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Africa: Agroecology & the Right to Food

AfricaFocus Bulletin
Mar 11, 2011 (110311)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

"Small-scale farmers can double food production within 10 years in critical regions by using ecological methods, a new UN report shows. Based on an extensive review of the recent scientific literature, the study calls for a fundamental shift towards agroecology as a way to boost food production and improve the situation of the poorest." - Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

According to the latest Global Food Price Monitor, from the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, world food prices hit a record high in February, the highest since the index was first created in 1990. The debate on food security, and what to do about, is rising higher and higher on global agendas. There are elements of consensus, such as the need for greater attention to agriculture in development planning, and investment in particular in smallholder agriculture. But there are also significant disagreements on what kind of investment is needed.

In broad terms, one approach is to foster a new "green revolution" giving highest priority to technologies developed in collaboration with large agrifood corporations and assuming compatibility of their interests with those of farmers. The contrasting approach stresses the importance of sustainable agroecology, local knowledge, and participation by smallholder farmers, while noting that large agrifood enterprises and technology they control is more likely to be part of the problem than part of the solution.

This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains excerpts from a new report by the UN's Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter, which summarizes consultations and scientific studies on agroecological approaches. The report stresses not only the advantages in terms of giving scope for popular participation, but also the evidence of potential for significant production gains.

Another AfricaFocus Bulletin released today, not sent out by e-mail but available on the web at, contains a press release and excerpts from the latest FAO State of Food and Africulture report, with the theme of "Women in Agriculture: Closing the Gender Gap for Development."

Other relevant publications and links of related interest include:

On food prices

Global Food Price Monitor (monthly)

Lester Brown, "Why World Food Prices May Keep Climbing"
Earth Policy Institute, March 9, 2011

The "mainstream" corporate/large donor perspective

World Economic Forum, "Realizing a New Vision for Agriculture: A roadmap for stakeholders."
The key stakeholders involved here are the major global agrifood businesses.

USAID, Feed the Future
USAID's private-sector-friendly perspective on agricultural development

Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa

Recent critical commentaries

Eric Holt-Gimenez, "Onward Corporate Food Crusaders!" February 7, 2011

Raj Patel, Eric Holt-Gimenez, and Annie Stattuck, "Ending Africa's Hunger," September 2, 2009

Africa: Agricultural Knowledge
Has summary and links to the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, with a comprehensive review of case for agroecological approaches

For other previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on agriculture and related issues, see

++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++

Eco-Farming Can Double Food Production in 10 Years, says new UN report

8 March 2011

Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
Palais des Nations Email:
CH-1211 Geneva 10 Tel: +41 22 917 9310
Switzerland Tel: +41 22 917 9383

(*) The report "Agroecology and the right to food" was presented today before the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. This document is available in English, French, Spanish, Chinese and Russian at: and

Geneva - Small-scale farmers can double food production within 10 years in critical regions by using ecological methods, a new UN report shows. Based on an extensive review of the recent scientific literature, the study calls for a fundamental shift towards agroecology as a way to boost food production and improve the situation of the poorest.

"To feed 9 billion people in 2050, we urgently need to adopt the most efficient farming techniques available," says Olivier De Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food and author of the report. "Today's scientific evidence demonstrates that agroecological methods outperform the use of chemical fertilizers in boosting food production where the hungry live -- especially in unfavorable environments."

Agroecology applies ecological science to the design of agricultural systems that can help put an end to food crises and address climate-change and poverty challenges. It enhances soils productivity and protects the crops against pests by relying on the natural environment such as beneficial trees, plants, animals and insects.

"To date, agroecological projects have shown an average crop yield increase of 80% in 57 developing countries, with an average increase of 116% for all African projects," De Schutter says. "Recent projects conducted in 20 African countries demonstrated a doubling of crop yields over a period of 3-10 years."

"Conventional farming relies on expensive inputs, fuels climate change and is not resilient to climatic shocks. It simply is not the best choice anymore today," De Schutter stresses. "A large segment of the scientific community now acknowledges the positive impacts of agroecology on food production, poverty alleviation and climate change mitigation -- and this this is what is needed in a world of limited resources. Malawi, a country that launched a massive chemical fertilizer subsidy program a few years ago, is now implementing agroecology, benefiting more than 1.3 million of the poorest people, with maize yields increasing from 1 ton/ha to 2-3 tons/ha."

The report also points out that projects in Indonesia, Vietnam and Bangladesh recorded up to 92 % reduction in insecticide use for rice, leading to important savings for poor farmers. "Knowledge came to replace pesticides and fertilizers. This was a winning bet, and comparable results abound in other African, Asian and Latin American countries," the independent expert notes.

"The approach is also gaining ground in developed countries such as United States, Germany or France," he said. "However, despite its impressive potential in realizing the right to food for all, agroecology is still insufficiently backed by ambitious public policies and consequently hardly goes beyond the experimental stage."

