AGRICULTURE:

Public-private partnership for food security champions high-efficiency approach

A market-centered strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture by 20 percent was announced on Friday at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, with the backing of 17 food and agribusiness companies.

The companies, which include agricultural biotechnology giants Monsanto Co. and Syngenta AG, as well as consumer goods company Unilever NV, Kraft Foods Inc. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc., launched "Realizing a New Vision for Agriculture: A Roadmap for Stakeholders" to assess the balance between food security, environmental sustainability and a decrease in rural poverty.

The strategy is centered on a 20-20-20 approach: a 20 percent increase in crop production, a 20 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and a 20 percent decrease in rural poverty in 10 years.

By using market structures, encouraging trade and focusing on small growers, there lies a "tremendous opportunity to deliver 20-20-20 in the first decade," said Hugh Grant, CEO of Monsanto.

The solution, the road map asserts, lies in measures to produce more crops on less land. It calls for "judicious use of technologies, monocultures and cropland expansion" and "technological breakthroughs to help farmers adapt to the consequences of climate change, enable production and mitigate risk under increasingly difficult conditions."

"In the U.S., large-scale farmers have made tremendous gains in resource use efficiency," said a spokeswoman from Monsanto. In 20 years, farmers have cut soil loss in corn by 69 percent, reduced energy needs for cotton by 66 percent and reduced greenhouse gas emissions for soybeans by 38 percent, she added.

"This initiative meets the mission that we have ... of transforming agriculture to ensure food security," said Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete. The president also presented an investment blueprint for Tanzania's Southern Agricultural Growth Corridor -- which includes several members of the New Vision plan on its executive committee -- as well as the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

The blueprint for the agricultural region suggests a needed investment of $3.4 billion over 20 years. USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah committed $2 million to a "catalytic" fund for the corridor, with the potential for an eventual $10 million annually.

Some worry about corporate tinge

Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, suggested that the road map could create a precedent for an annual event on food security.

"We're here at the beginning of something that could set a standard," he said.

The link between global food availability and climate change has strengthened in the past few years. Last summer's Russian heat wave created a brutal interruption in grain supplies, for example. The United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization posted a record high food price index earlier this month.

The New Vision is seen as a solid commitment from some food security experts, but the corporate tinge has made others wary of its intentions.

"This vision includes clear targets for increasing production and reducing greenhouse gas emissions and rural poverty, which should be very helpful in assessing its success and developing improvements to the strategy," said Bryan McDonald, author of "Food Security: Addressing Challenges from Malnutrition, Food Safety and Environmental Change."

Anna Lappé, author of "Diet for a Hot Planet" and co-founder of the Small Planet Institute, disagrees.

"The New Vision gives license to companies that already control much of the world's food supply to further dominate the global market," said Lappé. She explained that when at least four firms control 40 percent of the market, it is troublesome for competitiveness and puts political fairness at risk. Three of the New Vision's co-signers are agricultural companies that control 71 percent of the soybean market.

"My concern with the New Vision is that instead of bringing greater democracy and accountability into the global food chain, it will undermine food sovereignty where it's needed most," she said.