Thoughts from the Forum for the Future of Agriculture conference, Brussels March 2017
The annual Forum for the Future of Agriculture conference is very much about the big stuff. How do we create food production systems that don’t deplete the Earth’s natural resources, but instead rely on only what can be renewed? How do we ensure we use land in a way that contributes to maintaining global temperature rise at less than 2oC? How do we produce enough monoculture without damaging biodiversity? In short, how do we actually achieve sustainable development?
To help discuss and debate the big stuff, we had some big, big hitters. Kofi Annan, Former UN Secretary General, a video message for Pope Francis, Franz Fischler, Phil Hogan, Ellen MacArthur and more.
However, this is not new. The term sustainable development was first coined exactly 30 years ago, in the United Nation’s commissioned Brundtland report “Our Common Future”, and defined as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. The 1992 UN Earth Summit in Rio and the resultant conventions on climate change, biodiversity and desertification, all the way through to the Paris Agreement, Aichi targets and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, stem from Brundtland.
The realisation that ‘Houston there may be a problem’ goes back even further though. The challenges associated with continuing human development on a planet of finite resources was notably highlighted in the 1972 Club of Rome book “The Limits to Growth”.
That is the best part of half a century trying to square the circle! How can something this important be so hard to achieve?
It’s not to say nothing has been achieved at all in this time of course, it has. Public policy increasingly takes account of environmental issues, the scientific and research communities have responded with measurement, testing, innovation and new techniques, and most of us in our everyday lives are at least aware that we create an environmental footprint and try to do things to keep it as benign as we can. But change is slow and perhaps feels more like tinkering at the edges than fundamental shift.
One of the reasons global society finds fundamental change difficult is that our governance structures are largely short-term and populist. Many of last week’s presentations reflected this. The goal of sustainable development requires long-term thinking, not short-term interest. Our society and economy has developed in a way that uses natural resources rather than using only a harvestable surplus from them. As a global society, to stop, re-evaluate and start again down an altered track is very big indeed and doesn’t sit well with 5-year government terms or indeed sovereignty.
The kind of fundamental systems change we need was captured well by Dame Ellen MacArthur in her presentation on the circular economy. So, not just reduce, reuse, recycle, but a shift in the way we think about designing products from the outset so that they can have a second or third life after their initial life, with all elements eventually reused at the end of those lives. Dame Ellen used the example of a new type of packaging material that looked like conventional polystyrene but was made from a mushroom-type fungus with corn starch as a binding agent. This product serves as a compost once it’s done its packaging job.
Others too talked of the use of “systems thinking” as a tool for bringing about root and branch change, notably summarised by Franz Fischler when he talked about a new world order. He said we need to leave the traditional ways of thinking behind us. We need to break down the silos of our disciplines. We need to enable new forms of co-operation in our production chains and a re-modelling of our political and financial processes’. In fact, if we are to deliver anything as complex and inter-connected as the seventeen UN sustainable development goals, systems thinking will be vital.
In the face of Brexit and Indy Ref 2, this conference gave some much needed perspective. It highlighted the things that really matter in the world. There are people that are still hungry, malnourished and lacking a basic acceptable quality of life. Enough clean freshwater for everyone is still a challenge. If biodiversity continues to reduce, it will impact human economic and development capacity. Climate change will only make matters worse.
We in Scotland, the United Kingdom and Europe should be focussed on our contribution to finding solutions to these issues. And for our own organisation, the conference once again highlighted how much land and the use of land matters to all of this. While a major goal for land in the world order that emerged after the second world war, was to increase its productive capacity for food, the new world order Franz Fischler talks about requires land to deliver a complex mix of many more things, including importantly what we are terming environmental goods and services.
Constitutional arguments may not leave us anytime soon and while we should not be dismissive of them, we and our politicians must not become so caught up with them that we lose sight of the part we need to play in global society.
Presentations, interviews and discussions from FFA 2017 are available here.
Scottish Land & Estates publication “A new direction for Scottish land management”, which explores in more detail the range of things society is asking land to deliver and how this might be achieve is available here.
Anne Gray, Senior Policy Officer (Land Use & Environment)