The report identifies a dozen of measures that States should implement to scale up agroecological practices. "Agroecology is a knowledge-intensive approach. It requires public policies supporting agricultural research and participative extension services," De Schutter says. "States and donors have a key role to play here. Private companies will not invest time and money in practices that cannot be rewarded by patents and which don't open markets for chemical products or improved seeds."

The Special Rapporteur on the right to food also urges States to support small-scale farmer's organizations, which demonstrated a great ability to disseminate the best agroecological practices among their members. "Strengthening social organization proves to be as impactful as distributing fertilizers. Small-scale farmers and scientists can create innovative practices when they partner", De Schutter explains. "We won't solve hunger and stop climate change with industrial farming on large plantations. The solution lies in supporting small-scale farmers' knowledge and experimentation, and in raising incomes of smallholders so as to contribute to rural development."

"If key stakeholders support the measures identified in the report, we can see a doubling of food production within 5 to 10 years in some regions where the hungry live," De Schutter says. "Whether or not we will succeed this transition will depend on our ability to learn faster from recent innovations. We need to go fast if we want to avoid repeated food and climate disasters in the 21st century."

Press contacts:

Olivier De Schutter: Tel. +32.488 48 20 04 / E-mail:

Ulrik Halsteen (OHCHR): Tel: +41 22 917 93 23 / E-mail:

Olivier De Schutter was appointed the Special Rapporteur on the right to food in May 2008 by the United Nations Human Rights Council. He is independent from any government or organization.

United Nations A/HRC/16/49

Distr.: General 20 December 2010

Original: English

General Assembly, Human Rights Council, Sixteenth session

Report submitted by the Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter

[Excerpts. Full report available at]


I. Introduction

1. In this annual report submitted to the Human Rights Council in accordance with Council resolution 13/4, the Special Rapporteur on the right to food shows why agriculture should be fundamentally redirected towards modes of production that are more environmentally sustainable and socially just, and how this can be achieved. The report is based on a large range of submissions received from experts from all regions, as well as on an international expert seminar on agroecology convened by the Special Rapporteur in Brussels, Belgium, on 21-22 June 2010, with support from the King Baudouin Foundation.

2. Agriculture is at a crossroads. For almost thirty years, since the early 1980s, neither the private sector nor governments were interested in investing in agriculture. This is now changing. Over the last few years, agri-food companies have seen an increase in direct investment as a means to lower costs and ensure the long-term viability of supplies:1 Foreign direct investment in agriculture went from an average US$ 600 million annually in the 1990s to an average US$ 3 billion in 2005-2007. The shock created by the 2007-2008 global food price crisis led to the establishment or strengthening of further initiatives, such as the Aquila Food Security Initiative, the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program (GAFSP) or NEPAD's Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Program (CAADP) in Africa. Governments are paying greater attention to agriculture than in the past.

3. But increasing food production to meet future needs, while necessary, is not sufficient. It will not allow significant progress in combating hunger and malnutrition if it is not combined with higher incomes and improved livelihoods for the poorest - particularly small-scale farmers in developing countries. And short-term gains will be offset by long- term losses if it leads to further degradation of ecosystems, threatening future ability to maintain current levels of production. It is possible, however, to significantly improve agricultural productivity where it has been lagging behind, and thus raise production where it needs most to be raised (i.e. in poor, food-deficit countries3), while at the same time improving the livelihoods of smallholder farmers and preserving ecosystems. This would slow the trend towards urbanisation in the countries concerned, which is placing stress on public services of these countries. It would contribute to rural development and preserve the ability for the succeeding generation to meet its own needs. It would also contribute to the growth of other sectors of the economy by stimulating demand for non-agricultural products that would result from higher incomes in rural areas.

4. To achieve this, however, pouring money into agriculture will not be sufficient; what is most important is to take steps that facilitate the transition towards a low-carbon, resource-preserving type of agriculture that benefits the poorest farmers. This will not happen by chance. It can only happen by design, through strategies and programmes backed by strong political will, and informed by a right-to-food approach. This report explores how agroecology, a mode of agricultural development that has shown notable success in the last decade (see Section III), can play a central role in achieving this goal.

II. Diagnosis: three objectives of food systems

5. Ensuring the right to food requires the possibility either to feed oneself directly from productive land or other natural resources, or to purchase food. This implies ensuring that food is available, accessible and adequate. Availability relates to there being sufficient food on the market to meet the needs. Accessibility requires both physical and economic access: physical accessibility means that food should be accessible to all people, including the physically vulnerable such as children, older persons or persons with disabilities; economic accessibility means that food must be affordable without compromising other basic needs such as education fees, medical care or housing. Adequacy requires that food satisfy dietary needs (factoring a person's age, living conditions, health, occupation, sex, etc), be safe for human consumption, free of adverse substances and culturally acceptable. Participation of food-insecure groups in the design and implementation of the policies that most affect them is also a key dimension of the right to food.

