The Agricultural Economy of Tomorrow

Agriculture is so much more than just the production of food and what the farmer does on their land. This week’s Development Agriculture Wednesday tunes into this year’s McDougall Memorial Lecture by Achim Steiner (UNDP Administrator) at the 40th Session of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO) Conference. We’d definitely recommend a listen, but here are some of the highlights!

Steiner talks about the Agricultural Economy of Tomorrow, and the opportunities this may have for changing our world. What exactly the agricultural economy of tomorrow may involve, however, is a rather complex issue.

The agricultural economy of today is laden with paradoxes and misconceptions. There are currently 800 million people who are undernourished, yet, one-third of food produced goes to waste. This contradictory reality continues as the majority of those 800 million people who lack adequate food consumption, are the producers themselves.

Given these numbers, it’s an imperative that we increase agricultural production, particularly with rapid increases in our population. The imperative of feeding more people, may require us to produce more food, produce different food, or to address an economy which seems to rationalize wasting possibly more produce than in any other sector of the economy.

But the challenges of agriculture today, require more than just a lens of maximising food production. Decision making in the 21st century has to address complexities that were not present in the past. At the forefront of this, is the recognition of the role of farmers in an increasingly complex web of global food production. This involves recognising that farmers are more than just food producers, but are custodians of their land, fathers and mothers, and that they are the best hope of managing natural resources, environmental infrastructure and biological capabilities to sustain life into the future.

Agriculture is so much more than just the production of food. It is so much more than what the farmer does on his or her land. It speaks to a recognition that what happens to Agriculture will determine what happens in the world far more than other sectors. We must recognise that what happens in Agriculture touches on so much more than what happens in food production.

However, whilst we speak about increasing agricultural production, we are also eroding the very capital that we depend on to produce food – water, land and biodiversity.

Water security demonstrates this perfectly. Agriculture accounts for 70% of fresh water use globally. By 2025, one-third of humanity will be deemed to be living under ‘water-stress’. The decisions that are made in agriculture, will be the decisions that determine water management for a vast number of societies across the world.

Biodiversity is another example. Humanity depend on just 15 plants and 8 animal species for 90% of our total calorie and protein intake. As Steiner says – “that’s called a high risk strategy”. More concerning, is that three-quarters of the genetic diversity of agriculture crops have already been lost.

The challenges of today’s agricultural economy extend far beyond farms and farmers. Because of this, they are also challenges that farmers alone can’t solve. As Steiner puts it – farmers are becoming miners of their very own resources rather than sustainable managers of the foundations of the agricultural economy of the future. The pressures of trade liberalization, competition, distortions through subsidies, and protectionism – often leave farmers with very little choice. Farmers are often trapped in markets, pricing systems and contradictory signals that they receive. The future of global food production which is premised on the farmer as the agent of change, and as the backbone of food security, does not really capture the reality of where decisions are made.

Focusing on the farmer alone is a misrepresentation of the notions of freedoms that farmers have in today’s world. Steiner suggests we need to rethink how we conceptualize and measure the agricultural economy, and highlights that we need to look beyond simply numbers and statistics. If we look at today’s agricultural economy with only the traditional measure of GDP, we see a figure of only 4%. This does not even come close to reflecting how significant it really is. Behind each of these numbers and figures are extraordinary narratives of real people who depend on agriculture, and their livelihoods.

Our agricultural economy of the 21st century takes place upstream and downstream of the farmer. Decision-making is far more than the decisions made on the farm about what to grow, what risks to take, and how to hedge against price fluctuations. Upstream of the farm – we see inputs (seeds, technologies, fertilizers) which represents a far larger proportion of the agricultural economy than the farmer who produces the food. Downstream of the farm – traders, food processes, packagers realize the true value added prices once the product leaves the farm. These are the parameters which define the agricultural economy. The mandate to influence what is upstream or downstream is often beyond the jurisdiction of one minister or one decision maker. This is exactly why we need an integrated approach to the agricultural economy of tomorrow. Decisions must come from people from a variety of industries, trades, academic backgrounds and professions.

Realising that the greatest issues in International Development cannot be solved in isolation is an essential component of the integrated agenda of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s). This involves bringing together science and policy, with international collaboration, to address some of the biggest challenges of the times. The challenges that face the modern 21st century farmer are complexities that requires a systems management approach.

There are two take-away messages from this address. Firstly, the agricultural economy needs a rethink. Global food production goes far beyond farms and farmers, and whilst farmers are incredibly important agents of realizing food security, they are not the only ones. Secondly, in a world that is polarized between malnourished and over-nourished, we need to identify the breadth, complexity and diversity of agriculture across the globe, before we can understand the agricultural economy of tomorrow. Once we start realizing that Agriculture is so much more than just the production of food, we can then also start realising the agricultural economy of tomorrow.

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