Culture, Values and the Environment Editorial



United Nations Under-Secretary General
and Executive Director, UNEP


Humankind's traditional endeavour throughout history has been to coax more food from the earth. The logic has been that if we bring more land under the plough, intensify labour and refine techniques, the supply of food will grow commensurately. But the logic of humankind has not been that of the environment.

Few realize that today we face the prospect of a massive loss of momentum in the growth of food production. From 1950 to 1984, world grain production expanded by 2.6 per cent per year, raising the grain harvested per person by 40 per cent. This outstripped population growth by a wide margin. But in recent years, the growth in grain production has slowed down to approximately 1 per cent per year. In some developing regions, particularly sub-Saharan Africa, food production is actually falling - of the 90 poorest countries in the world in which per capita output has dropped, 44 are in Africa.

An extrapolation of current trends into the next decade and beyond leads in directions that bode ill for all countries, rich and poor. Even today, according to the World Bank, 740 million people - one person in eight - cannot afford enough food to lead productive working lives, and 340 million experience ill health or growth disorders because they have insufficient food.

Loss of biodiversity, salinization, soil erosion and desertification have gradually reduced the productive capacity of agricultural land. In some cases this process may be irreversible. Every tonne of fertile topsoil washed away, every hectare claimed by desert sands, every reservoir filled with silt, further drains world productivity and spells higher costs for future gains in output.

Deliberate attention has to be paid - through policy and institutional reform, through enabling and support mechanisms, and through direct investments in economic, environmental and human capital - to foster and sustain rural well-being, and agricultural development is a prerequisite for this. But how and where it takes place is also critical. We will have to consider agricultural development in the context of the availability, use and management of land, water and vegetation, its impact on the quality of forests, rivers, lakes and coastal areas, and on life in marginally productive areas, and its linkages to off-farm employment, incomes and industry, as well as its social and distributional impacts. We will have to see food security in the wider context of sustainable development - locally, provincially, nationally, regionally and globally - and in doing so link short-term considerations to a long-term perspective.

Broad-based and open participation of communities, and the strengths of their own knowledge, organization, values, experience and ideas, are essential. Communities, private enterprise and non-governmental organizations have to carry the main burden of this action. Smallholder agriculture is the font of private enterprise and initiative in most developing countries. But the creativity, commitment and energies of these individuals and groups have to be liberated, motivated, informed, empowered and backed. This requires the right policies; institutional, legislative and administrative support; and economic incentives. Agricultural research must respond flexibly and adequately to the needs of widely different agro-ecological and socio-economic circumstances. Biotechnologies that improve the efficiency of traditional breeding, enhance yields or control pests; crop and natural resource management practices that improve input-use efficiency and control land degradation, soil erosion, water pollution and forest loss, have to target the areas facing heavy ecological and economic odds.

The potential of hybrid rice developed in China, new strains of broad bean from Egypt, high-yielding varieties of African cassava and the hybrid Indian pigeon pea (which could revolutionize yields of pulses), Chinese sweet sorghum (which could be used for animal feed), and over 50 such improved plant varieties, must not remain isolated experiments. Genetic engineering, whether for higher yields or for pest control, holds the promise of raising agricultural productivity on a wide front.

It is essential that environmental perspectives become a vital element in our endeavour to increase global food production. Increasing food production in a sustainable fashion should be the overriding objective of our new strategy - a strategy to transform agriculture into a powerful vehicle for both poverty alleviation and environmental conservation.

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