Working Group on Sustainable Agriculture (2008-2010)

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Joyce D'Silva, Compassion in World Farming

Larry Roeder, International Farm Rescue



This working group over 2008 and 2010 reviewed current scientific and empirical evidence on impact of climate change on agriculture and to recommend within the context of sustainable agriculture specific actions that can be implemented by UN agencies, governments and civil society at large.  Its first report was developed in 2008 and then enhanced in 2010.
Agriculture has changed dramatically since the end of World War II, often using new machines, chemicals and intensive techniques to maximize production, especially as the human population has also boomed. Unfortunately, while many benefits have emerged, they have been at a serious cost in a decline in family farms, depleted top soils, contaminated ground water, pollution of the ocean, cruel animal husbandry practices and a decline in economic and social conditions in rural communities.

To counter these negative trends, a movement has emerged since 1970's to offer fresh, innovative approaches. Such approaches will be critical as climate change continues to deteriorate land and water availability. The stresses caused by climate change will require adaptation policies that on the one hand resist drought, heat and other environmental concerns while on the other advance social change. Increasingly, the steeply rising world population is demanding meat, yet excessive meat production when produced in intensive farms is very damaging to the environment. The paper will not propose a vegetarian solution (leaving that choice to societies); rather it proposes a meat reduced diet but also alternative technologies such as growing meat in laboratories, a promising innovation.  Some of the reason are clearly environmental and economic. Current meat production is energy and chemical intensive and so quite vulnerable to oil price increases. Pesticides, herbicides, and animal wastes are heavily polluting. Intensive farming of animals is also often cruel. As an example, around 48 billion chickens are slaughtered annually for meat. Over 70% of them are raised in industrial farming systems confining them in windowless, barren and crowded sheds of up to 16 to 20 birds per square metre. By the time they reach slaughter age at 6 weeks old they often have less space than one A4 sheet of paper per chicken. Due to excessive growth rates, many suffer from painful lameness caused by abnormal skeletal development or bone disease. Some have difficulty in walking or even standing - unable to even reach water, they can go thirsty for days.   What we argue for is a more humane approach that allows for meat consumption without destroying the environment.

The bottom line for the chapter has been to articulate a sensible vision for diet and argue for understanding farmland as living systems embedded in a broader ecosystem. We must therefore, especially, given the impending difficulties certain to come from climate change, understand how to manage all farm practices on the basis of this holistic perception while also seeking new, innovative technologies.  In addition, we also need to be sensitive to indigenous and pastoral rights.


(1)  The Sower At Sunset by Vincent Van Gogh