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Environment & Poverty Times

06 2009

From field and sea Land and sea abound with examples of change and imminent action for a green economy. Agriculture for shift to a Green Economy By Asad Naqvi and Njogu Morgan

The world is in the grip of economic, envi- ronmental and social crises. On the environ- mental front, some of the worst case scenarios of abrupt and dangerous climate change are occurring. Between 53 to 100 million more people could fall into the $2-a-day poverty trap in 2009 as a direct result of the financial crisis. Global unemployment in 2009 could increase by up to 50 million over 2007 levels if the situation continues to deteriorate. Al- though food prices are slightly declining from some of their highest levels in many decades they are expected to remain high.

A majority of poor people in developing countries live in rural areas and most depend on agriculture for their livelihoods. One way of addressing the poverty, in all of its dimen- sions, is to transform agricultural practises to ensure greater food security, more and decent employment opportunities, and supplemen- tary incomes that can be used to meet needs such as health care and education.

In the last few decades, a common response to this challenge has been to prescribe in- tensified high chemical input agricultural methods. By some measures, these methods have been successful. For example they have helped to double global crop production in the last forty years helping to produce enough that can feed six billion people albeit very un- evenly. In other measures – such as impacts on human health, greenhouse gas emissions, sustainability of yields and depletion of natu- ral resources - they have performed poorly. This led an international panel of scientists to call for systemic changes in the way the world produces its food and fibre.

This article discusses how sustainable agri- culture,1 a key catalyst for shift to a Green

Economy, is helping reduce the burden of poverty while protecting the environment.

Alleviating Poverty “...the lessons I had from Manor House and those that I continue to receive from Eric Ki- siangani and his colleagues at Rural Technol- ogy Centre have moved my household from misery to normal rich life comparatively. My small ‘shamba’ is producing surplus which I sell for income. Last season, April to June, I earned Kshs. 15,000 ($268) from sales of Sukuma Wiki (similar to tree collards). My 0.3 acres of land is producing enough of healthy vegetables that bring money to knock at my door in the wee hours of the day. I mean, people come knocking at the door of my house before 6.00am wanting to buy vegetables. Apart from food and money for my family, I am able to fertilise my soil from material that it produces and supports. BIA [Bio-intensive agriculture] has recreated hope in me and my household. I can now face the future proudly.”

This is a story as told by Susan Wakesa on the value of the training she received in sustainable agriculture from an organisa- tion we have worked with in East Africa. This is by no means an isolated case. Higher price premiums and incomes in sustainable agriculture than can be attained with conven- tional crops are helping a growing number of producers to escape the poverty trap in simple but meaningful ways. Some farmers, especially in developing countries, are able to offer their children better lives since they can now afford to send them to school, pay for their health care and provide food. Others are shrugging away the debt yoke because of the lower input costs involved.

The story is yet more optimistic. Organic agriculture provides more jobs than con-

ventional using about thirty percent more labour depending on farm size and crop. This employment ratio rises even slightly higher if a farm is involved in other steps of the “farm to fork” supply chain. It is due to these characteristics that in 2007, Mexico was able to create an additional 178,000 jobs by converting some of its agricultural production to organic farming. In other words, sustainable agriculture can help ad- dress unemployment. .

Food on the table, reliably

Another way in which sustainable agricul- ture relieves poverty is through enhanced food security for producers and consum- ers. Practices such as intercropping, use of diverse and traditional crop varieties, and crop and animal rotation not only help build breeding grounds for biodiversity but also ensure security of food supply in the face of environmental and socio-economic woes. These methods are helping to increase yields and productivity in general. For example, farmers in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda par- ticipating in a programme to transition into sustainable farming methods have increased their productivity by more than 100% and ensured greater food security.

