On the Road from Rio+20: Issues in Sustainable Development

Tristan Quinn-Thibodeau, WhyHunger’s Outreach and Partnerships Manager, is in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, at the UN Rio +20 sustainable development conference and the concurrent Peoples’ Summit. The negotiations of Rio +20 will help shape the future of our global environment and the lives of millions of people in poverty – though many of those who will be most impacted are not even at the table. Tristan will be bringing the perspectives of WhyHunger’s grassroots partners to discussions in Rio and reporting back on what he sees there in the coming days. A version of his first piece, examining the disconnect between words and action on sustainable development, originally appeared on “Climate Connections.”

At the UN conference on climate change in Durban, South Africa last December, representatives of developed nations presented a plan to combat climate change through sustainable agricultural techniques in Africa. This plan, dubbed “climate smart agriculture,” would purportedly reduce and sequester carbon emissions while conserving soils and feeding a continent. It seemed that developed countries had at last listened to the growing concern and criticism of industrial agriculture’s disastrous ecological effects.

International social movements like La Via Campesina have argued compellingly for years that “small farmers cool the planet,” relying on many studies that ecological agriculture can reduce climate change. Ecological agriculture or “agroecology” uses no chemicals like fertilizers or pesticides derived from fossil fuels, and biodiverse agriculture systems greatly reduce carbon in the atmosphere, while maintaining local resilience in the face of climate change. Researchers estimate that the global food system emits 30% of all greenhouse gases, meaning that a global transition to agroecology would have a significant impact. (Watch our short film, “The Food and Climate Connection,” for a compelling look at this issue.)

Unfortunately, while world leaders may have listened, they seem to have completely misunderstood.

What they heard was that food plants absorb carbon. Thus world leaders understood the promise of agroecology solely as a carbon offset: corporations would, in effect, adopt farms using “climate smart” techniques and treat them as carbon offsets. That is, in exchange for investments in small-scale African farms, the corporations could continue polluting as usual.  And what of the farmers? Many of them would become dependent on the corporations’ funding, losing autonomy and control over their land. “Climate smart agriculture” would end up simply as a tool for corporations to keep polluting while also expanding their reach and production into Africa. Many critics in Durban charged that “climate smart agriculture” was the first step to a land grab, or, with an eye to where carbon is stored, a “soil grab.”

And because the developed nations’ representatives focused only on how plants could sequester carbon, they missed the fundamental strength of agroecology: it doesn’t rely on expensive and polluting petrochemical inputs.

“Climate smart agriculture,” on the other hand, still uses fossil fuel-based chemicals. The UN-affiliated Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change recently issued a report advocating a transition to agroecology for its climate change reduction potential, but defined it as a technique that can be used with existing industrial practices like “transgenic crops, conservation farming, microdosing of fertilizers and herbicides, and integrated pest management.” Again, that misses the point. As prominent agroecology scholar Miguel Altieri has recently written, “Agroecology does not need to be combined with other approaches… it has consistently proven capable of sustainably increasing productivity and has far greater potential for fighting hunger [than industrial agriculture].”

Small farmers do well working agroecologically: they produce the same yield or better, they build soil, and they save money on chemical inputs. So agroecology is very profitable. But the profit is decentralized, meaning corporations can’t access it. This would explain why corporations are attempting to disguise a resource grab like “climate smart agriculture” as something ecological, because of its greater potential for consolidating profits.

There are renewed calls at Rio+20 by these same developed nations for “climate smart agriculture,” but as Pat Mooney of the Canadian advocacy organization ETC Group said at an opening workshop of the Peoples’ Summit on Friday, “This is not an issue of whether or not it is nicer to have organic farms and local food systems. This is an issue of whether we will eat.” The closer one looks at “climate smart agriculture,” the more it comes to seem like another false solution to climate change.

India Rodgers