“Wars are fought over food in the future”
Hoffmann is one of the supporters of a paradigm shift in global food production. In the UNCTAD report Assuring food security in developing countries under the challenge of climate change, Hoffmann presents the paradigm shift needed to avoid “wars over food” in the near future.
“Over the last 25 years”, Hoffmann argues, “the political attention has moved away from agriculture, regardless of the fact that agriculture accounts for 20-50% of Gross National Product (the actual importance being much higher, as a considerable part of agricultural production does not enter markets) and 50-80% of employment in most developing countries.”
But not only the political attention is declining. The international support of donors is also dwindling; it dropped by more than 50% since the mid-1980s. In short, the sector receives a disproportionately low attention. That has contributed to low or stagnating productivity growth, in particular in the Least Developed Countries.
Global Paradigms and the future of agriculture
“It will take another Fukoshima to convince politicians of the necessary paradigm shift in food production.”
“Global warming has the potential to damage irreversibly the natural resource base on which agriculture depends, with grave consequences for food security.
Climate change could also significantly constrain economic development in those developing countries that largely rely on agriculture. Therefore, meeting the dual challenge of achieving food security and other developmental benefits, on the one hand, and mitigating and adapting to climate change, on the other hand, requires political commitment at the highest level. What is more, time is becoming the most critical factor in dealing with climate change”
The dual challenge described by U. Hoffmann leads him to share the conclusion of Hans Herren. The industrial agriculture production system reduces farmers (and pastoralists alike) to money seekers through food and agricultural commodity production. This has led to large mono-cultures, high levels of technical specialization and intensive use of chemicals. Its negative impacts on human health ,, social economical structures and on the environment were and sometimes still are not accounted for and therefore not acknowledged.
Besides that the industrial agriculture system leaves 1.3 billion people under-nourished. The multi-functionality of agriculture should therefore be respected and according to the IAASTD be leveraged by the important political and economic stakeholders. IAASTD uses multi-functionality of agriculture to express the inescapable interconnectedness of agriculture’s different roles and functions.
The concept of multi-functionality “recognizes agriculture as a multi-output activity producing not only commodities (food, feed, fibers, agrofuels, medicinal products and ornamentals), but also non-commodity outputs such as environmental services, landscape amenities and cultural heritages” (IAASTD, 2008, p. 565).
Hoffmann agrees with IAASTD that a shift towards the preservation of the multifunctional character of farming should be the aim. This will result in a knowledge-intensive sustainable way of farming. Important examples of this kind of low-external input farming are organic agriculture, agro-ecology and agro-forestry. These systems respect the multi-functionality of agriculture and integrate social, cultural, environmental and economic aspects into a holistic approach of food and agricultural commodity production.
Hoffmann proves to be a realistic man as he states: “There are no quick fixes possible. The key task is to transform the uniform, high-external-input-dependent model of industrial agriculture into a flexible approach of sustainable (regenerative) agricultural systems that continuously recreate the resources they use and achieve higher productivity and profitability of the system with minimal external inputs. (…) A key challenge is to considerably lift the productivity of small-scale farmers by mobilizing and empowering them to use modern methods of regenerative agriculture”.
Hoffmann stressed the importance of the development of an autonomous future perspective by national governments based on the economic strengths and weaknesses of their countries. He warns that if a lack of international support for this mosaic of regenerative agricultural systems should discourage national governments of developing countries, industrial agricultural systems will take over and the negative effects that those systems produce in the developed world in terms of climate change, soil erosion, water over-use, loss of bio-diversity and other negative environmental and social problems will even increase.
Not surprisingly he calls upon those governments to increase the public expenditure on multi-functional agriculture and on creating an enabling environment for these production systems to thrive.
Facilitating a transition process from one global economic production system with large vested interests to another is a hell of a job. Transition managers all over the world are trying to get their company policies alter their course just a few degrees and meet with resistance from staff and market. When taking those “simple” transitions of a company or organization into account and compare it with the transformation necessary in agricultural production systems one immediately gets the feeling of a mission impossible.
The question how such a transition can be brought about is therefore a very legitimate one. It won’t happen overnight and there will be resistance from vested interests all over the world. As it appears, Hoffmann doesn’t belong to the naïve idealists of this world. Confronted with the ‘how to’ question he immediately states: “It will take another Fukoshima. There is a lot of naivety when it comes to policymakers. We must not expect them to change their conduct by the sake of arguments alone. The only thing that really influence them are powerful lobby’s, a serious threat of election defeat or a disaster. Since a powerful lobby hasn´t yet submerged you have to play another political card. Explosive situations, food riots, migration and refugee movements are the only ones that are able to turn the tide.”