Protecting the environment Turning to environmental stewardship, there is increasing evidence that sustain- able agriculture has a low footprint in a range of indicators. Research shows that organically managed farms have higher lev- els of biodiversity compared to conventional ones. Increased water retention, reduced soil erosion, and efficient use of water are some of the other environmental benefits observed due to sustainable farming meth- ods. Emerging data also suggests that sus- tainable agriculture is a good companion in efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate

Catherine Badgley

Assistant Professor and Research Scientist, University of Michigan

change. Practices such as mulching, peren- nial cropping, crop rotation and organic manure application allow for higher levels of carbon sequestration at 3 to 8 tonnes more carbon per hectare than conventional farms. Sustainable agriculture also has a low greenhouse gas emission profile due to lower levels of energy utilisation and higher energy efficiency.


Our account of sustainable agriculture shows ‘win-win’ possibilities in poverty alleviation and environmental protection. This suggests that it is ready for wider adoption. In develop- ing countries where poverty is chronic, this transition will be easier in some respects because most farming is ‘near’ sustainable because of the predominance of subsistence agriculture which uses low levels of inputs. The transition to sustainable agriculture by poorer farmers previously practising very basic methods of agriculture as we have seen in East Africa is also generally associated with yield increases and incomes. We are however mindful of some challenges that actors face in the sector such as poor farm to market and export infrastructure in developing countries, the need to invest in research and learning since sustainable agriculture is knowledge intensive, protectionist tendencies in some developed countries, trade distorting subsi- dies and price volatility for some commercial products in the open marketplace, to name a few. These are not insurmountable and the flurry of activities that we increasingly see, led by both public and private actors in the development of more sustainable agriculture inspires optimism.

About the authors: Asad Naqvi (Programme Offi- cer) and Njogu Morgan (Research Assistant) work at the Economics and Trade Branch of UNEP. The views expressed in this article are largely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the UNEP secretariat.

Honorable Prime Minister of United Republic of Tanzania, Mr. Edward Lowassa, officially launched the East African Organic Product Standard (EAOPS) devel- oped with the support of UNEP and its partners.

1. Sustainable agriculture is an inclusive concept. It refers to principles and practices that aim to minimise or eliminate social and environmental harm while ensuring a steady and plentiful supply of food in the immediate and long run. Organic, biodynamic and Fairtrade are some examples of sustainable agriculture.

Better Cotton Initiative

Agriculture is strongly intertwined with the world economy, the livelihoods of the world’s poor, and biodiversity conservation. Agriculture uses more than half of the Earth’s habitable land, employs more than 1 billion people and produces goods worth $1 trillion annually. It is also the biggest user of water, accounting for almost 70% of global withdrawals, and up to 95% in developing countries. Furthermore, pesticide and fertilizer use on agricultural crops leads to widespread ecological degradation. Estimates indicate that up to 40,000 lives are lost around the world each year due to improper pesticide application and handling.

The Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) exists to respond to the current impacts of cotton production worldwide. Cotton can be a water-intensive and pest-sensitive crop, and is often grown in semi- arid and water scarce areas. Its cultivation represents over 2.4% of global arable land, involving about 30 million farmers. Cotton is produced in more than 65 countries worldwide, a majority of which are classified as developing countries. The economies of some developing countries and the livelihoods of millions of farmers and their families are dependent on cotton production.

Approximately 80% of people involved in cotton production are on small farms. In this respect cotton is different from other value chains, where a greater proportion of people working in the sector are involved in large scale production.

The BCI was established to respond to the impacts of cotton cultivation. The aim of the initiative is to promote measurable improvements in the key environmental and social impacts of cotton cultiva- tion worldwide to make it more sustainable (economically, environmentally, and socially). The BCI endeavours to initiate global change in the mass market, with long-term benefits for the environment, farmers and other people dependent on cotton for their livelihood. Better Cotton is being defined through a collaborative multi-stakeholder approach (with representatives from producers, trade and industry as well as civil society and others) that leverages the commitment of global buyers of cotton and/or cotton products to demand large and increasing amounts of better cotton.

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