Food Systems Summit: ‘Supports to farmers keeping the world away from SDGs and the Paris Agreement’

United Nations calls for repurposing and reforming price-distorting and environmentally harmful supports to farmers

By Richard Mahapatra
Published: Tuesday 14 September 2021
Most countries support farmers in emission-intensive sectors like sugar and the beef production chain, according to a new UN report. Photo: Americasroof via Wikimedia Commons
Most countries support farmers in emission-intensive sectors like sugar and the beef production chain, according to a new UN report. Photo: Americasroof via Wikimedia Commons Most countries support farmers in emission-intensive sectors like sugar and the beef production chain, according to a new UN report. Photo: Americasroof via Wikimedia Commons

Agencies of the United Nations (UN) have called for a sweeping review of global support to farmers that are making the planet warmer and also keeping it away from attaining the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. This is ahead of the Food Systems Summit that will take place September 23, 2021.

On September 14, three UN agencies — Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), UN Development Programme (UNDP) and UN Environment Programme (UNEP) — released A multi-billion-dollar opportunity: Repurposing agricultural support to transform food systems

The report analysed countries’ support to farmers and the consequent adverse impacts on food prices, environment, global warming and farmers, specifically smallholders.    

Support to farmers by countries has been a contentious issue in the regime of the World Trade Organization, putting the developed and developing countries at loggerheads.

The contemporary food production system has always been a cause of concern due to its high greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

From the perspective of general wellbeing, the rise of industrial food production and consumption are two key issues defining the epidemics of non-communicable diseases. The UN report attributed these to the very farmer support system that countries had adopted.

The report’s analysis of the support to farmers brought out three important conclusions: First, most of the support was targeted at a few commodities thus not benefiting all farmers.

Second, the support was for the most emission-intensive sectors like sugar and the beef production chain; and third, the current support systems had invariably helped corporates more than producers.

Currently, countries pump in $540 billion a year as support to farmers. This is expected to triple by 2030 to $1.759 trillion. “Yet 87 per cent of this support, approximately $470 billion, is price distorting and environmentally and socially harmful,” the report said.

Of the total support, $294 billion was paid in the form of price incentives and around $245 billion as fiscal subsidies to farmers. Most of the support and incentives were tied to the production of a specific commodity.

These were inefficient, distorted food prices, hurt people’s health, degraded the environment and were often inequitable, putting big agri-business ahead of smallholder farmers, a large share of whom were women, the report concluded, marshalling grim figures on the food systems’ ecological footprints.

Of this, only $110 billion was used to support infrastructure, research and development and benefitted the general food and agriculture sector.

The report noted:

Price incentives and fiscal subsidies are forms of support that may have significant negative implications on food systems, as they incentivise production practices and behaviours that might be harmful to the health, sustainability, equity and efficiency of food systems.

The report’s call was not to eliminate support but to repurpose it in such a way that its adverse impacts were negated. “Most of the support is in emission-intensive and environment unfriendly sectors. For instance, the beef sector gets massive support and is also highly GHG-intensive. Bring down the support here. Basically, repurpose the support system,” Joseph Glauber, senior research fellow with the International Food Policy Research Institute, said.

For instance, to meet the Paris Agreement goals, high-income countries needed to shift their massive support to the outsized meat and dairy industry that accounted for 14.5 per cent of global GHG emissions.

Similarly, for low income countries, the report suggested, governments must reconsider the support to chemical pesticides and fertilisers and also to discourage monoculture.

“Current support to agricultural producers worldwide works against the attainment of the SDGs, the targets of the Paris Agreement and our common future. This support is biased towards measures that are harmful and unsustainable for nature, climate, nutrition and health, while disadvantaging women and other smallholder farmers in the sector,” the report said.

“The support system is not helping the farmers as it should have. Rather, it is keeping us away from SDGs and the Paris Agreement,” Marco V Sanchez, deputy director, agri-food economics, FAO, said during an interaction last week.

“Governments have an opportunity now to transform agriculture into a major driver of human well-being and into a solution for the imminent threats of climate change, nature loss, and pollution,” Inger Andersen, executive director of UNEP, said.

“By shifting to more nature-positive, equitable and efficient agricultural support, we can improve livelihoods and at the same time, cut emissions, protect and restore ecosystems and reduce the use of agrochemicals,” she added.

Sanchez noted: “Farmers manage our natural resources; they decide what we eat, thus, they are a crucial factor for our health. So, the support should be reconfigured in such a way that farmers continue to do so and we have a healthy existence.”

“The intent of this report is to inform the countries and to start the debate on reforming the agriculture support systems. But it is urgent,” Kaavya Varma, Finance for Nature coordinator, ecosystems and biodiversity, UNDP, said.

The report had a six-step recommendation to start the repurposing process. For governments, it suggested: measuring the support provided; understanding its positive and negative impacts; identifying repurposing options; forecasting their impacts; refining the proposed strategy and detailing its implementation plan; and, finally, monitoring the implemented strategy.

Achim Steiner, the UNDP Administrator, said, “Repurposing agricultural support to shift our agri-food systems in a greener, more sustainable direction — including by rewarding good practices such as sustainable farming and climate-smart approaches — can improve both productivity and environmental outcomes.”

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