Chris Wille—the Rainforest Alliance’s chief of sustainable agriculture—reflects on the role of sustainable agriculture in the fight against chronic hunger.
While obesity is a growing problem in some industrialized countries, a shocking number of people are starving on their feet. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), an estimated 842 million people are chronically hungry—that’s one out of every eight people on the planet. Two billion people lack sufficient nutrition for good health. To call attention to the problem, FAO has organized World Food Day every year since 1981. The theme for this year’s World Food Day, taking place on October 16, is “Sustainable Food Systems for Food Security.”
We have to double food production by the year 2050, when the human population will reach nine billion. And we have to get more of that food from farms to plates; scientists estimate that between 30 and 50 percent of crops are spoiled or wasted before reaching a hungry mouth. Better, more efficient practices are needed all along food supply chains. Eaters are getting the message; more and more people who can afford to make choices are shopping smart—buying fresh and local, for example—and eating lower on the food chain.
But the challenges at the farm level are steep. Many of those hungry people are farmers in developing countries. In fact, most of the world’s poor are farmers and most of the world’s farmers are poor. Farmers in many areas have low productivity. Soils are eroding. There is competition for land and water. Agriculture accounts for 70 percent of freshwater use and most of the deforestation and destruction of wetlands and other ecosystems. Clearing for cattle pasture, for example, drives more than 90 percent of the rainforest burning in the Amazon. How are agriculturists going to double production while conserving the natural capital on which they and their farms depend?
The Rainforest Alliance and the Sustainable Agriculture Network defined guidelines in the early 1990s to make farms environmentally responsible, socially beneficial and economically viable. We integrated the three pillars of sustainability—environment, ethics and economy—because farmers have to hit the marks in all three areas in order to meet the challenges of producing food in what ecologists are calling the “anthropocene” or the age dominated by humans.
Our approach is to develop guidelines and standards that help farmers mimic nature. Nature is efficient, resilient, flexible and diverse. Nature recycles and adapts. We train farmers—more than a million so far—to meet those standards, send independent auditors to evaluate their progress and certify farms that meet the requirements. Certification allows growers to access premium markets and allows consumers to reward farmers that are on the path toward true sustainability—a virtuous circle.
It’s working. Farmers in the program are producing more with less—registering gains in productivity of 20 percent or more—increased profitability and reduced costs.
It’s working. Farmers in the program are producing more with less—registering gains in productivity of 20 percent or more—increased profitability and reduced costs. Wildlife is coming back to the agricultural landscape. Streams are running cleaner. Deforestation is stopped and reforestation is under way.
But is this enough? We’re helping farmers in the tropics, mostly smallholders, sustainably grow larger volumes of some of the most important and ubiquitous export crops—coffee, tea, cocoa, spices, palm oil, bananas, pineapple—and earn more money while protecting the environment and providing proper rights and benefits to farm-workers. But is progress in these crops affecting the staples—corn, wheat, rice and soy—on which humankind depends? And can we scale up our program fast enough to keep pace with growing demand?
Regular Frog Blog readers know that the Rainforest Alliance collaborates with leading global food companies. These companies must know that they will have access to the raw ingredients they need next year and in 2050. We’re working with corporations, scientists, other NGOs and progressive producers to help farmers cope with the challenges of agriculture in the anthropocene, including changing climates, falling biodiversity, fickle markets, failing governments and elusive financial credit. We know that—given the magnitude of the problem—we need to do much more. We welcome your ideas and support. Look for the World Food Day activity in your area. Take time to thank a farmer today.