Global Food Security blog contributor Christiaan Perez interviewed Claudia Ringler, Deputy Division Director for Environment and Technology Production at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) about the food security issues under discussion at the Rio+20 Conference, which took place this week.
Q1. The original mission of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) was to try to free humanity from hunger and want and to strive for societies that are just and inclusive. It has been 20 years since the first conference in Rio, the Earth Summit, and in your perspective, how far along has the world advanced in achieving the societal and humanitarian goals originally outlined?
Claudia Ringler: Unfortunately we have not moved very far along because at the end of the day, sustainable development is very much driven by the economic situation or economic development. Those countries that have advanced, who have come out of poverty, who have made significant developments on the economic development side, and where population growth is slow have had the flexibility to be proactive in their environmental policy. They have been able to implement several environmental regulations, such as improving water quality, and this has led to the improvement of other environmental indicators. But the countries where we have the bottom billion, the one billion poorest people, have not seen many advances, and there has not been enough drive from the global community to help those countries. So, all in all, I would not say there has been a lot.
Q2. Amidst the Rio debate, the environmental arguments have been cast under the shadow of economic turmoil. The issue has essentially become whether or not the world is financially able to address environmental issues. Can we adequately address the environmental issues given the financial climate?
Claudia Ringler: One of the main reasons that things have not been moving as well as they could be is due to the financial crisis. The G77, the group of developing countries, has been asking for a financial and technological transfer from the countries that have both the technology and financial means. But then the industrialized countries, given the current financial crisis and the relatively low economic approach, do not want to commit to significant financial support to make this happen. This is one of the key reasons why the talks have not been developing as they could.
Q3. How do you feel about agricultural production in the global realm? We have seen an increased homogenization of crops and a decrease in the number of people employed in agriculture. This is due to more mass produced foods and the development of an agriculture “fortresses” such as Europe and the United States that protect their domestic agriculture production. What is your perspective about the agriculture policies of the developed world?
Claudia Ringler: Developed countries, such as the U.S. and Europe, remain heavy protectors of agriculture systems. For instance, the United States has added another chunk of subsidies for biofuels to American farmers in the past 7-8 years. It is often needed to incentivize new technologies, it’s often to start off with new support, but once it starts it becomes difficult to stop. Developed country subsidies are an impediment to other countries getting the farm started, but we also have to acknowledge that developing countries are increasingly subsidizing their own farming systems. They are striving for food self-efficiency that is generally inefficient.
What we saw during the food price crisis of 2007-08 revealed how the international food trade system is in shambles. A lot of developing countries have started to adopt very protectionist policies and didn’t allow basic staples to be exported from their countries–all whilst making the situation in other countries a lot worse. Now-a-days it is wrong to only blame developing countries because everyone is to blame now. Obviously the blame game is probably not the best way to go forward because the blame game does not get us anywhere. The question is: “How can we increase food security for the poorest?” The countries where farmers have to rely on agricultural productivity for their income is where the most attention is needed, as opposed to other countries where agricultural production is 2-3% of labor and GDP–and where subsidies are much less worth it.
Q4. Another item being hotly debated is the manner in which current technology can be shared with developing countries in order to assist with their productivity. How do you feel the technological divide can adequately be addressed between developed and developing countries?
Claudia Ringler: The clearest way to address the issue is to increase public investment in agriculture research. Countries in the developing world, particularly in Africa and some Asian countries, really need to increase their commitment and financial resources into the agricultural research systems. What has happened is that these systems have eroded over the last 20 years, and developing countries are not interested in pushing investment in the agricultural sector because they are much more interested in urban development.
This has really led to a huge fallback in developing country agriculture. There is a technological divide and developing countries or the big companies such as Monsanto have done a great job developing new technologies, but they are only interested in selling these technologies to farmers that can afford them. That has really created the divide, where the advanced private sector focuses on large farmers that can afford these technologies that can increase the yield potential tremendously.
We see today the average corn yields in the U.S. are 8.7 tons per hectare while in Africa they remain at around 2 tons per hectare. This is an increase by a factor of 4, and it does not have to be. From a biophysical point of view, you could achieve 8 tons per hectare in the developing world, but, as long as we have a technological divide, both private sector and public sector in developing countries are not interested and not committed to invest in agriculture.
Q5. There are certain parts of the world that excel at to agricultural production, the bread baskets of the world. Should these regions focus their efforts towards producing more food to feed the world or are there other issues that need to be addressed, as well, in order to solve world hunger?
Claudia Ringler: Continued focus on the breadbaskets of the world is important, but it is also important to remove distortions, subsidies, and various trade barriers in these regions. What will we see in the next 30 to 40 years is that Latin America and North America are increasing net exports of food products substantially, simply because all the economic and population growth will take place in the developing world, but these countries will not be able to produce their own food. There just growing too fast and their agriculture is growing too slowly, so the bread basket areas really have the role to feed the world.
The full interview was conducted as part of a segment of Hofstra University’s Morning Wake Up Call on June 21, 2012. You can also listen to the audio of the interview.