil society and Indigenous peoples' groups demanding "a radical, human rights-based, and agroecological transformation of food systems."

During the pre-summit earlier this summer, thousands of people mobilized to "call for food systems that empower people, not companies," according to Slow Food, which noted that the official event "ended without any resolution of the fundamental issues, like binding rules to force agribusiness corporations to respect human rights and protect the environment, end pesticide use, and end their monopoly over the global seed market."

An "Anti-Imperialist Manifesto in Defense of the Environment" released in June by La Via Campesina—a global movement of peasants, farmers, landless people, rural women and youth, Indigenous individuals, migrants, and agricultural workers—also touched on those issues.

La Via Campesina said at the time that "we must also urgently unite against the forthcoming corporate-led" U.N. Food Systems Summit, "as it promotes false solutions which will not only worsen the current climate and environmental crisis but will also constitute a serious attack to our rights as peasants, Indigenous communities, women, migrants, and rural communities."


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