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UNCTAD Policy Brief No.20 - Sustainable Agriculture and Food Security in LDCs
Policy brief by UNCTAD, 2011
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N° 20/C, May 2011
Least deveLoped countries series
FS The most critical issues facing LDCs today are poverty and hunger. These issues related to each other and to
LDCs are primarily agricultural economies with nearly
70% of the population engaged in agriculture. The
vast majority of the poor and food insecure are in rural
areas. Therefore poverty alleviation and food security
must start in these areas.
The outcome of the World Food Summit states that,
“food security exists when all people, at all times, have
physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and
nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food
preferences for an active and healthy life.” It requires
that food is available locally and that people have the
means to acquire it, either by growing it or purchasing
it, throughout the entire year.
Productivity of LDC agriculture is relatively low. Land
degradation is a major problem, due to increasing
population pressure, erosion, water scarcity and
the breakdown of traditional systems for soil fertility.
Farmers have little support from their Governments,
with African countries spending only 3% of their budget
on agriculture, disproportionate to the size of the
sector in terms of employment and economic activity.
Twenty years ago most LDCs dismantled marketing
boards, extension services and credit support and
opened up agricultural markets to subsidized exports
from developed countries. This decimated agricultural
sectors and most turned from net food exporters to net
food importers within a decade - the LDCs food import
bill rose from $9 billion in 2002 to $24 billion in 2008.
International finance organizations and bilateral donors
advised several LDCs to set up production and export
capacity for cash crops. While some countries, such
as Tanzania, have been successful in this regard, this
focus often distracted political attention and crowded
out investment from staple food production and its
supportive infrastructure and institutions.
In addition, post harvest losses in LDCs are large, with
at least one third of food produced being lost before
reaching consumers due to spoilage, poor storage and
transport facilities. On-site processing of agricultural
products is limited by energy poverty; 92% of rural
households in sub-Saharan Africa have no electricity.
Environmental degradation contributes to food
insecurity. Natural ecosystems provide most of the
world’s poor with food, fuel, medicine, building
materials and cultural identity. These systems are
being systematically degraded and destroyed, and
their regenerative and strategic productive capacity
jeopardized. Unsustainable land management practices
lead to scarcity of water for both drinking and agriculture.
The changing climate increases extreme weather
events in LDCs (extreme temperature, floods and
droughts) and unpredictable changes in weather
patterns that affect agriculture. Extreme weather events
in LDCs increased fivefold from the period 1970-79 to
2000-10, resulting in over USD 14 billion losses. Land
use changes, forestry and agriculture account for over
70% of LDC greenhouse gas emissions.
Environmental degradation, low agricultural productivity,
high post harvest losses, limited connections to
markets, energy poverty, limited education and non-
agricultural opportunities, hunger and thirst lead millions
of desperate people to leave rural areas each year for
the cities, only to find that life is often no better.
To check this vicious circle, rural areas in LDCs must
be revitalized, transforming them into vibrant places
with a clear perspective for families and young people.
For this we need a fundamental transformation, even a
revolution, in agriculture.
This revolution should not be based on expensive,
imported external inputs. Governments spend
large amounts of their foreign currency reserves
on agrochemicals (synthetic fertilizers, pesticides,
herbicides, fungicides). LDCs import over 90% of the
agrochemicals used in agriculture. Many of these
chemicals are dangerous, with pesticides being a
top cause of occupational mortality and morbidity,
and they are difficult to provide to rural farmers at the
right time. It is problematic that the global seed, agro-
chemical and biotechnology market is dominated by
few companies, with the four biggest controlling 60% of
global agro-chemical, a third of seed and almost 40%
of biotechnology supply.
The prices of oil and agrochemicals are increasing,
due to the increasing price of fossil fuels, used in
agrochemicals, and mineral phosphorous, used
in synthetic fertilizer. The agricultural input index
skyrocketed just before the first food price crisis of
2008. As can be seen in figure 1, the ratio of food prices
to input prices fell steadily over the 2004-2008 period.
Farmers were not profiting from higher food prices
because their input prices were increasing much faster.
In the light of the above, going down the high-external-
input-dependent, industrial agriculture route places
LDCs in a situation of extreme vulnerability.
Figure 1 - Development of the output to input price
ratio: food versus inputs
Source: FAO, The State of Agricultural Commodity Markets 2009: High
Food Prices and the Food Crisis - Experience and Lessons Learned,
Rome, 2009, p. 35
and food security in LDCs
+ 4 1 2 2 9 1 7 5 8 2 8 – u n c t a d p r e s s @ u n c t a d . o r g – w w w . u n c t a d . o r g
But there is another way - one that builds upon and gives value to
LDCs strengths: sustainable agriculture. It focuses on ecological and
not chemical intensification of agricultural production.
