Combine in wheat field
Combine in wheat field

Food wastage must be reduced, consumer preferences must change and farmers must be weaned on to ecologically sustainable practices

From consumers in London to drought-prone farmers in central India, nobody needs convincing that climate is changing for the worse. But policymakers are failing to grasp the gravity of the situation, and policies on food production are not reflecting the urgent need for change. 

The bull run in commodities ended at the beginning of this decade, and since then food prices have generally remained subdued, instilling a sense of complacency among those that influence policy. Consequently, public funding for agricultural research and the subsequent deployment of funds for human resources has reduced substantially in real terms.

This is most worrying, for it comes at a time when scientists are loudly warning of impending challenges in food availability arising from climate change.

The world population is expected to peak in 2050. We are constantly reminded that we will need to increase food production by 50 per cent by then. This has become the cornerstone of national policies and an integral part of dialogues about feeding the future. 

Starved of funds to meet climate change challenges, the exhausted public research system has taken the easier path, tagging along with the private sector – which finds it more lucrative to maximise farm yields. This, in turn, encourages agricultural practices that are responsible for 30 per cent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, completing a vicious circle where farming practices maximise yield, which accelerates climate change, which then necessitates yields to be maximised.

As a result, millions of acres of a few cereal crops are planted, creating monocultures. This is directly in conflict with conserving biodiversity, which is absolutely essential for safeguarding the global commons that make Earth habitable for present and future generations. 

Worse, higher-yielding seeds are quickly adopted by farmers, so that now more than 80 per cent of most crop production comes from a handful of varieties of each crop type. Most efforts to protect species and genetic diversity remain limited to safeguarding a few remaining natural ecosystems such as forests, while biodiversity in cropped land and areas is wilfully ignored.

Even though there is strong reason to believe that Earth is already producing enough to feed all its people way into the future, a shortfall is imminent because farmers are responding to state policies and consumer demand for particular types of food, such as red meat, which needs a lot of grain, fed to livestock, to produce – or are incentivised, for example, to grow crops for the biofuel industry. Growing ecologically unsuitable crops in particular ecosystems is literally killing the planet. 

Alternative approaches need a major change of mindset and a paradigm shift to design a new food ecosystem based on agroecology principles, requiring different kinds of crop planting practices, mechanisation and aggregation of commodities. Reorienting subsidies for developing livestock is essential, as is research on making animal feed from farm residue.

The focus must visibly shift to behavioural economics, investing billions in a decade-long worldwide awareness campaign to reduce the wastage and loss of food, change consumer preferences, wean farmers on to more ecologically sustainable practices and create platforms to make all this happen.

A discerning shift from supporting the costs of farm inputs costs and farmgate prices to paying for ecosystem services is the ideal way forward. But, policymakers’ myopic outlook discourages them from believing that it is practically feasible – and the corporate commoditisation of the food system will not allow it.

There has been a steady but subtle shift in the narrative; from agriculture to food, from yield to sustainability, from productivity to prosperity, and from quantity to quality. These changes are leading to policies being formulated where farmers are to be supported rather than agriculture production being subsidised.

But at present, resources are predominantly channelled into creating infrastructure, a far more appealing proposition for politicians eager to showcase physical progress on the ground. 

Bureaucrats, and retired technocrats turned consultants, can justify deploying funds to create physical assets based on standard metrics, and it also provides an opportunity to receive hefty fees. It is easy money for contractors and financiers, but the next generation has to repay it with interest.

Entrenched vested interests seem to have rigged the system, thus making it easier to discuss a new approach to the food system than to implement one. This does not have to be so. Multilateral funding can change the trajectory. If it does not, we face a night without end.

This piece was originally published for the GEF-Telegraph Partnership.