January 21, 2016

Early Tremors of an Agricultural Shift

Aiden IrishEcoAgriculture Partners

From Mesopotamia to Mesoamerica, the first permanent human settlements –predecessors to modern cities – developed because of the agriculture around them.

However, this relationship has been, until recently, underrepresented in development policy. Omitting agriculture planning from urban development is a potentially destabilizing oversight. As cities deal with increasing urbanization and a changing global climate, agriculture and food system planning needs to take center stage in the planning of resilient cities. Making such a change, however, will require a tectonic shift in global agriculture policy.

Early rumblings of such a change in agriculture came from last week’s Global Forum for Food and Agriculture (GFFA) (January 14th to 16th). Ministers of agriculture representing 65 nations (PDF) convened in Berlin to discuss the future of the global agri-food industry: focusing on the question of “how to feed our cities?” and the relationship between urban and rural development in the creation of a sustainable and secure food system. In the resulting communiqué (PDF), the ministers expressed concern “that the national and international debate on urbanisation is not paying sufficient attention to food security.” In response to this and other concerns, the ministers laid out three key action areas for rectifying the current food system: make agriculture not only more productive, but more environmentally sustainable and economically profitable; structure food supply chains primarily around local systems, but with support from international trade; and finally, reduce development disparities between urban and rural regions.

The GFFA represented an important step in global policy in at least three areas. Firstly, it argued for a shift in focus from agricultural production to agricultural supply; secondly, it combined concomitant issues of urban food supply and rural economic development; and finally, its timing and topical framework formed a bridge between other significant international agreements.

Important Catalysts for Change

The 20th Century was the age of booming agricultural production. Unfortunately, that singular focus on production contributes to environmental degradation, ignores food waste, contributes to distortions in food markets, and – while successful in stalling the number of chronically hungry – it has been unable to force a downward trend in that statistic. There is increasing recognition of a need to shift from a production orientation to a broader perspective on the entire food system. The GFFA echoed these calls and lent momentum to the shift. The communiqué lays out 10 action points for creating “efficient and reliable supply and value chains.” These action points recognize the need to restructure food systems based on local production while also affirming that international food trade will continue to play a critical role in food security. This shift of focus from production to food systems in their entirety offers an integrated framework for combatting food waste, malnutrition and environmental degradation at every level from the local to the international.

An extension worker inspects crops on a farm near Bungoma, Kenya, where city-region agriculture plays a major role in food security and nutrition, and thus stability and security. Photo by Chris Planicka/EcoAgriculture Partners

An extension worker inspects crops on a farm near Bungoma, Kenya, where city region agriculture plays a major role in food security and nutrition, and thus stability and security. Photo by Chris Planicka/EcoAgriculture Partners

Secondly, while affirming the importance of cities as leaders in the creation of sustainable local food systems, the GFFA asserted a need for a holistic approach to urban-rural development. The third action point, on creating “vibrant rural areas,” pushed back on what has historically been a policy bias towards urban development. Among the seven sub-points of this action step, the ministers pledged to improve rural participation in governance, foster education and vocational training in rural regions, and to “make greater use of the potential of vibrant rural areas and ensure they remain functional in order to reduce migratory movements in the long term.” This last point is particularly worthy of note because it recognizes that, while there are benefits from urbanization, sustainable development requires coordinated development of both urban and rural regions.

Finally, the GFFA formed a bridge between significant international agreements. Following the adoption of the United Nations post 2015 development agenda, the GFFA provided a framework for food policy that has the potential to facilitate multiple Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Furthermore, the GFFA bolstered the original text of the December 2015 climate change agreement by explicitly recognizing “that agriculture should contribute to reaching the objectives of the December 2015 Paris Agreement,” something that, despite its importance, was not included in the Paris climate agreement. Finally, the GFFA formed a critical step in framing the creation of a new urban development agenda in preparation for the Habitat III Conference in Quito, Ecuador in October of 2016. By positioning cities as central to global agricultural and food systems, the GFFA pushed to devolve power to cities and helped broaden the importance of the upcoming Habitat Conference beyond city limits.

On the Cusp of a New System

Making agriculture more locally grounded, environmentally aware, and socially equitable is an essential action in the pursuit of global development and climate change goals. Doing so will require shifting the proverbial mountain that is the international agriculture system. The GFFA is another sign of early tremors in that movement. As with other international agreements, it is only a starting point. Nonetheless, the support of 65 national ministers suggests the beginnings of a tectonic shift in global agriculture policy, one that recognizes and fosters the fundamental connections between urban centers and rural agrarian communities.

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Global Forum for Food and Agriculture Communiqué (PDF)

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