Development, the Environment and Food: Towards agricultural change?

Développement, alimentation, environnement : changer l'agriculture ?
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At the end of the 2000s, the theme of agriculture reappeared in international debates, taking front of stage in numerous workshops, technical publications, and programs launched by NGOs, governments and international organizations. A consensus has emerged and points to the urgent need for massive investment in the sector, which is (once again) viewed as one of the prime engines for development and food security, as well as for poverty reduction.

But what exactly does this consensus cover? International debates encompass widely varying points of view, and food security itself is a protean notion. As Laurence Tubiana and Noura Bakkour explain in the first chapter, it can be understood as an issue linked with poverty and access to food, the quantity and quality of foodstuffs, security - particularly in regions in the throes of major political crises - etc. Today more than ever, it has become a challenge for international governance, on an equal footing with widespread environmental changes and the economic crisis, as evidenced by the interest the G20 has shown in the subject since 2010.

Agriculture and food security challenges should not be reduced to simply a matter of food production (Chapter 2). This book thus invites the reader to discover these challenges in all their complexity. It takes into account international agricultural research (Chapter 9), issues of access to, and use of, natural resources (Chapters 6 and 7), the agri-food industries (Chapter 11), our consumption patterns

For consumption patterns, notably meat and organic products consumption see Radars 2 and 5.

and agricultural employment (Chapters 3 and 4). Nonetheless, the question of agricultural production remains pivotal. While the idea of investing in agriculture is gaining ground and although several countries or regions appear to be offering opportunities for investment in agricultural land

For a discussion of the scarcity of cultivable land see Radar 7.

debates are still raging on as to which agricultural models to choose and how agricultural policies should be implemented.

Issues pertaining to food and agriculture widely differ from one region to another. This edition of A Planet for Life takes us to all five continents, to the USA and the European Union (Radar 14.1 and 14.2), to India and China (Radars 5 and 9, and Chapter 5), to Latin America (Chapter 4 and Radar 11) and Africa (Chapters 3 and 4). The book also sheds light on international issues: the growing influence of private stakeholders (Chapters 13 and 15) and the changes in global governance (Chapters 12 and 15, and Radar 12).

Certainly, the current effervescence surrounding the topic is due as much to the urgency of the issues as to their appropriation by a proliferation of players with conflicting interests and values. At the same time, the theme covers complex problems linking global and local scales, as well as short- and long-term stakes that spark controversy and debate, and this book sets out to elucidate their terms and meanings.

Agriculture as an engine for development?

The late 2000s witnessed the emergence of an agriculture-for-development agenda. Developing and emerging countries were encouraged to integrate into their national policies the idea of agriculture as a major development engine, and Developed countries encouraged to do the same with respect to their development policies. This agenda is particularly foregrounded in the World Bank's World Development Report 2008

World Bank, 2007, World Development Report 2008: Agriculture for Development. Washington D.C.: World Bank.

. This volume emphasizes the role of agriculture in the different developmental "stages", which are modelled on the historical sequence seen in the developed world: the gradual transition from an agriculture-based economy to one underpinned by industry and then services, with a rural-urban shift. Agriculture provides an initial momentum through its productivity gains, which enable the accumulation then transfer of labour and capital from one sector to the other, hand in hand with better standards of living and an increase and diversification of demand: only a minority of the population can remain and specialize in agriculture (generally those with the best production factors), the majority being absorbed into non-farm and industrial activities, most often through rural-to-urban migration.

These three trends - agricultural specialization, rural diversification, migration - are presented as possible exit routes from rural poverty, but "the question of the viability of these exit strategies today is not really debated" according to Bruno Losch (Chapter 3), and "previous transitions have clearly taken place at other historical moments". The current phase of globalization characterized by the State's withdrawal, trade liberalization and breakthroughs in communications technology has created a totally different playing field. Those countries with a lag in structural change and a high dependency on agriculture, as is the case of many African countries, are facing the constraints of fierce competition, an unstable international business environment and the consequences of global change, which have drastically reduced their margin for manoeuver.

While the agricultural sector in developed and emerging economies have a concentration of production units, increasingly motorized production processes and a large share of research and technological innovations, most of the agricultural labour force still work on smallholdings using manual and barely or non-motorized production methods, which are unable to ensure livelihoods. Although some workers migrate to centres of economic activity, they do not necessarily transfer their land to more productive systems. A core of family members remains in the village and engages in multiple jobbing, leading to subsistence farming and providing cheap labour for the large agricultural production chains, as is described for cotton-growing in a small Turkish village (Chapter 10). There is no automatic transfer of farm labour to industry, but rather the risk of a downward spiral that traps a good part of the population in poverty.

