The global agricultural model needs to be reformed to find a better balance between food production and environmental management, an international conference has heard.
The ninth Forum for the Future of Agriculture (FFA) in Brussels went ahead in a sombre mood on Tuesday following the shocking events that had unfolded in the city that morning.
The 1,800 delegates present were informed minutes into the conference of the atrocities that had taken place by conference chair Stephen Sackur, and the decision to proceed, with added security in and around the building, was warmly greeted.
But the key conference message remained undimmed – global leaders and the food industry had failed to fully comprehend the long-term problems the current agricultural model was storing up and co-ordinated global action and leadership was required to address them.
FFA 2016, staged jointly by the European Landowners’ Organisation (ELO) and Syngenta, was opened with a video message by UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon who said the way food was grown, processed and consumed needed to change.
This must be done alongside better management of resources, land and water and preserving the world’s rich biodiversity, he said, setting the tone.
Achim Steiner, UN under-secretary general, said agriculture should be a key part of the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development goals but insisted a collective change of approach was needed.
“The footprint of agriculture boggles the mind,” he said. “It consumes 70 per cent of the world’s fresh water resources, 70 per cent of the antibiotics, and by some assessments, for 70 per cent of the loss of biodiversity on our planet today.
“A third of the world’s arable land has been compromised or lost to erosion in the last 40 years, as the number of people to be fed from that land doubled.
“And as land degradation is being made worse by climate change we are continuously compromising our capacity to feed the world.”
Recurrent themes emerged as the conference debated how to strike the right balance between food production and environmental sustainability.
These included the smarter, more efficient use of nutrients, including through technological development in the laboratory and wider use of precision farming.
Another was reducing the unacceptable level of food waste at farm, processing and consumer level, including finding outlets for food unwanted in its intended market.
There was also much debate around the role consumers could play when it comes the volume, nutritional value and nature of what they eat, including the balance between meat and plant-based food – and what could be done to alter buying habits when price is often king.
Another major theme was leadership and the willingness, or otherwise, of political leaders, the food chain and NGOs to accept the scale of the problem and to work collaboratively together to address it. This included calls for a common framework or ’road map’ for all to work to.
Keyynote speaker Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute, Columbia University, said: “We have a juggernaut which is quite successful at producing wealth and technology but is not successful at distributing it is less successful at making it environmentally sustainable and this is causing a tremendous amount of dislocation and unhappiness.”
“To achieve sustainable development the world as a whole needs to take a new direction. The most obvious is to change the energy system of the world and we also have to change the farming systems of the world.”
He condemned what he saw as a lack of global leadership on these issues, particularly from the US with its ‘indefensible’ biofuels system, but also the EU, which he said needed to do more to demonstrate its commitment to sustainable farming.
EU Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan told the conference the EU was ‘stepping up to the plate, both at home and abroad when it comes to taking a leadership role in sustainable development’.
He said the CAP was already ‘evolving and adapting to meet the requirements of good environmental practice’, including tying 30 per cent of the direct payment budget to greening measures, while half the rural development budget goes towards the environment.
He promised the leadership role would ‘evolve and deepen in the coming years’.
John Parr, Syngenta’s chief operating officer, said ‘business as usual would no longer cut it’.
“It means all if us must leave behind the old prejudices and ways of working and innovate – not just with technology but with farming practices and knowledge sharing – and to collaborate like never before to reach our goals."
Afterwards, CLA director of external affairs Shane Brennan said: "We want global leadership. Farmers need to know what the right things to be targeting are.
"When it comes down to it, you can blame agriculture for this or that but it will be agriculture that solves the problems, so we need to work with farmers how we are going to meet the food challenge and the sustainable food challenge together.
"There were lots of constructive things that came out of this. Agriculture is part of the solution. Farmers are the ones on the land who will implement the changes required.
"We need to find ways to make that financially sustainable, including making sustainable farming more profitable."