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January 19, 2015

Global Forum for Food and Agriculture comes to an end

The biobased economy – an opportunity for humans, nature and the environment, or a threat to food security?

Berlin, 18 January 2015 – Yesterday, three outstanding events concluded the 7th Global Forum for Food and Agriculture (GFFA). Around 1,200 guests from around the world were in the audience to follow the GFFA Panel discussions at the CityCube Berlin. Afterwards, the German food and farming industries invited the participants to attend the International Business Panel. At a parallel event the agriculture ministers of more than 70 countries gathered to meet with high-ranking representatives of the World Bank and the World Food Organization (FAO) at the Berlin Agriculture Ministers' Summit.

At this year’s event the focus was on the opportunities and challenges posed by the biobased economy, an economic model based on the sustainable exploitation of natural resources including plants, animals and microorganisms. In recent years numerous countries have developed corresponding strategies to begin transforming their economies.

At the International GFFA Panel Federal Minister of Agriculture Christian Schmidt pointed out the many challenges now facing the farming industry, which has to produce food while also providing raw materials for industrial processing and generating energy. Its task is also to conserve nature’s biological diversity and protect our climate, all of this against the backdrop of dwindling resources. According to the minister it was the responsibility of the international community to create conditions for the farming industry that would enable the increasing demand for food and sustainable raw materials to be satisfied without impacting on food security.

Prof. Joachim von Braun, head of the Development Research Centre at the University of Bonn and chair of the German Biobased Economy Committee, reminded listeners that the biobased economy had ancient roots. After all, natural resources were used to bake bread, brew beer and heat with wood.

What was new was a ’knowledge-based approach’, the fact that one now made use of biological processes to reproduce those taking place in nature. According to von Braun, “Currently, around 15 per cent of our economy is biobased, and the goal is to raise that figure to 50 per cent by 2050.“

The questions as to who benefits from the biobased economy and what the pitfalls are were recurrent themes during the discussions. Evelyn Nguleka saw it as an ideal opportunity. Giving an example, the president of the World Farmers’ Union pointed to maize production. In Zambia, her home country, this is a basic foodstuff and is grown mainly by smallholders. This year, the crop harvest will be 3.1 million tonnes, of which only 2 million tonnes are necessary. “If ways could be found to manage the surplus then this would provide an income for the farmers“, Nguleka said.

José Graziano da Silva, director general of the World Food Organization (FAO), picked up on this theme. Despite maize crop surpluses there were many people in Zambia who remained undernourished. A lot of children suffered malnutrition due to a lack of vitamins and minerals. According to the FAO’s director general, “Farmers could use maize to produce biofuel and use the income to purchase more nourishing food.“ It was his organisation’s responsibility to supply farmers with the right information so as to give them the opportunity to exploit the corresponding value chains.

Cornelia Füllkrug-Weitzel, president of the charity Brot für die Welt, warned of the dangers of the biobased economy that in particular would affect smallholders in the southern hemisphere. Vast areas of farming land would be needed in order to grow the necessary crops. “In the past, creating such a demand for the global market has always led to smallholders losing their land“, she said, and reminded those present of past experiences with biofuel production. Since 2000, international agricultural corporations had taken over farming land in Africa equivalent to that of Western and Northern Europe.

Vasu Vasuthewan, a consultant for the biobased economic sector in Southeast Asia, said that illegal land grabs were the result of failed government policies. “We should not subscribe to the belief that the markets will provide all the right answers.“ This was echoed by Joachim von Braun: as in every other economy the biobased economy could only function if rights were established and subsequently upheld. In order to guarantee fair opportunities for countries in the southern hemisphere it was necessary to lay down rules and establish strategic partnerships.