In Africa, but also in parts of Central Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America the lack of productivity of existing farms creates opportunities for development and a possible answer to the food challenges of tomorrow highlighted Radar 0. Increasing production by 70% by 2050 necessitates a modernisation of agriculture: more concentrated units of production, motorisation, greater reliance on research and development etc. But even though transforming farming units of production and increasing productivity is a pivotal issue, focusing only on certain farms producing a limited set of commodities would be a major mistake, turning today's opportunities into yesterday's errors by replicating a non-inclusive development scenario.

This book also highlights the importance of a widely dispersed web of very small-scale economic actors in the processing and distribution chains, who could well hold certain keys to development and the future of food security (notably Chapter 2), as is the case for urban and peri-urban agriculture which contributes to provide African cities with food products, yet who remain ignored by most agriculture and food policies

See Radar 3 for a discussion of urban agriculture in Malawi.


Sustainable agriculture can only be built on economic growth that encompasses both the agricultural and industrial sectors, rural and urban areas, and stimulates productivity for these two different spaces taken as a whole. The development equation, explains Xinshen Diao and his co-authors in Chapter 4, remains specific to each country, to its spatial economy and to the interrelations between sectors and territories. These interacting changes may disadvantage a particular area, as illustrated by Chinese industrial growth, which has only been achieved through a certain abandonment of rural areas (Chapter 5): the challenge is then to rethink development policy to make it geographically more balanced. Moreover, while transforming production structures and enhancing their productivity remain a major challenge, this must not be limited to the farms linked into global industries.

Not least, it would be a mistake to narrow down the importance of agriculture as a development engine to developing countries alone. Agriculture also plays a prime role in many emerging economies (cf. the case of Latin America in Chapter 14) and is at the heart of the global sustainable development stakes that are challenging agricultural development models and the associated framework policies.

Environmental constraints on long-term agricultural trajectories

Apart from having to step up its global production, agriculture had also been saddled with the role of development engine during the years of the green revolution, and there are lessons to be drawn from this experience. Today, replicating this model is not on the cards as its negative environmental and social impacts are now known (see Radar 5). Beyond the inherent limits of this model, the problems of resource availability, degradation of natural capital and other environmental threats such as climate change are all game changers and strongly constrain future agricultural trajectories.

Among these different environmental challenges, resource availability is gaining ground in policy processes around the world (as illustrated by the EU strategy a resource efficient Europe). Contemporary foresight exercises (Radar 0) illustrates the dangers of a response solely targeting resource scarcities, namely a risk to focus solely on increasing production, without integrating social and environmental, but also mid to long term economic dimensions.

To respond to agricultural and food challenges, States often massively open up "available" land to a growing number of investors who take positions on agricultural assets, lured by the opportunities offered by Africa, Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan or Brazil, to mention only a few favourite targets. According to the Land Matrix report

Anseeuw, W., Alden Wily, L., Cotula, L., and TAYLOR, M., 2012, "Land rights and the Rush for Land. Findings of the Global Commercial Pressures on Land Research Project", Rome: International Land Coalition.

(Anseeuw et al., 2012) over 70 million hectares have been involved in transactions since 2006.

Some commend the virtuous spiral, when corporations, States and donors respond positively to the challenges. Others denounce the fact that multinationals or powerful economic players (national or foreign) seize control of agricultural and natural assets, which often results in accelerated withdrawal of water for irrigation or in continued deforestation. This raises worries about strong impacts on global climate balances and biodiversity, as well as on local natural resources that other stakeholders rely on. The environmental issue is even more directly felt as a conflict of access to resources when "available" lands are used by expropriated local communities.

Faced with this race for land, the question of its scarcity is particularly relevant. Laurence Roudart shows (Radar 7) that agricultural areas can still be extended and that there is no global land scarcity, though admittedly soil degradation could in the long run become a cause for concern. There are however many situations where regional and local land scarcity may be chronic. States that have land available need to make the most of this margin of manoeuver in order to develop sustainable agriculture practices that fully integrate social and environmental constraints. The participation of peasant and professional organizations in discussions should be guaranteed, and investment commitments need to be well defined so that it is not simply a question of transferring land rights, but rather of ensuring that transactions materialize well and truly as investments.

Would increasing yields be enough to check the expansion of cultivated areas and attenuate environmental impacts? In the case of deforestation in Indonesia, Anne Booth and her co-authors (Chapter 7) show that this proposal is not robust to economic analysis. Certainly, efforts to increase the productivity of food and cash crops are proving successful, but this has not led to the containment of rampant deforestation. According to the authors, this seems to confirm the need for supportive public policies in order to dovetail the two objectives of enhancing agricultural productivity and controlling the expansion of cropland.

