No and Yes?: “Sustainable” Food and Agriculture at Rio+20 (and Before)

No and Yes?: “Sustainable” Food and Agriculture at Rio+20 (and Before)

Example of green efforts at the Rio+20 conference

“No” is the declarative answer two staff members of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization gave when asked at the Bonn climate change talks if “sustainable intensification” of livestock meant, for example, turning pastoralists into feedlot operators. That “no” was good to hear (I’d asked the question), even if there’s continuing concern about what “sustainable intensification” really entails and whether “climate-smart agriculture”, another term used with considerable frequency by international agencies, including at climate change conferences, could ever include factory farming.

Of course, it’s pretty near-impossible to see how factory farming, livestock intensification, or indeed continued growth in global meat, dairy, and egg production could be defined as climate-smart or sustainable. But re-branding and re-categorization aren’t uncommon these days. Sustainable palm oil, sustainable soy, small-scale bio-char, and the bio-economy all have their adherents–often strongly partisan–even if their “sustainability” dividends are, well, questionable. (A good report on this topic that was published a few COP climate summits ago is Agriculture and Climate Change – Real Problems, False Solutions)

Back to that “no” from Bonn. Having heard it, it’s been interesting to read through some of the reports released for the Rio+20 Earth Summit, underway in Brazil, including a few from FAO. One, on greening global agriculture, says this:

About half of the global grain production is for feed, rather than direct human consumption. In the future, global meat production is expected to rise further, from 229 million tonnes in 1999-2001 to 465 million tonnes in 2050 (FAO, 2006a). This trend will put additional pressure on land and water systems, as more land and water is needed to produce meat than to produce plant-based products of the same nutritional value (FAO, 2011d).

And this:

According to the FAO publication How to Feed the World in 2050, population growth and changing diets will require an increase of about 70 percent in food production, with a higher water demand linked to more meat and milk production. This, plus the increasing competition between food and non-food production around the world, will create great challenges for those requiring access to natural resources (FAO, 2009a).

And then, this:

National food-based dietary guidelines (FBDG) should counsel the need to reduce the consumption of highly processed energy-dense foods that have fewer health benefits than do fruit and vegetables or fresh fish. In addition, national guidelines should promote reducing the consumption of meat and dairy products and less reducing food wastage by consumers…The development of informed dietary guidelines can help counteract the simplification of diets and the over-consumption of meat, and promote the consumption of a variety of foods, including local and traditional foods, as sources of food-biodiversity and good nutrition.

And another FAO report on ending hunger and “creating the future we want”, calls for “sustainable” consumption, as follows, to support “healthier people and ecosystems”:

People in high-income (and increasingly also in middle-income) countries typically have diets that are higher in meat and saturated fat (as well as sugar and salt), often combined with inadequate intake of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. This dietary pattern increases the risk of heart disease, certain types of cancer, stroke and diabetes…To avoid the risk that this dietary pattern is repeated as the world becomes wealthier, policies are needed to reduce over-consumption – especially of foods that have high environmental and health footprints relative to their nutritional value. A transition to healthier and more sustainable diets contributes to healthier people and ecosystems.

Not Earth-shattering, of course, but on the record(s). Now, I wonder what’s on the menu at FAO events in Rio (if they’re serving food). Peter Singer and Frances Kissling found that “sustainable” food at Rio+20 barely registers as a wan green. More about meat and Rio+20 in the next blog.

Photo courtesy of Jorge Andrade/Flickr