Agriculture Can Save the World

United Nations General Assembly Obama is not the only political figure who can use “Yes We Can.” I’m currently sitting in the UN General Assembly at the Children and Youth Chair, listening to the Chair of the Commission on Sustainable Development Gerda Verburg from the Netherlands, speak about how the international community CAN overcome the combined crises of food insecurity, climate change, water scarcity and the financial recession. Despite the overwhelming nature of these challenges, Verburg seems confident that agriculture is the solution.

She points out that almost all of the billion people that live on less than $1 a day depend on agriculture for their livelihoods. Increasing investments in agriculture, improving market access, more equitable trade policies and micro-credit could create a new sustainable Green Revolution that would ensure that this food crisis is the last one.

In terms of climate change, she points out that soils can store carbon and sustainable biofuels such as palm and soil can help with mitigation while new crop varieties can help with adaptation. After attending numerous roundtables on biofuels, I have to agree that corn-based ethanol in the U.S. and palm oil plantations in Indonesia-which have led to the destruction of the peat bogs and made Indonesia the world’s 3rd largest ghg emitter- have really given biofuels a bad name. I think that the Standard on Sustainable Biofuels that Germany is pushing could really help with this.

Since agriculture consumes roughly 90% of the world’s water, water scarcity cannot be addressed without more efficient water management in agriculture. An especially controversial issue at CSD-17  has been GMOs. At our meeting yesterday with John Matuszak, the head of the U.S. State Department Delegation, he was asked about the U.S. support for GMOs. He replied that the U.S. views GMOs as a tool and one that is especially useful for combating water scarcity and desertification. Although I know there are numerous problems with GMOs, I’m inclined to agree that we shouldn’t entirely write them off.

Solving all of these crises will require a lot of money from industrialized countries. As the Minister of the Environment from Argentina just said  “Climate change is an environmental debt that industrialized countries must pay for.” The Chair made very clear that the current financial crisis is not an excuse for industrialized countries to pull back from the promises they have made. As I see it, solving the food/climate/water crisis is the only way that the world is ever going to get out the financial crisis. Let’s just hope some of the high-level ministers here feel the same way and that, unlike last year,  CSD-17 is able to produce a final document on sustainable development that the world can agree on.