"Improvements in farming, holistic rural development, and the wise use of natural resources are the key to achieving food security, poverty alleviation and overall sustainability," says AG's Eric Kueneman, task manager for Agenda 21/Chapter 14 on Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development (SARD). "Rio+10 is a welcome opportunity to reassert the central role of SARD in achieving the goals of Agenda 21 and beyond." A preliminary discussion paper - intended to open the way for wide-ranging consultations with development stakeholders (see box below) - reports progress in food production and natural resource management since UNCED. But it underlines "the contradiction of severe poverty and undernourishment in the midst of unparalleled plenty. Hundreds of millions of rural people remain poor and hungry". In addition, "the loss and increasing severity and extent of land resource degradation continues in spite of enhanced techniques and knowledge."
A changing world. The paper identifies several dimensions of sustainability in agriculture, land and rural development. On the one hand, a number of international legal instruments and mechanisms have been adopted in the wake of UNCED. Negotiators are finalizing a revised International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources (included are arrangements for sharing benefits and access, and ensuring "farmers' rights"), and FAO is developing a global strategy on farm animal diversity. The 1996 World Food Summit provided a framework for improving policies and programmes needed to achieve "food for all". The international community is moving towards harmonization of standards, through Codex Alimentarius, WTO agreements and the International Plant Protection Convention, and the Global Environment Facility is helping implement Rio conventions and action programmes.
However, FAO says, many developing countries have not made the policy adjustments needed to benefit from new opportunities: "Farmers in Africa, Asia and Latin America face increasing competition, while having to cope with reductions in support services and the loss of subsidies. Most trends - in agricultural inputs, grain trading, processing, machines and technologies - point towards increasing concentration in a small number of agri-businesses with global spread." A general consensus is emerging in FAO, development banks and civil society that continued public investment in applied agricultural research is crucial to achieving better livelihoods for farmers, food security and poverty alleviation.
Other international developments have given new impetus to sustainable management and use of natural resources. National plans of action for Agenda 21, and its related conventions on deserification and biological diversity, have led to land resources inventories, adoption of integrated land use planning, and overdue reforms in land administration and tenure. Nevertheless, degradation continues to affect an estimated 20,000,000 sq km of land. While in most low-income, food-deficit countries, this is generally due to unsustainable, extractive use of resources, in developed countries land degradation results mainly from overuse of production inputs and agricultural machinery. "Both are associated,"says FAO, "with inadequate long-term land use planning and land resource management strategies."
The steadily decreasing cost of information technology and decision-support tools has led to better management and wider dissemination of information on agriculture and the environment. Planners are using geographic information systems to analyse natural resources and socio-economic data. Initiatives such as FAO's Global Information and Early Warning System (GIEWS) are helping identify and better understand the nature of persistent food deficiency and poverty - with implications for agricultural productivity, sustainability and rural livelihoods.
Finally, the need for good governance and stakeholder participation has become common wisdom since the Rio summit. Civil society and private sector organizations have pressed for a greater say in development programmes. Worldwide, farmers' organizations and other rural groups have created umbrella confederations that give them a stronger voice at national and higher levels. At local level, NGOs have helped promote rural development strategies and programmes based on family-scale, knowledge-based, agro-ecological farming systems. However, mechanisms for partnership between government and other stakeholders remain largely ad hoc, FAO says, and lessons learned from successful stakeholder cooperation need to be more widely shared.
"On balance," concludes AG's Eric Kueneman, "the impacts of technologies and the scale of the global economy have had profound implications for, and some negative effects on, sustainable agriculture, land use and fragile ecosystems. Yet, some of the trends and opportunities we've identified appear promising. In preparing our final report to Rio+10, we welcome the participation of civil society organizations and the private sector. Their contribution will create greater awareness of and broader support for their viewpoints."
Published February 2001