Agriculture stands at the nexus of three of humankind's greatest challenges in the 21st century: achieving food and nutritional security, adapting to a changing climate that will severely hit agricultural production, and making a significant contribution to reducing the environmental footprint of agriculture. As the Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change has argued, actions by all people are needed, from changing production methods in farmers' fields to changing consumption patterns in all our homes. These actions will involve, amongst other things, major public and private investment, and multiple government agencies and sectors working together. But above all, in this globally connected world, global governance has to be vastly more effective. To date, the progress at the international level in achieving consensus and committing to implementation for solving hunger and environmental problems is best described as abysmal.
Video: How to Feed the World in 2050
The G8 have just completed their summit, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) scientific and technical body (SBSTA) recently completed its 36th session, the G20 starts shortly in Mexico and then we have Rio+20, where world leaders will decide on the future framework for sustainable development. To its credit, the G8 committed to a new initiative, the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition that put emphasis on foreign direct investment. While private finance may be part of the solution, it needs to be well regulated so as to not support land grabs, human rights abuses and further marginalization of smallholder farmers, pastoralists and fisherfolk. As well, private finance must go hand in hand with public commitment and investment. It's easy to wonder what happened to the L'Aquila Initiative on Global food Security. Announced in 2009, this was a commitment to provide USD 20 billion over three years for agricultural development in impoverished countries. The initiative has resulted in strong but underfunded programmes, with only a fraction of the funds secured.
No progress on agriculture was evident at SBSTA, the conclusion being that discussions would continue at the next session. The issues are indeed complex, but the time for an agreement to be reached is long overdue. For example, current commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will not see us limiting temperatures to only two degrees higher. Once carbon dioxide is in the atmosphere it is with us for decades -- there is no turning back. Can we afford to continue on the current path? As Sonja Vermeulen notes, the UK Met Office says a four-degree world is quite possible, and will plausibly be reached by 2070 or even 2060 -- in our children's lifetimes. This will mean average temperature rises of a massive 15 degrees C in the Arctic, and 3-8 degrees C in the world's most populated areas. Over 2011, natural disasters caused all-time-high global economic losses of USD380bn. These included numerous and widespread weather-related catastrophes, many linked to La Niña: a major drought in East Africa, numerous Atlantic tropical cyclones, and the worst floods in decades in parts of parts of Asia, Africa and the Americas. A recent review suggests with "high confidence" that agricultural production will be "severely compromised" across much of Africa during the 21st century.
So can Rio+20 turn the corner for global governance for agriculture and food systems? We need to see a strong commitment to Sustainable Development Goals, a strong commitment to approaches that integrate knowledge across sectors, and an extraordinarily strong commitment to implementing any agreements that are reached. CGIAR, the global research partnership for a food secure future, has outlined a seven-point plan for agricultural research for sustainable development, including a call for "Rio+20 negotiators to adopt a cross-sectoral approach to facilitate partnership among various sectors and coordinate economic incentives to land managers and the regulatory frameworks within which they operate."
The Millennium Development Goals have been important in focusing attention on a limited number of important goals for humanity. Sustainable Development Goals can take this to a new level -- integrating social, economic and environmental concerns. At least a couple of these Goals need to focus on the nexus between food and the environment. We need Goals that capture environmental outcomes and food security outcomes to ensure integration, so that we can really build lasting solutions for a sustainable food system. Some of the Goals or the lower level indicators need to focus on the financial targets that will be needed to make a difference. Post-Rio we need regular monitoring of the Goals both in terms of outcomes for sustainable food systems, and as a means to check on implementation process.
These are some of the issues that will be debated at Agriculture and Rural Development Day (ARDD) in Rio on the 18th of June. Groups working on agriculture will showcase concrete successes as well as scientific innovations that can help make sustainable agriculture a reality. We have the knowledge and tools to move things forward. Let's hope that negotiators break down the barriers that are holding back progress, and move to a concrete outcome for Rio+20 that sets the sustainable development agenda for the next decade and beyond.