Enabling poor rural people
to overcome poverty

Rethinking the present to shape the future: choosing sustainability

Colleagues, ladies and gentlemen,

The two biggest challenges that we face today in ensuring a sustainable future for ourselves and our children are:  (i) how to feed a rapidly growing world population and (ii) how to successfully manage climate change.

This is not to underestimate the gravity of the current financial and fiscal climate – consequence of an unsustainable economic model: buy now, pay later. But when we talk about shaping a sustainable future, feeding the world and climate change are at the top of the agenda.

The false choice

It is a complete misconception that we face a stark choice between feeding the world and protecting the planet. This is a false choice – particularly over the long term. We have to do both; and we will do both – by sustainably intensifying agriculture.

Let us look back for a minute at the Green Revolution of last century. It had tremendous impact on agricultural yields and on food production and transformed the lives of millions of people. But it bypassed Africa and millions of poor rural Africans. And, crucially, it was not sustainable.

 The Green Revolution was not sustainable environmentally because it relied on increasing inputs such as fertilizers, pesticides and irrigation to push yields up. This approach overexploited cropland and diminished water tables, and the monocultures threatened biodiversity.

It was also not sustainable because it marginalized smallholder farmers, among them many millions of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world. These women and men did not have access to the necessary inputs and they were simply left behind.

Today we are battling to feed a world population of 6.8 billion. And we know that by 2050, that number will have risen to a massive 9 billion. So the question is literally: how on earth will we feed those children, women and men? The answer is that we urgently need an ‘evergreen’ revolution, an ‘evergreen’ inclusive revolution powered by low-input sustainable agriculture and 21st century technology.

This is the approach to agriculture that we at IFAD support. Low-input sustainable agriculture makes the most efficient use of inputs such as seeds and fertilizer, land and water, energy and labour. It increases yields at the same time as it reduces waste. At IFAD, we work to scale up the right sustainable practices in the right places, and to ensure that smallholder farmers can adopt them and benefit from them.

For example, let us take the use of insecticides. In Indonesia, between 1986 and 2001, there was a 75% decrease in spending on insecticides but with a 25% increase in national rice production. India between, 1994 and 2002 yields a similar story – total grain production rose by over 20%while tons of pesticides used fell by 35%.

Such results can be achieved through bold policy reforms to remove insecticide subsidies and support for widespread farmer education. The right policy environment is required at the national and local level.

Enabling poor rural people to access microfinancial services, for example, means they can invest in the technology they need to practice sustainable agriculture. Ensuring that poor rural communities in remote areas have the basic infrastructure they need to get their goods to market, means that surplus crops can be turned into much-needed cash.

Agriculture and the climate negotiations

Agriculture today is responsible for about 18 per cent of emissions and is the major driver for deforestation. At the same time – being weather dependent – it is particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. If the links between rural development, the environment and climate change are evident on the ground, at the policy level there is often a disconnect between them.

Although agriculture has been increasingly recognized as a theme in the climate negotiations, more work is needed, including through research and knowledge generation – to ensure that agriculture plays a key role in the future climate regime.

Last December, world leaders meeting in Copenhagen did not achieve the result we had hoped for and which we so urgently need: a legally binding post-2012 agreement. As you all know, work will continue in Cancún later this year. The United Nations has played and will continue to play a key role in bringing the world together – and in particular, in bringing the developing world into the debate – to find workable and binding solutions to the many faces of climate change.

But time is not on our side. Carbon emissions continue to climb and poor people continue to bear the brunt of climate change. In Africa alone, from 75 million to 250 million more people will be short of water by 2020 as a result of climate change. Yields from rain fed crops in some countries could be halved by the same date.

If we really are to rethink the present to shape a sustainable future, we must reach a robust agreement as early as possible, and we must find sustainable agricultural solutions. We all have a role to play and we must act now. History will not forgive us if we fail.

Thank you.

8 July, Rome, Italy