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The World Conference on Agricultural Research, which opens on Sunday in Montpellier, is an ideal opportunity to remind the international community how vital food security is for our planet.
Impressive results have been obtained over the past 50 years. The planet has managed to feed a population that has quadrupled in a century. Farmers and agronomists have thus proven wrong the Club of Rome, who in the 1970s predicted a state of chronic famine.
These acheivements however can not hide the serious threats looming over us. In 2009, the number of people suffering from hunger in the world surpassed one billion individuals. It has even increased by 150 million since 2005, when it had been steadily declining over the last fifty years.
Furthermore, in 2007 / 2008, the world experienced a severe food crisis leading to “food riots”.
Tragic events will inevitably increase if we do not control our food security. In sum, we must in the 21st century repeat our exploits of the 20th century.
Feeding a growing population without destroying the ecosystem, making the most of technology and international markets without levelling small farmers and diversity, these are the issues of global action.
The World Bank, the FAO, and the UNDP have long been engaged in this struggle. However, food security still does not command the place it deserves in government agendas. It is often confronted with the indifference of public opinion. Indian Prime Minister, Mr Manmohan Singh, recently denounced “the false sense of security” that shrouds food problems in his country as well. We can not agree more.
Ensuring food security for the planet is our first duty. If we do not engage in this battle now, we can be certain that history will judge us severely.
Until 2050, there will be 70 million additional people to feed every year. The challenge also extends to meeting the needs of people suffering from malnutrition. This goal, which implies doubling world agricultural production over the next 50 years, is today within our reach thanks to available technology and know-how.
But this legitimate desire for quantity and quality must not come at the expense of the planet’s ecological balance, a balance that is equally indispensable to the survival of humanity. Yet the destruction that could be fatal has already started appearing: forests are receding, deserts are spreading, farmland is shrinking. Excessive irrigation depletes aquifers and causes saltwater to intrude. The vagaries of climate change will worsen the situation of all non-irrigated agriculture. Misused fertilizers and pesticides denature the soil and render it infertile. At the same time, global competition for control of farmlands has already started. Certain States or private groups have gotten their hands on thousands of acres, without any regards for the fragile agriculture around them.
The question is clear. How are we to handle all these dangers and still ensure the planet’s food security?
Agricultural research, which has already rendered great services in the past, will once again provide the answer. The new Green Revolution will give birth to an agriculture that is both highly productive and respectful of natural balance and diversity. Here and there solutions have already left the laboratory and headed into the fields.
The movement to disseminate these technologies in the world has been launched. It is capable, in my opinion, to overcome conservatism, ignorance and the powerful stakes that stand before it. However, it cannot find the needed strength to ensure food security for all without an increased mobilization of political authorities.
Though essential, this new intensive and ecological agricultural will not be wholly sufficient. We will need to cultivate new areas. Available land in South America and sub-Saharan Africa abound; but, these developments should be carried out carefully. Massive deforestation has a devastating effect on ecosystems. It is urgent to reduce these excesses. I firmly believe that we must orient the opening of new areas to those country whose food self-sufficiency is the lowest, if they have arable land and water, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. To encourage these countries to invest in their agriculture, we must maintain a privileged access for them to consumer markets in industrialized countries. The debate on the CAP reform, which has started, must encompass the question of the fairness of agricultural markets.
If we want to avoid new imbalances that favor the most productive areas, we must strongly support agriculture in developing countries. This means increasing their multilateral financial aid. Commitments made in regard to public aid for development must be respected. Developing countries must also be allowed to retain temporarily, the protections they deem necessary. Efforts must also include spreading technology and training people before international competition and urbanization have completely destroyed local agriculture.
There is little time left. In many countries, I see local communities slowly losing their organisation and who will soon be unable to provide the services needed by agriculture. This process is further accelerated when the land is monopolized by outside interests. According to FAO, 30 million hectares have already changed hands. This is why I consider it essential to establish tenure security and to recognize the rights of local populations over their lands.
Finally, we must carefully consider the functioning of major international markets for agricultural products. This trade will develop. They will play a central role in world food security, providing the necessary volumes to areas that will remain structurally deficient. I hope French agriculture will play its role.
The imbalances that affect our planet, be they due to climate change or speculation, can have devastating effects on the agriculture of the weakest. This is why we must consider new regulations in this domain as well.
The task seems overwhelming but none of us can accept a global agriculture wherein a small number of superpower countries and operators feed the rest of the world standardized fare.
It is high time we initiated the mobilization needed to promote 21st century agriculture, one that will ensure food security, safeguard resources and the ecological balance, and strengthen solidarity among populations.