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Rio+20 and a Green Economy

By Shenggen Fan - posted Thursday, 14 June 2012

One of the critical issues in the upcoming discussions at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) will be food security in a "green economy." In such an economy, the pursuit of growth is reconciled with sustainable development through increased resource-use efficiency, with the ultimate objective of simultaneously promoting economic development, environmental protection, and social welfare.

The world's population is expected to surpass 9 billion people by 2050, with much of this growth occurring in low-income countries. At the same time, an emerging middle class in developing countries will be able to afford to change its diet and, in particular, to eat more meat. These developments will increase global demand and prices for both food and feed. And higher food prices mean higher levels of undernourishment among the poor if proper food policies are not implemented.

In addition, limited natural resources, land degradation, pollution, biodiversity loss, and climate change, as well as policies such as the promotion of cereal-based biofuels, put further pressure on agricultural production. Initiating the transition to a more sustainable and efficient green economy is therefore a must, given that nearly 1 billion people on our planet still suffer from undernourishment, and many from micronutrient deficiency. However, it is paramount that this shift is not achieved at the cost of the food and nutrition security of the poor and vulnerable.


This raises important questions, which are addressed in a recent IFPRI policy brief: What are the implications of a green economy for the poor and hungry? And what role can agriculture play?

Smallholders represent half of the world's hungry people. Hence, intensifying food production could be one way to boost food security (and protect land from conversion to agricultural use), but doing so can contribute to problems such as land degradation, depletion of water resources, water pollution, and new pest problems. As smallholders depend on these very same natural resources for their livelihoods, their unsustainable use will endanger food security in the long run.

Developing farming land may be an option in Australia's sprawling north, but arable land is scarce elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific region, and land reserves in Latin America and Africa can only be brought under cultivation at high environmental and infrastructure costs. Therefore innovations in technologies, farming practices, institutions, and policies will be critical for a win-win solution for smallholders to increase their productivity and income, while protecting natural resources that can used sustainably for food production and environmental services.

"Greener" agriculture has great potential to improve the sustainable management of natural resources for food production. A pro-poor green economy strategy that explicitly integrates food and nutrition security and benefits the agriculture sector can also help smallholders. Such a strategy will require active steps by international policymakers to address the challenge of increasing agricultural productivity without damaging the environment.

The following eight policy actions are recommended:

  • Integrate food and nutrition security into sustainable development;
  • Factor in full costs and benefits of natural resources in decisionmaking to improve efficiency of natural resource use and to decrease postharvest losses and food waste;
  • Establish social protection systems to protect the poor when food prices go up;
  • Ensure open trade so countries can exploit the comparative advantages of their natural resource endowments;
  • Promote innovations in biological sciences, food technologies, and natural resource use that prioritize the needs of smallholders in developing countries;
  • Identify new indicators to evaluate impacts and policy implications of a green economy;
  • Establish local capacities for strategy development in the relevant sectors; and
  • Engage multiple stakeholders including smallholders, and both the public and private sector.

By giving agriculture a central role in the green economy, the international community can get closer to achieving the goal of eradicating hunger and ensuring food and nutrition security for all.


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For more information on agriculture and sustainable development in advance of Rio+20, visit IFPRI's Rio+20 page.

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About the Author

Shenggen Fan is Director General of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI)

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