On January 22, 2017 the G20 Ministers of Agriculture held their annual meeting in Berlin, immediately after the much larger Global Forum for Food and Agriculture (GFFA). Both meetings are described below.
It should be noted that President Donald Trump is in the process of naming his Cabinet and has nominated former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue as Secretary of Agriculture. If confirmed, the co-founder of Perdue Partners, an Atlanta-based global trading company focusing on the export of U.S. goods, might have a direct influence on the execution of the Action Plan, just as U.S. Sherpa Kenneth Juster.
Highlights of the G20 Agriculture Ministers’ Meeting
The meeting produced two official documents: the G20 Agriculture Ministers’ Declaration 2017 and the G20 Agriculture Ministers’ Action Plan. The declaration shows a remarkable departure from previous ones by repeatedly referring to the harmful impacts of climate change, and by prioritizing the issue of water.
In previous years, the Ministers rarely mentioned climate change and its adverse effects. In comparison, the January meeting presented climate change as a key challenge to food security and freshwater supply. The Declaration described the vulnerability of the agricultural sector to the impacts of climate change as well as the need for adaptation and mitigation strategies, however without referring to agriculture itself also being a major source of green house gas emissions. Whereas the previous ministers’ declarations ignored the issue of water, it is one of the top priorities this year, as signified by the amount of text devoted to water in the Declaration and Action Plan where the Ministers address the needs for:
- a sustainable supply of water
- coherence of policies related to agriculture and water
- improved intersectional governance of water (i.e. between cities, agriculture, and industries)
- improved water-use efficiency
- the role of the agriculture sector in maintaining high water quality
- activities and innovations to increase resilience to water-related risks, such as floods, droughts and salinization
These commitments will be crucial for achieving Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6, which is to “ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all”. The Ministers reaffirmed their commitment to the achievement of the SDGs as well as the implementation of the Paris Agreement.
Other priorities are consistent with the Ministers’ agendas of the last two years. These include food security, nutrition, sustainable agriculture, responsible agricultural investment including the private sector, risk management, combating antimicrobial resistance, information and communication technologies (ICT), as well as research collaboration, and sharing of knowledge and best practices.
Missing elements of Declaration and Action Plan
The Ministers largely ignored a variety of issues that were emphasized at previous G20 Agriculture Ministers’ meetings, i.e. food loss, employment, and rural development; topics such as increased income for farmers, urbanization, enabling environment for investments, and access to technology and services on a gender-equal basis were not mentioned at all.
In the beginning of the Declaration, the Ministers underscored their commitment to “end hunger, ensure global food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture” (which contributes to the achievement of various other SDGs), as well as to implement the Paris Agreement. Albeit on top of the list, these issues are merely mentioned in two brief paragraphs in the Action Plan, without any specific measures or approaches. Thus, it remains unclear how (and when) the Ministers intend to take action to achieve these goals.
Granting that the Ministers’ focus on achieving SDG 6 is a great advancement, it should be noted that essential aspects of this goal, such as inclusive access to and fair allocation of water, especially for vulnerable groups, find no mention in the Declaration or the Action Plan. Next to improving water governance across sectors, the ministers should also aim to promote governance within the agriculture sector to protect the needs of smallholder farmers, including in the growing competition for water with large-scale competitors.
Global Forum for Food and Agriculture
Governance within the agricultural sector was actually addressed in the Communiqué of the Global Forum for Food and Agriculture (GFFA), consisting of Agriculture Ministers from 83 nations who met prior to the G20 Ministers of Agriculture. They acknowledged inequalities regarding freshwater access, and pledged to promote responsible investment in water infrastructure that benefits youth, smallholders and women – groups that were neglected by the G20 Ministers who refer to them only once in the context of ICT training in their action plan.
Water Use Efficiency: An area of agreement
The 83 Ministers at the GFFA and the 20 Ministers at the G20’s Agriculture meeting agreed that water use efficiency needs to be improved by optimizing “crop per drop”, which sounds compelling at first but runs at risk of severely disadvantaging small farmers. Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung and partners have recently released their Konzernatlas, an atlas with numbers and facts about corporations in the agriculture and food industries. In this publication, the authors explain how the quantitative measurement of the amount of water per unit of output is used to define the level of efficiency and how this approach is misleading because it ignores the impacts of pesticides and fertilizers on water quality. If this factor is taken into account, agroecological farming methods (more commonly used by small-scale farmers) would be considered superior to plantation agriculture (p. 17). Although agroecological farming enhances the water-saving and absorbent capacity of soils, ecological efficiency is not yet a criterion for preferential access to water and inefficient large-scale monocultures still receive the biggest share of water allocations. Barbara Unmüßig, president of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, highlights how a handful of global enterprises urge governments all over the world to align their strategic water policies with this concept, prioritizing profitable “flexcrops”, such as corn and soybeans, that are used for industrial purposes rather than feeding people. Depending on heavy use of fertilizers and pesticides, those crops do not only consume extensive amounts of water, but also reduce water quality which ultimately affects small farmers the most.
As encouraging as it is to see the G20 Ministers of Agriculture actively promoting sustainable agricultural measures and finally addressing climate change as a key challenge, it’s crucial to remember that agriculture has both ecological and social aspects, and that people need just as much protection as the environment. Farmers’ and workers’ rights, gender equality, employment opportunities and stable income, or equal access to resources should not be sacrificed for short-term profit, as they are essential to address some of the key challenges on the general G20 agenda: arability of soils over the long-term, food safety and security, nutrition, as well as poverty, conflict and migration.
The G20 Agriculture Ministers should find systematic ways to incorporate the concerns of other Agriculture Ministers worldwide in their current and future work. In the Argentine G20 in 2018, when the G20 Ministers of Agriculture undertake a stock-taking of their actions since the 2011, they should take heed of their peers’ concerns in non-G20 countries, including with reference to water use efficiency.