Land "scarcity" is by no means the only environmental issue that needs to be overcome. In addition to the scarcity of water and fossil energy sources, a whole raft of environmental problems combine to produce a real systemic challenge for agriculture, implying a need for innovative solutions. Uno Svedin (Chapter 6) points out that in our Anthropocene era, where human-related environmental changes (climate change, modified cycles for nitrogen, phosphorous, etc.) are already of a magnitude comparable to geological changes, changes in agriculture have substantially contributed to the global impact of human activity on all natural cycles. Today we are no longer in what some scientists such as Johan Rockström and Uno Svedin (Chapter 6) refer to as a "safe operating space for humanity", while the pursuit of our current agricultural and food model is constantly moving us even further out of this safe space. Climate change in particular poses a threat to the resilience of farming systems and, as Jean-François Soussana shows (Chapter 8), this impels us to a total rethink of our approach to agriculture. It will take a great deal of innovation if we are to invent smart, knowledge-intensive and resilient agricultural practices capable of increasing productivity and also environment-friendly. Yet, getting what Michel Griffon (2006) calls a "doubly green revolution" off the ground will not be simple, given that how to put it into practice is subject to controversy and debate. Benoit Labbouz and Sébastien Treyer (Chapter 9) point out that implementing sustainable and resilient agricultural systems inevitably hinges on innovation. However, the on-going debate on the new paradigm of agricultural innovation (new green revolution, agro-ecology, etc.) shows that this will require a sea change in the current functioning and priorities of international agricultural research. What is needed is a radically new approach to innovation that gives farmers a true role, since it is they who produce knowledge specific to local contexts - knowledge vital for ensuring optimal respect of environmental constraints and enhancing a territory's cultural and natural capital. While the authorities steering international agronomic research are the strategic hubs for far-reaching socio-technical choices, they remain reluctant to engage in a genuine transition.

A complex and globalized economic fabric

Agricultural trajectories in different regions of the world are interlinked by international markets, which crystallize criticisms and hopes. By analysing various agro-industrial chains, this book provides a more effective assessment of the complex economic fabric underlying the concept of markets, power relations and the multiple arenas for the transactions needing to be factored in if the sustainable agriculture equation is to be solved.

In the agro-industrial system, which is now increasingly internationalized along all its supply chains, industrial processes operate on a just-in-time basis and rely on logistics chains where supplies must be secured and traceable (Chapter 11). The technical characteristics of raw and processed food products must be appropriately defined and calibrated and comply with a raft of standards covering health rules, as well as industrial standards for mass production and supply chains. Markets are multifarious and materialize much more as technical-economic networks that are highly segmented and specialized on a product-by-product basis. They are endlessly diversifying within the 'quality economy' through labelling systems and protected designations of origin (Radar 13), which do not jeopardise other developments. Consumer demand for non-standard products is in tune with current industrial trends (standardization, innovation, etc.).

This food economy has two major consequences. First of all, it translates into a landscape built around oligopolies, where a handful of corporations control nearly three-quarters of the market. Ten countries concentrate 85% of global agribusiness and 70% of its workforce. Certainly, in the early 2000s, the supremacy enjoyed by major rich countries (United States, France, Germany and Japan) evolved into a leadership shared with the emerging world (China, Russia, Brazil and India). These developments, however, have not changed the structure of the markets. The second consequence is that the price of gaining a foothold in these networks is constantly rising and value has been redistributed throughout these networks. The agri-food industry is now becoming more service-oriented and currently spends more on marketing than on agricultural commodities, thus disadvantaging small producers.

This dynamic is an indicator of how difficult it has become for non-industrialized countries to integrate the global agricultural economy. Opportunities for market access depend on their scale of production, on the availability of logistics and on their access to information. Developing countries producers are rarely endowed with such means. A company with a firm foothold in international markets can more easily invest in processing and commercialization, as well as in direct production, whereas local producers outside of the value chains find it very hard to do so. This analysis gives deeper insight into why the governments of developing countries strive to attract the industry's key players onto their territories. As the levers for public action have dwindled greatly since the 1980s, governments often have no other feasible option in the face of international competition than to offer access to natural resources in order to interest potential investors in their territory.

Yet, other schemes to connect up local production with regional and international markets also exist, and do not exclude small local producers. In many countries, we can see initiatives based on quality signals for local value-added products. The creation of protected designations of origin to develop the market for olive oil from the southern shores of the Mediterranean shows that these experiences can succeed if they are part of an overall framework (Radar 13) calling on the participation of all operators in the value chain and on intervention from powerful market players. In Latin America, mechanisms have been created to articulate agri-businesses and micro-suppliers. This is the basis of the "supplier programs" set up in Mexico and Chile, where large agri-food companies are able to give technical assistance to small and medium-sized firms operating in all productive sectors. These mechanisms are particularly well-adapted to the reality of a highly fragmented agricultural sector and the agro-industry's supply requirements (Radar 11). A win-win relationship is thus established between distributors and producers, without distorting the market. Finally, Jean-Louis Rastoin suggests in chapter 11 that our current agro-industrial model in its increasingly service-oriented format may be economically efficient, but its sustainability is far from certain, and will only be achieved by its cohabitation with an alternative model based on proximity, on a network of small enterprises, valorising idiosyncratic natural and cultural patrimonies.