Sustainable agriculture is a production system that sustains the health
of soils, ecosystems and people. It relies on ecological processes,
biodiversity and cycles adapted to local conditions, rather than the
use of inputs with adverse effects. It combines tradition, innovation
and science to benefit the shared environment and promote fair
relationships and a good quality of life.
Sustainable agriculture includes ecological agriculture, organic
agriculture, agroecology and regenerative agriculture. Sustainable
agriculture practices include composting, mulching, crop rotations,
inter-cropping, agro-forestry, biological pest control measures,
green manures, nutrient recycling, integrating livestock into farming
systems, preventing erosion, and water harvesting.
Building strong soils and improving soil fertility is key to sustainable
agricultural practices, and increases soil water retention and
resilience to climatic shocks such as higher temperatures, droughts,
floods and storms. Moreover sustainable agriculture, with its focus
on building ago-ecological systems, promotes the use and further
development of indigenous varieties, well adapted to local conditions
and agricultural practices, and the associated knowledge. These
traditional varieties are disappearing from farmers’ fields worldwide
at very high rates, and with them goes the associated wealth of
traditional knowledge and culture.
Research by the UN and numerous other bodies demonstrates
that sustainable agriculture improves food supply, nutrition and
livelihoods in LDCs. For example, a UNEP-UNCTAD analysis of
114 cases in Africa revealed that a shift towards organic agriculture
production increased yields by 116%. Moreover the positive impact
endures as it is based on strengthening the five types of capital in
farming communities—human, social, natural, financial and physical.
The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food reports that small-
scale farmers can double food production within 10 years in critical
regions by using ecological methods, and calls for a fundamental
shift towards agroecology as a way to boost food production and
improve the situation of the poorest.
Relying on locally available regenerative resources instead of
expensive imported external inputs reduces LDC’s vulnerability
to external price shocks. Using local resources also has a positive
multiplier effect on the local economy by creating jobs and improving
incomes and food security in the whole community. This catalytic
effect, in particular when combined with locally deployed renewable
energy, brings new life to rural communities and creates conditions
for self-sustaining growth.
Markets for products produced in a sustainable manner are
expanding rapidly; the global market for certified organic products
has tripled in the past decade, reaching USD 55 billion in 2009. LDCs
are tapping into these premium priced expanding markets, earning
higher incomes and improving their food security. One third of the
world’s certified organic farmers are in LDCs.
Despite the clear benefits few, if any, LDC Governments or donors
to LDCs give serious attention or funds to support the development
of sustainable agriculture. Some are developing organic policies or
programmes (e.g. Uganda, Tanzania) but most provide no support. In
fact, the sustainable agriculture sector is taxed by subsidizing or giving
away agro-chemical inputs. One notable exception is the regional
government in Tigray, Ethiopia, which provides extension services
in sustainable agriculture techniques, particularly composting,
prevention of soil erosion and water harvesting. This region has seen
crop yields double and agrochemical use decrease by 95%.
There is an urgent need for a fundamental shift in national and donor
policies. Funds to agriculture should increase manifold. For poverty
alleviation, and thus food security, GDP growth in agriculture has at
least double the effect as growth in other sectors. How these funds
are spent is even more important. The focus should be on:
• Supporting small-scale farmers (the main source of food for the
world’s hungry) to improve their incomes, food security and access
to markets, including local markets.
• Increasing production of staple, non-traded, traditional and
indigenous crops and livestock for local, domestic and regional
markets. This provides varied nutritious food for local populations
and protection from volatility caused by financialization and
speculation in internationally traded agricultural commodities.
• Promoting the development of sustainable agriculture systems,
both production and markets.
Therefore the best investment is to:
• Identify and eliminate perverse policies and subsidies e.g. for
• Significantly increase the share and effectiveness of public
expenditure for agricultural development in general and for
sustainable agriculture in particular.
• Train farmers in sustainable agriculture practices and improve
related extension systems.
• Provide incentives and platforms for farmers, other actors in the
value chain and policymakers to share knowledge and experiences
with sustainable agriculture.
• Develop and disseminate the knowledge base on sustainable
agricultural practices through participatory research and farmer
field schools, supporting and building upon the strength of farmers’
knowledge and experience.
• Support farmers in creating groups for knowledge sharing,
production planning, joint marketing and problem-solving.
• Reward farmers practicing sustainable agriculture with access to
local and other markets, and improving physical infra-structure for
transport, communication and marketing and Government and
other procurement programmes.
• Minimize post harvest losses through improved storage, roads and
electrification, and by bringing processing closer to the harvest area.
• Combine sustainable agriculture production with renewable energy.
• Recognize stability in land management and tenure systems as
important policy issues related to enhanced soil fertility. Land reform,
including strengthening of women’s land rights, remains topical.
• National support measures for sustainable agriculture supplemented
by reformed international trade policies that truly support
sustainable agriculture. This should include more policy space for
developing countries to use effective instruments to promote food
security, farmers’ livelihoods and rural development.