30 May 2016

How do rich countries see the future of food and agriculture?

The Paris-based OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) who has been the rich countries’ club since its creation in 1948, published recently its view of ‘Alternative Futures for Global Food and Agriculture’ which is based on intensive research and discussions with a wide range of experts as well as on modelling work.

As is usually the case with this kind of prospective work, it uses the construction of scenarios that are not ‘designed to be the “most likely” outlook, but contain relevant aspects of possible developments’. Interestingly, there seems to have been no particular contribution to this work by FAO, the UN agency for food and agriculture that has accumulated over several decades a mass of experience and expertise in the areas of long term perspective work for agriculture. Even more interestingly, the report remains totally mute on the issue of hunger, when the world, where around one billion people suffer from chronic undernourishment, has been witnessing renewed commitments by governments towards its eradication.

The OECD considers three alternative scenarios:

  1. 1.Individual, fossil fuel-driven growth’ where individual countries seek to achieve food self-sufficiency based on fossil fuel-driven technologies and where no fundamental change is envisaged in the way the food and agriculture system operates

  2. 2.Citizen-driven, sustainable growth’ where the emphasis is given to technologies that save natural resources and preserve the environment

  3. 3.Fast globally-driven growth’ based on international cooperation, fast and diverse technological development and trade led by large multinational corporations.

The conclusions the OECD derives from this work are summarised in 3 major points:

  1. -Food prices could continue to rise

  2. -Farm incomes will increase but agriculture’s share of GDP and employment will continue to fall

  3. -Trans-boundary livestock disease and food safety will remain a threat

Scenarios 1 and 3 are based on further use of farm inputs (fertilisers, pesticides, etc.). Scenario 1 ‘could exacerbate food insecurity and food safety risks, and increase pressure on the natural environment’. Scenario 3 is expected to ‘improve economic growth prospects for the majority of regions worldwide…[and] could amplify risks related to climate change and threats to biodiversity’. Scenario 2 contemplates major technological changes that would improve the environmental sustainability of the food system while adapting its activities to consumer behaviour. This last scenario seems inspired by trends observed in the behaviour of some favoured consumers in rich countries. In all cases however, more strain would be exerted on the environment, although substantially less in the case of Scenario 2.

What recommendations does OECD make on the basis of this analytical work?

  1. to influence consumption:

    1. to conduct ‘reform of subsidy and tax systems and consumer awareness campaigns’ to ‘accelerate movement towards more sustainable lifestyle and consumption patterns’ while preserving regional cultural specificities

  2. to influence production:

    1. re-evaluate policies in place that support the use of fossil-fuels and other energy-intensive inputs in agriculture and other sectors, and consider as indicator of productivity not only yield but also eventual degradation of natural resources and emission of green-house gases

  3. to improve the functioning of markets:

    1. establish more coherent food market regulations to facilitate trade seen as the main means to cushion local and regional supply-shocks (drought, flood, disease, etc.)

  4. to improve risk management:

    1. by developing insurance and banking tools and a social security system.

The report does however not address the issue of how the very much needed development of more sustainable production technologies will occur, by whom it will be done, at what conditions. It seems that the OECD expects this to take place automatically through the magic of markets. The report neglects the well-known fact that the development of  environment-friendly and low input technologies is not likely to be attractive to private sector companies who are ready to invest in research only if the technology generated can translate into inputs or equipments that can be marketed and generate profit. This is not a surprise as OECD has never been known to be a great supporter of public action and research.

From its recommendations, it is clear that the OECD believes that the global food economy should, like the rest of the world economy, continue to rely increasingly on trade (which is an energy consumer and is not in favour of the poorer producers/countries) and on the further development of the financial system (a trend that has already been observed for example in recent changes of emergency operations that have seen the emphasis shift from supporting in-kind food flows to developing financial solutions - cash distribution -managed by large multinational financial operators) [on these modalities, read here]. This approach does not attempt to reduce risks - which are seen mostly as resulting from climate change but not from the consequences of currently used technologies on the environment - by modifying fundamentally technologies but rather it provides financial solutions from which, it is very likely, the poorer sections of the world population who is at greatest risk, is likely to be excluded. In a way the OECD in its recommendations accompanies trends already in place, limiting its proposals to some inevitable adjustments in technologies at a time when concerns on the environment and climate are on the headlines, but it makes no attempt to go a step further on the implications of the changes proposed and the need to revisit entirely the food system for these transformation to really take place.

For us at, this way of considering the future of food and agriculture is unacceptable and dangerous, and not compatible with eradication of world hunger [read our ‘7 principles for a sustainable eradication of world hunger’]:

  1. -on consumption, we agree that the incentive framework has to be changed and add that this will reflect in a much increased price of food (which will also positively contribute to reducing food wastage) and therefore should go along with enhanced social protection measures [read here]

  2. -on production, we agree with the need to develop new technologies but suggest to reflect more on how such type of evolution could occur and, in particular, on the need to revamp public research to develop location-specific knowledge-intensive and employment-generating technologies accessible to resource-poor farmers [read here]

  3. -on markets, we agree that fluidity of food flows has to be increased, but more importantly:

        1. -there should be relocation of food production near large consumption centers to reduce, as much as possible, the impact of food transport

        2. -increased coherence of food regulations should not result in a general degradation of food quality (downward levelling of norms) and must remain sensitive to local culture

  4. -risk management should be addressed at the stage of production technology development and not just be dealt with through financial instruments

  5. -social implications of the changes contemplated, and particularly their impact on poor farmers and prevalence of food security should be key criteria in the assessment of policies and programmes: they cannot simply be assessed in view of output and environmental impact.


To know more:

  1. -OECD, Alternative Futures for Global Food and Agriculture, OECD 2016

Earlier articles on related to the topic:

  1. -Food, Environment and Health, 2014

  2. -Seven principles for ending hunger sustainably, 2013


Last update:    May 2016

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