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Agricultural subsidies lead to climate change and poor health, UN report warns

A trader displays potatoes at Riosiri market in Kisii County. [Sammy Omingo, Standard]

A new multi-agency report has found that current support to farmers worldwide includes measures harmful to nature and people’s health.

The report, A multi-billion-dollar opportunity: Repurposing agricultural support to transform food systems, was launched by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and comes at the backdrop of this week’s Food Systems Summit convened by UN chief Antonio Guterres.

The report shows how 87 per cent of agricultural support, or approximately $470 billion (Sh62.8 trillion), and consisting of price incentives, such as import tariffs and export subsidies is distorting prices and environmentally harmful.

Agriculture, the report says, is one of the main contributors to climate change through greenhouse gas emissions from different sources, including manure on pastureland, synthetic fertilisers, rice cultivation, burning crop residue, and land-use change.

At the same time, farmers are particularly vulnerable to impacts of the climate crisis, such as extreme heat, rising sea levels, drought, floods, and locust attacks.

Financial subsidies are also tied to the production of a specific commodity or input and “distort food prices, hurt people’s health, degrade the environment, and are often inequitable, putting big agri-business ahead of smallholder farmers, a large share of whom are women.”

Qu Dongyu, the director-general of FAO said rather than eliminate the subsidies, countries should repurpose such incentives to promote sustainable food systems.

“This report, released on the eve of the UN Food Systems Summit, is a wake-up call for governments around the world to rethink agricultural support schemes to make them fit for purposes to transform our agri-food systems and contribute to the ‘Four Betters’; better nutrition, better production, better environment and a better life,” said Dongyu.

A man drains water out of rice seedlings in a nursery at Okana Irrigation Scheme on July 11, 2021. [Kevine Omollo, Standard]

Agricultural support

While the majority of agricultural support today has negative effects, about $110 billion (Sh12.1 trillion) supports infrastructure, research and development, and benefits the general food and agriculture sector.

“Reconfiguring agricultural producer support, rather than eliminating it, will help end poverty, eradicate hunger, achieve food security, improve nutrition, promote sustainable agriculture, foster sustainable consumption and production, mitigate the climate crisis, restore nature, limit pollution, and reduce inequalities,” said the report.

Last year, up to 811 million people in the world faced chronic hunger and nearly one in three people in the world (2.37 billion) did not have year-round access to adequate food. In 2019, around three billion people, in every region of the world, could not afford a healthy diet.

Currently, two million Kenyans are on the verge of starvation as a result of the ongoing drought with President Uhuru Kenyatta declaring the drought a national disaster.

Inger Andersen, executive director of UNEP says if countries shift to more nature-positive, equitable and efficient agricultural support, they can improve livelihoods and cut emissions, protect and restore ecosystems, and reduce the use of agrochemicals.

“Governments have an opportunity now to transform agriculture into a major driver of human well-being, and into a solution for the imminent threats of climate change, nature loss, and pollution,” said Andersen.

However, the report warns that continuing with support-as-usual will worsen the triple planetary crisis and ultimately harm human well-being. It says high-income countries must shift support for the meat and dairy industries that account 14.5 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

“Repurposing agricultural support to shift our agri-food systems in a greener, more sustainable direction including by rewarding good practices such as sustainable farming and climate-smart approaches can improve both productivity and environmental outcomes,” said UNDP Administrator, Achim Steiner.

He says this will also boost the livelihoods of the 500 million smallholder farmers worldwide, many of them women, by ensuring a more level playing field.

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