The ministers who had followed the invitation of Federal Minister of Agriculture Christian Schmidt to attend the 7th Berlin Agriculture Ministers Summit also made calls for a uniform political framework to enable the farming industry to benefit from the biobased economy and in order to guarantee sustainable production. Food security had to remain the main priority, the minister said. According to Christian Schmidt, “Only by being able to maintain strong, diverse and sustainable food production can one establish a basis for long-term food security, ultimately a human right, and for providing humanity with sufficient quantities of healthy food.“

In their final communiqué the ministers noted that the farming industry was pivotal to the biobased economy and should accept its new role responsibly as part of the effort to maintain an international dialogue based on sustainable development goals (SDGs). These goals are due to be approved in September and will replace the development goals formulated by the international community in 2000 in New York. Following the Agriculture Ministers’ Summit Federal Minister Schmidt handed the final communiqué to his Turkish counterpart Mehmet Mehdi Eker and to FAO Director General José Graziano da Silva. Eker, whose country takes over the G20 presidency in 2015, promised to support this process.

At the International Business Panel the focus was on whether the biobased economy represented the right approach for a global agricultural production of the future, which countries were suited to it, and what overall conditions were necessary to ensure the safeguarding of natural resources. Shenggen Fan, director general of the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), pointed out the challenges to those present: in 2050, not only will the world’s population have reached an estimated 9 billion, but the calorie intake per person will also have risen. In 1950 the population density worldwide was 5,100 square metres per person, whereas in 2050 it will have been reduced to 2,000 square metres. Currently, 30 per cent of global GDP is produced by countries suffering from a lack of water, and by the year 2050 that figure will have risen to over 50 per cent. At the same time, across the globe up to seven per cent of GDP is lost to ’hidden hunger’, i.e. to malnutrition. “We need to produce more while consuming less resources and reducing carbon emissions, and not only more food but also more nutrients“, he said.

According to J.B. Penn, head economist at John Deere & Company, the future would see vast increases in agricultural production. In order to achieve this it was necessary to keep innovating and to ensure the relevant knowledge was passed on to farmers. In particular, those countries in need of improving their farming output had to ensure a better climate for investment. Michael Windfuhr, deputy director of the German Human Rights Institute, cautioned to not only focus on regions with potentially high production levels. Many farmers lived in marginalised regions and those needed to be developed too. Furthermore, it was necessary to ensure that any future investment did not impact negatively on the living conditions of local inhabitants. In that context governments were called upon to help people by establishing social protection networks. However, investors also bore a social responsibility, not only large corporations but farmers as well, who needed to invest by avoiding child labour.

Ajay Vir Jakhar, the president of the Indian Farmers’ Union, reminded those present that increasing productivity was not a panacea. In India there were many who only remained in farming because they had no other source of income, which in turn put pressure on other businesses. He noted that 80 per cent of Indian farmers managed less than five hectares of land. Thus, the Indian government should stop helping individual farmers to buy farming equipment and instead should provide incentives to set up cooperatives and make use of services in order not to undermine the profitability of farming businesses. “If you ask me what the three most important factors are to strengthen India’s farming industry, they are “advice, advice and advice“, Jakhar said.

Jürgen Leiße, CEO of Mondeléz International (formerly Kraft Foods) for Germany, Austria and Switzerland, agreed with these demands. He quoted the example of his company’s ’Cocoa Life’ programme which aims to benefit 200,000 smallholders over the next ten years. Between 2008 and 2011 cocoa crop yields in Ghana grew by 20 per cent and farmers’ incomes rose by 200 per cent. “We previously used to rely heavily on working with certified companies. However, they have only a marginal influence on output. Nowadays, we keep in direct touch with farmers to ensure that the money we distribute is used to provide advice and the relevant technology“, said Leiße.

Since 2009 the Global Forum for Food and Agriculture (GFFA) has been taking place at the International Green Week. Experts from around the world meet in Berlin to discuss the major issues concerning the world's food and farming industries. This year the focus of the GFFA was on ’The growing demand for food, energy and raw materials: opportunities for agriculture and a challenge to food security?'