Hoffmann expresses a rather grim perspective on environment, poverty and hunger. He subsequently doesn’t rule out the possibility that military conflicts might arise over food, water and soil in the future.
This dim scenario is horrible to think of but according to Hoffmann adaptation to climate change has objective limits. Besides, adaptation is a receptive agenda - there is always a reaction to a negative side effect. Sustainability needs a pro-active agenda with a clear concept and a plan that would be much more successful. “Africa has listened too long to the World Bank and other donors”, says Hoffmann, “and now the levels of production are lower than a few decades ago, in some cases, notably in Africa, even lower than at political independence. All developing countries need to focus much more on national food security. Vietnam, for example, did a really good job. After 40 years of wars and destruction the Vietnamese started not from scratch but from minus 50. The country wasn't a member of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund or the World Trade Organization and thus did not profit from their financial resources. What is more, after the crumbling of the Berlin wall, Vietnam lost the support of the Russians. The Vietnamese government realized that agriculture could be the growth pole for economic development in the country at large. The government created a new perspective on national food security and agricultural development as the backbone of this restructuring process. Nowadays the country has the most productive agriculture in the region, based on high productivity and sound rural infra-structure. Such autonomous efforts show that agriculture can be a driver of economic growth and a basis for industrialization. These successful cases depend on a government with a comprehensive strategy and the guts to choose for long lasting solutions.”
Small scale farming lobby
Talking about the heartfelt necessity for change and the rather grim perspective of climate-induced disaster management Hoffmann stresses the importance of a professional lobby.
The shift from a technical, chemical and capital intensive agro-industrial system to a sustainable multifunctional agricultural system is one that will evoke a lot of resistance from vested interests of those that currently benefit from external-input-dependent and GHG-intensive agriculture. These interests are thriving because of the perverse financial mechanisms that support them. All such stakeholders have an already long lasting and easy access to the national and international political arenas.
Just like Olivier de Schutter, Ulrich Hoffmann stresses the importance of organizations of small-scale family farmers and their advocates, like Via Campesina and the AgriCultures Network. “The fact that sustainable family farming organizations have not got a string and institutionalized lobby behind them, marginalizes them in national and international debates. I am involved in discussions at both levels led by farmer movements or organizations e.g. IFOAM and Via Campesina. The key problem these movements have is that their scope is in one way or the other limited. For example IFOAM is only concentrating on organic farmers. But only a small portion of the total group of family farmers worldwide are organic farmers. Notwithstanding the fact that small scale farmers produce between 60-70 % of the world food demand their representation in international debate is still fragile. This mismatch between the massive production and economic importance of family farmers and their disproportionately low political influence is one of the biggest problems in getting the political climate to turn in favor of the much-needed holistic agricultural approaches, replacing the industrial ones.”
The downward spiral can be stopped when developing countries take the lead. They should no longer look at the international community but should start developing pockets of restructuring in their countries.
Hoffmann thinks these pockets should concentrate on creating an enabling environment. This concerns shifting the focus of investments from international value chains into education, extension services, infrastructure (to get products to the markets), electricity (to get storage and manufacturing up and going, preferably based on renewable local energy sources, such as biogas digesters that use agricultural waste or by-products) and micro credit to facilitate multi-functional agriculture.
In parallel, governments will have to remove economic disincentives for sustainable agricultural production, which distort real costs in the market (e.g. reduction or elimination of subsidies for fertilizers, agro-chemicals and electricity for irrigation). This will also free public finance for supporting or flanking sustainable production methods.
While the international debate continues and blueprints are developed and re-developed, the economically sound and resilient pockets will grow and shape an independent future for the countries concerned.
Find out more:
- "FAO has relegated organic agriculture to a footnote in the discussion of food security in the long run”
- Let’s jump out of the dichotomies box
- An interview with Olivier De Schutter
- An interview with Hans Herren (Farming Matters - Youth: "We take the lead")
Text: Elisabeth ter Borg
 Assuring Food Security in developing countries under the challenges of climate change: key trade and development issues of a fundamental transformation of agriculture, Ulrich Hoffmann, UNCTAD, 2011 p.1.
 See also Global Report; agriculture at a crossroads, IAASTD (2008), H. Herren et al.
 See , p.33
 O. de Schutter, Agroecology and the Right to Food, 2011, UNHRC.