Managing the effervescence around the agricultural sector

The current crisis, characterised by an increase in agricultural commodities' price and their volatility (Chapter 12) has in fact opened a window of opportunity that could trigger the dynamics of more sustainable and more balanced development, without sacrificing agricultural and rural development. Many countries have increased the budgets of the ministries of agriculture (Chapter 4). For these countries, the "comeback" of agriculture is synonymous with a more endogenous development strategy, geared to leveraging the under-employed and developing natural resources, whose value had been obscured by pre-crisis ready access to financial capital. For developed countries, the time for reform has also come, heralded by the upcoming American Farm Bill (2012) and future European CAP (2014). Alongside these national initiatives, international mobilization - the G20 and the reform of the FAO (Radar 15) - betokens the heightened importance given to this challenge by the donor community.

This window of opportunity is not limited to putting agriculture back onto the agenda of development agencies. In fact, its "comeback", and its previous "abandonment" referred to in the World Bank's World Development Report 2008, often seem overstated. The statistical analysis proposed by François Pacquement (Radar 15) shows that agriculture has always been high on the donors' agenda. It is important to note that this window of opportunity in fact stems from a combination of constraints: rising prices, stronger constraints and climate change, continuing demographic pressures, questions of agricultural employment, etc., which together all challenge our current agricultural and food models.

This window of opportunity thus invites us to ask the question of change in the agricultural world: not the question of whether agriculture should indeed change, as today's challenges make this seem inevitable, but of which direction this change should take, what definition should be given to sustainable agriculture and food? The different sections in this book reveal some conflicting tensions: on one side, there is the effervescence that has surrounded agricultural and food issues since the mid-2000s, and on the other side, the difficulty of reforming agricultural policies and changing not only production methods but also processing and consumption patterns.

Today's policies are seemingly stuck in the rut of projects geared to a conventional modernization of agriculture, Despite the criticism levelled at its environmental and social impacts, support for the conventional model remains dominant, be it in India (Radar 9) or in Europe and the United States, a fact that Antonin Vergez and Simon Liu suitably recall in their analysis of how sustainability criteria integrate into the public policymaking of the planet's two largest agricultural players. The interview with Henri Nallet (Radar 14.2) highlights not only the European Union's unique opportunity to reconstruct its Common Agricultural Policy on sustainable foundations, but also the difficulties of an exercise that will be carried out under unprecedented budget constraints. This opportunity, and need, for reform, is fully felt in Latin America, where policies are undergoing deep changes, becoming more participative and inclusive of the whole agro-food chain since the beginning of the 2000s.

Despite this come-back of agricultural policies, the task of defining sustainable agriculture could indeed slip out of the public actors' control, as Eve Fouilleux shows in Chapter 13. Private sector standards are increasingly shaping the contours of sustainability in the models of international agricultural production. The growing importance of private stakeholders in defining guidelines for global agriculture does however carry risks, warns Olivier De Schutter, (Chapter 15) and needs to be controlled both at the national level - particularly in the developing countries that today lack strong policies in this regard - and at international level by a reform and deepening of global governance.

However, the current state of global governance when it comes to agricultural matters is far from encouraging. Apart from the setting up of a reformed Committee on Food Security (Radar 15), WTO negotiations are at a standstill. As Michel Petit underlines, the main components of an agreement are on the table - the abolition of export subsidies, substantial reductions in tariffs and other barriers to accessing internal markets, cuts in internal supports for farmers in rich countries. Yet today, those who stand to lose by such an agreement are eminently better mobilized that the potential winners, which is undermining the possibility of concluding the Doha Round. A further example is the G20 agricultural negotiations. These have given a topmost place on the agenda to agricultural issues, which would have been unthinkable only a few years ago. It is true that some interesting advances have been made (cf. general introduction) and that the G20 decisions have successfully provided the means to extinguish the present blaze. However, in view of the challenges examined here, it is not sure that the tools, instruments and commitments to agricultural development negotiated and agreed on by the different States will really be able to help prevent further crises (Chapter 12).

At the crossroads of the challenges posed by development, food security and the environment, the transformation of the agricultural sector is at the heart of the global stakes of sustainable development. To help steer these changes towards greater sustainability, this book makes us aware of how crucial it is to also change our representations of agriculture, change the visions that guide projects for change and the policies regulating this sector.

Countries and Regions covered by A Planet for Life 2012

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