6. Consistent with obligations assumed by States under international human rights treaties to take effective measures towards the realization of the right to food, food systems should be developed in order to meet the following three objectives.

7. First, food systems must ensure the availability of food for everyone, that is, supply must match world needs. The most widely cited estimates state that an overall increase in agricultural production should reach 70 per cent by 2050,4 taking into account demographic growth, as well as changes in the composition of diets and consumption levels associated with increased urbanization and higher household incomes. This estimate, however, needs to be put in an appropriate perspective, since it takes the current demand curves as a given. At present, nearly half of the world's cereal production is used to produce animal feed, and meat consumption is predicted to increase from 37.4 kg/person/year in 2000 to over 52 kg/person/year by 2050, so that by mid-century, 50 per cent of total cereal production may go to increasing meat production. Therefore, reallocating cereals used in animal feed to human consumption, a highly desirable option in developed countries where the excess animal protein consumption is a source of public health problems, combined with the development of alternative feeds based on new technology, waste and discards, could go a long way towards meeting the increased needs. The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) estimates that, even accounting for the energy value of the meat produced, the loss of calories that result from feeding cereals to animals instead of using cereals directly as human food represents the annual calorie need for more than 3.5 billion people. In addition, food losses in the field (between planting and harvesting) may be as high as 20 to 40 per cent of the potential harvest in developing countries, due to pests and pathogens, and the average post-harvest losses, resulting from poor storage and conservation, amount at least to 12 per cent, and up to 50 per cent for fruits and vegetables. Finally, as a result of policies to promote the production and use of agrofuels, the diversion of crops from meeting food needs to meeting energy needs contributes to tightening the pressure on agricultural supplies. Although these are all domains in which measures could be adopted, the need to meet the supply-side challenge remains.

8. Second, agriculture must develop in ways that increase the incomes of smallholders. Food availability is, first and foremost, an issue at the household level, and hunger today is mostly attributable not to stocks that are too low or to global supplies unable to meet demand, but to poverty; increasing the incomes of the poorest is the best way to combat it. Cross-country comparisons show that GDP growth originating in agriculture is at least twice as effective in reducing poverty as GDP growth originating outside agriculture. But some types of investments are more effective than others in achieving that objective. The multiplier effects are significantly higher when growth is triggered by higher incomes for smallholders, stimulating demand for goods and services from local sellers and service- providers. When large estates increase their revenue, most of it is spent on imported inputs and machinery, and much less trickles down to local traders. Only by supporting small producers can we help break the vicious cycle that leads from rural poverty to the expansion of urban slums, in which poverty breeds more poverty.

9. Third, agriculture must not compromise its ability to satisfy future needs. The loss of biodiversity, unsustainable use of water, and pollution of soils and water are issues which compromise the continuing ability for natural resources to support agriculture. Climate change, which translates in more frequent and extreme weather events, such as droughts and floods and less predictable rainfall, is already having a severe impact on the ability of certain regions and communities to feed themselves. It is also destabilizing markets. The change in average temperatures is threatening the ability of entire regions, particularly those living from rain-fed agriculture, to maintain actual levels of agricultural production. Less fresh water will be available for agricultural production, and the rise in sea level is already causing the salinization of water in certain coastal areas, making water sources improper for irrigation purposes. By 2080, 600 million additional people could be at risk of hunger, as a direct result of climate change. In Sub-Saharan Africa, arid and semi-arid areas are projected to increase by 60 million to 90 million hectares, while in Southern Africa, it is estimated that yields from rain-fed agriculture could be reduced by up to 50 per cent between 2000 and 2020. Losses in agricultural production in a number of developing countries could be partially compensated by gains in other regions, but the overall result would be a decrease of at least 3 per cent in productive capacity by the 2080s, and up to 16 per cent if the anticipated carbon fertilization effects (incorporation of carbon dioxide in the process of photosynthesis) fail to materialize.

10. Most efforts in the past have focused on improving seeds and ensuring that farmers are provided with a set of inputs that can increase yields, replicating the model of industrial processes in which external inputs serve to produce outputs in a linear model of production. Instead, agroecology seeks to improve the sustainability of agroecosystems by mimicking nature instead of industry. This report suggests that scaling up agroecological practices can simultaneously increase farm productivity and food security, improve incomes and rural livelihoods, and reverse the trend towards species loss and genetic erosion.

11. The following sections explain what agroecology is, and how it contributes to the realization of the right to adequate food in its different dimensions: availability, accessibility, adequacy, sustainability and participation (Section III). However, in moving towards more sustainable farming systems, time is the greatest limiting factor. Whether or not we will succeed will depend on our ability to learn faster from recent innovations and to disseminate works more widely. Section IV is dedicated to public policies that States should adopt to scale up agroecology.


AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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