The Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

What if…? Imagining the future of agriculture

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Every single person on the planet having the means to grow or buy food: How do we build that vision?

Gina Castillo is the Agriculture Program Manager at Oxfam America.

How will agriculture meet global food demand sustainably and equitably? This question is potentially controversial; it is often framed in terms of either organic versus conventional, or small farmer led versus large scale industrial farming. But don’t we all want an agriculture that provides nutritious food for everyone and that doesn’t decimate the natural resources that it uses? These are goals that should unite us, but the reality is that it often does not.

Ms. Yorn Yee (right) offers guidance and support to her fellow farmers in Cambodia. Mr. Neang Veach (left) learns more about the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) agricultural system. Photo: Jim Holmes / Oxfam
Ms. Yorn Yee (right) offers guidance and support to her fellow farmers in Cambodia. Mr. Neang Veach (left) learns more about the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) agricultural system. Photo: Jim Holmes / Oxfam

How can we then rise above this polarization and tap into the synergy and common aspirations? This was the question that some of us at Oxfam wanted to try and tackle. So we invited passionate people with knowledge about agriculture—from farmers, to Syngenta representatives, to the head of the Food and Agriculture Organization at the United Nations—to imagine and to articulate what this agricultural system could look like. In other words, we wanted to tap into the kind of stuff that gets lost when agriculture forecasts and reports are usually presented.

“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” ~Albert Einstein

The challenge we presented to essayists was intended to tap into their creativity and imagination, and to spur a dialogue that could “crowd-source” a vision for agriculture in the future. These essays were then featured on a two-week online debate. Today we are publishing a synthesis of that discussion, as well as the original 23 essays from 16 countries. The four questions answered in the essays and discussions included:

  • What if all farmers had adequate risk management systems to deal with climate trends and shocks, as well as with price volatility in input and product markets?
  • What if fossil fuels were no longer required in any form of input to global agricultural production?
  • What if all farmers, male and female, had full and equal control over the necessary resources for farming, and over the outputs of their labor?
  • What if the ideas and innovations of resource-poor farmers leading to improvements of their natural resource base were supported by adequate access to public and private sector investments?

These questions may appear naïve and idealistic, even ridiculous to some. But don’t all good visions and change start with some idealism and optimism? Funny enough, no one we invited to write an essay told us they were silly. On the contrary, we realized people want to be involved in actively creating the future.

So what came out of the debate and the essays? Our essayists overwhelmingly agree that a lot of the technologies and practices to achieve a more equitable and sustainable agriculture are within reach, and that many farmers are inherently creative and inventive, adapting their farming practices beyond what we “experts” think. What is lacking is real political will. What is lacking are actual investments to support farmers’ creativity and foster collaborations to better link farmers to each other, to the private sector, to extension services, etc.

It turns out then that what separates the start of a vision and its actualization is getting real about the future. Our essays and discussion reveal that unlocking idealism and creativity is a key part of that.

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  1.  avatarjko

    Two years ago I prevailed upon the church to which I belong and attend to allow me to use acreage unused at the site of the church. My purpose was to start a community garden. The site is blessed with sunshine and I had an adequate water supply brought it which covers about 3 acres. I brought a small garden tractor and full array of implements to the site and plowed it up, tilled the entire site, and built compost bins.
    To date no one beside my wife and self has harvested the first item from this place.

    Reply
  2. Pingback: Imagining the future of agriculture – One Billion Hungry: Can We Feed the World?

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  4.  avatarMaria Antip

    Oxfam’s initiative to host an online debate on the future of sustainable agriculture is commendable and the International Fertilizer Industry Association (IFA) is appreciative of your efforts to disseminate the conclusions of the debate. We were content to see such a vast array of views from international organizations, private sector, environmentalists and media finding a voice in Oxfam’s “The Future of Agriculture” discussion paper. However, a few inaccuracies concerning fertilizers were noted so we thought best to provide some clarification.

    The report quotes Anna Lappé stating that “Nitrogen and phosphorous – two key elements found in non-organic fertilizers – require enormous volumes of natural gas to be synthesized.” Both phosphorus (P) and nitrogen (N) are elements that are found in nature and that are used as crop nutrients in both mineral and organic fertilizers. P fertilizer manufacturing uses naturally occurring phosphate rock as raw material. It is then often transformed to phosphoric acid, and finally to processed phosphates (e.g. ammonium phosphates and superphosphates). These processes are relatively little energy intensive, except for the production of ammonia used in ammonium phosphates. Ground rock phosphate was once applied directly to acid soils. However, due to low availability of phosphorous in most rock sources, high transport costs, and often low crop responses, very little rock phosphate is currently directly applied in agriculture. Nitrogen fertilizers are processed using nitrogen from the air and a source of nitrogen and energy, usually natural gas, as well as coal in China. The text also asserts that mining phosphorus requires even more energy than nitrogen synthesis. That is incorrect; nitrogen synthesis is a far more energy-intensive process than mining and processing phosphorous.

    The paper quotes Bill McKibben stating that “you‘re constantly degrading soils as you turn them into a matrix for holding petroleum-based fertilizer.” Please note that petroleum is not used to make fertilizers. Natural gas (in most countries) and coal (in China) are feedstocks used in the production of nitrogen-based fertilizers. Furthermore, molecules or ions found in fertilizers are present in nature, such as urea, ammonium, nitrate, phosphate, potassium… Only the process of N fertilizer production involves fossil fuels, as a source of N and energy to transform diazote (N2) into ammonia (NH3) and processed fertilizers. The claim that “GM seeds often depend on the use of specific petroleum-based pesticides and fertilizers, sold as part of a package by large multinational corporations” is untrue. Only pesticides and fertilizers may be used jointly in liquid solutions. There is no correlation between specific GM seeds and the type of fertilizers used with such seeds. John Ambler’s essay projects that by 2050, chemical fertilizer consumption will be down by 75%. Please note that global consumption of mineral fertilizers is steadily increasing and a 75% drop in consumption by 2050 is completely unrealistic.

    Another aspect we would like to call attention to is the fact that the discussion paper encourages the use of waste and manure as bio fertilizer. We support that approach and acknowledge the merits of this method in the context of integrated crop nutrition practices. However, it is also important to point two limitations: first, the limited availability of crop residues and manure in countries and regions with little livestock and small volumes; and second, the contamination risks from heavy metals and bacteria when such manure or waste are not properly treated under strict regulations/guidelines.

    The International Fertilizer Industry Association is open to providing further information about fertilizers, best management practices adopted by the industry as well as our nutrient stewardship initiatives. We look forward to being involved in future Oxfam initiatives on the topic of fertilizers, sustainable agriculture and food and nutrition security and are available to address any queries you may have.

    Reply

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