U. N. conference on least developed countries prescribes sustainable agriculture

The fourth U.N. conference on the world’s poorest countries met in Istanbul from May 9 to 13 and adopted a plan of action at its end stressing the importance of foreign investment and the private sector in lifting millions from poverty. Notable was an emphasis on sustainable agriculture as a way out of poverty and toward food security for these countries.

The program foresees halving the number of least developed countries (LDCs) to 24 during the next decade through a significant rise in aid, favorable market access for all LDCs and building up their productive capacity.

The emphasis on productive capacity – energy, infrastructure and agriculture -- marked the most significant difference from the last LDC action plan formed in Brussels in 2008 which concentrated on health, education and other social areas.

“The stress on productive capacity is favored by LDCs as a means to modernize and diversify economies, create jobs and engage sustainable means to eventually eradicate poverty," said Cheick Sidi Diarra, U.N. undersecretary general and representative for the LDCs.

The world’s 48 poorest countries have 800 million people, with half of them existing in conditions of extreme poverty. The most critical issue facing LDCs today are poverty and hunger. These issues relate to each other and to environmental degradation, according to the report summary.

LDCs are primarily agricultural economies with 70 percent of the population engaged in agriculture. Poverty alleviation and food security starts in this area. Productivity of LDC agriculture is relatively low. Land degradation is the major problem, due to increasing population pressure, erosion, water scarcity and breakdown of traditional systems for soil fertility.

Post-harvest losses are large with at least one third of food produced being lost before reaching consumers due to spoilage, poor storage, and transport facilities.

For example, 92 percent of rural households in sub-Saharan Africa have no electricity.

“Environmental degradation, low agricultural productivity, high post harvest losses, limited connections to markets, energy poverty, limited education and non-agricultural opportunities, hunger and thirst lead millions to leave rural areas for cities each year, only to find that life is no better.”

A revolution is needed, but not one based on expensive, imported external inputs, the report says. LDCs import 90 percent of the agrochemicals used in agriculture. Many of these are dangerous, with pesticides being the top cause of mortality and morbidity among farmers. It is problematic that the global seed, chemical and biotechnology are controlled by just a few companies, with the four biggest controlling 60 percent.

There is another way, one that builds on and gives value to LCDs strengths: sustainable agriculture. It focuses on ecological and not chemical intensification in agricultural production. “Building soils and improving soil fertility is key to sustainable ag practices, and increases soil water retention and resilience to climatic shocks such as higher temperature, droughts, floods and storms. Sustainable agriculture with its focus on building agro-ecological systems, promotes the use and further development of indigenous varieties, well adapted to local conditions and practices. These values are disappearing from farmers’ fields worldwide at high rates, and with them goes the associated wealth of traditional knowledge and culture."

The report points out that research by the United Nations and other bodies demonstrates that sustainable agriculture improves food supply, nutrition and livelihoods in LDCs.

“There is an urgent need for shift in national and donor policies.” The report ends with recommended measures, including: Train farmers in sustainable agriculture practices and improve related extension systems. Reward farmers practicing sustainable agriculture through improved storage, roads and electrification. Reduce post harvest losses through improved storage, roads and by bringing processing closer to harvesting areas. Combine sustainable agriculture production with renewable energy enterprises.

It’s a bold step away from the conventional thinking in terms of economic development and food security in poorer nations.