Food systems depend on health of natural world, IUCN emphasises at future of farming debate

European and global food systems will only be able to continue delivering if the natural world is in a healthy condition, IUCN’s Global Director for Policy, Cyriaque Sendashonga, said on Tuesday (27 March) during a major event in Brussels on the future of agriculture.

Cyriaque Sendashonga FFA

Agricultural systems are deeply dependent on nature, for example for soil fertility, clean water, pollination, and pest control, amongst other ecosystem services. It is estimated that about one third of all food depends on pollination. Furthermore, at least one quarter of all land on the planet is estimated to be affected by degradation, and two thirds of this is attributed to agriculture.

Research published last week also showed that bird species have fallen by a third in France, due largely to the decline in insects caused by human activities such as widespread pesticide use.

“It is clear that agriculture that comes at such a high cost to the environment cannot be sustainable,” Cyriaque Sendashonga said at the Forum for the Future of Agriculture (FFA), one of the main annual events in Brussels promoting dialogue about farming and the environment.

Nature-based solutions

Nature-based solutions (NBS) can point to a way forward. NBS such as Sustainable Land Management provide an array of approaches for sustaining food production while safeguarding the ecosystem services upon which agriculture depends. They also provide benefits to society as a whole, in addition to positive externalities such as protecting water supply or mitigating climate change.

“Some of the solutions are already there in nature,” Ms. Sendashonga said. “In many cases Sustainable Land Management has halted declines in food production, arrested the abandonment of exhausted land, and raised overall output, while providing other environmental services to society.”

IUCN pioneered NBS almost two decades ago and continues to support and lead a wide range of projects implementing them on the ground.

Hilal Elver, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, spoke of the potential of agroecology, which has shown in many parts of the world to be effective in producing nutritious food while reducing impacts on nature. She also argued for the democratisation of food systems and greater government accountability.

Ms. Sendashonga spoke of the importance of the UN Sustainable Development Goals as framework for finding solutions to the environmental problems associated with contemporary farming, adding that the SDGs also “have the beauty of being a universal agenda.”

Queen Noor Al Hussein of Jordan mentioned the importance of women farmers who, globally, are the main producers of some staple crops, as well as smallholders, who produce about 50% of the world's food.

EU farm policy

The EU has great responsibility in ensuring that food systems become more sustainable: the EU is a major food producer, importer and exporter, and has a major effect on global food systems through its market influence and legislative system.

The European Commissioner for Agriculture, Phil Hogan, recognised the need for change in the European food system, arguing that the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) needs a new “green architecture.” “It is important that the [climate] mitigation potential of agriculture does not lag behind other areas [of the economy],” he said.

European Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans echoed concerns about the state of biodiversity and the effects of climate change. “What’s happening to our biodiversity is extremely alarming. The desertification in parts of Europe is extremely alarming,” he said, adding that he would like to see the CAP as a “force for change.”

The European Commission intends to publish new proposals on the CAP in May 2018.

Janez Potocnik, the Chair of the 2018 FFA and Chairman of the RISE Foundation, emphasised that improving the sustainability of the EU’s agricultural system and restoring degraded ecosystems are questions of generational equity. “We prefer to enjoy the illusion of prosperity by taking from the future,” he said. He also argued for a change in governance systems. “Leaders need to move from trying to solve problems reactively to co-creating the future. We should not be afraid of big ideas.”

Commenting on the debate, Luc Bas, Director of the IUCN European Regional Office, said: “It’s vital that the EU gets its agricultural policies right, including addressing problems with its subsidy system, to make sure public funding goes to public goods in a way which is good for farmers as well as for nature, both in Europe and globally.”

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