The future of food

A new network plans to address the link between farming and the environment in China and the UK. Britain’s environment secretary Hilary Benn talked to chinadialogue editor Isabel Hilton about food security and global warming.

Hilary Benn, British secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, and Sun Zhengcai, China’s minister for agriculture, recently launchedthe Sustainable Agriculture Innovation Network (SAIN) to address the link between farming and global warming. Here Hilary Benn talks to chinadialogue editor Isabel Hilton about food security, agriculture and climate change.

Isabel Hilton (IH): What does the SAIN agreement aim to achieve?

Hilary Benn (HB):In China the concern is to ensure that 1.4 billion people have enough to eat. In the world we are heading towards, we are going to have to feed another 2.5 billion people in a sustainable way. In China and in the UK there is a growing awareness of the problems of making sure that we can do that. We don’t have all the answers, but we are both asking the same questions, so sharing experience and ideas is extremely valuable.  

IH: The issue of food security is producing new phenomena such the purchase of land in Africa by other countries to grow food for their own populations. What do you think of this?

HB:It demonstrates that the world is now thinking more about where food in the future is going to come from and is responding accordingly. Individual nations will take their own decisions about the most effective way to secure future food supplies. Africa hasn’t seen the kind of green revolution that we have seen in Asia in the last 20 years. There are a lot of reasons for that: firstly, you’ve got to create a market for farmers to invest in agriculture; they have to see there’s a way of earning a living. Secondly, transport infrastructure is important: food rots and goes to waste because of transport difficulties. In some countries it’s the very high price of fertiliser. In Ethiopia I was told that a 100-kilogram bag of fertiliser would cost a family half of their annual income. Not many families could invest in improving the land.

IH: How does the purchase of land in Africa help with any of this?

HB: It will depend what they do with it, what kind of agriculture takes place and how the benefits are distributed. But the world is going to need astonishingly large increase in agricultural production to feed a growing world population. It’s for the governments of African countries to determine whether it’s in their interest or not. But we need investment in agriculture, and we need more research, in particular as the climate changes, to find crops that are more drought resistant.

IH: Many of China’s agricultural problems are to do with acid rain and water pollution. Isn’t there a danger that buying land overseas might take the pressure off fixing these problems at home?

HB:I don’t think so. China has gone through rapid industrialisation and come face-to-face with the environmental consequences. It’s the same journey that we have been on. Those pressing reasons for dealing with it at home don’t go away just because decisions may have been made about securing production in other parts of the world in the future. In Britain we are about 70% self-sufficient in food. Europe is about 90% self-sufficient. But we export and import a lot of food. I don’t think global policy of self sufficiency, with each country trying to produce enough for itself would be right. Recently some countries put export bans in place. That is not the direction in which to go. Finally, in terms of people feeding themselves, there’s the fundamental problem that there may be enough food in the country but not everyone can afford it. That’s why development – increasing people’s incomes, improving their lives – is fundamental to solving the problem. 

All countries faced with today’s financial and economic difficulties are thinking about what they do and when. But part of the difficulty we face is comes from the unsustainable use of natural resources, raw materials and water, and from thinking that energy is always going to be available at a price that we can readily afford. We’re already facing the consequences of that with the volatile price of oil. That is not an argument for putting off changes that ensure a more sustainable model of development. It’s an argument for getting on with it. The price of raw materials and the climate consequences of not tackling greenhouse-gas emissions are going to be felt by all of us. China looks at its cities on the sea and thinks about water supply; India looks at Bangladesh and wonders what will happen when sea levels rise there. The dilemma is that developing countries want to develop to improve the lives of their citizens. But we also know that even if the rich countries were, by some miracle, to stop emitting greenhouse gases tomorrow, the world would still face dangerous climate change because of rising emissions from the developing economies. In the end we need a contribution from everybody, according to their stage of development.

Up to now the world has divided into two parts under the UNFCCC [United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change]: Annex I countries [industrialised countries]: “you caused the problem, you have to be doing something” – and the rest. But “the rest” spreads from China to Mali, from India to Burkina Faso. Can you say that “common but differentiated responsibilities” means a common commitment from that second group? That is not sustainable. How do you construct a series of contributions which you can add up and ask, have we got enough? That is what the negotiations have got to do.   

IH: Are you saying that countries like India and China should take on taking on mandatory commitments?

HB: Well, the negotiations will determine in what form they are expressed. But I think that all countries are going to have to make a contribution. Part of the challenge will be what confidence we have in each other about the nature of the contributions that others are prepared to give. We clearly have to move from where we were, with the Annex I/Non-Annex I binary divide – and we need to differentiate. We have to flesh out what “common but differentiated responsibilities” actually means. Everyone is in favour of it, but what does it mean when Ethiopia emits 0.1-tonne-per-head of population, India 1.5, China 4.5, Europe 11 and the United States 21?

IH: The Non-Annex I countries made a commitment to a substantial, measurable and verifiable deviation from business-as-usual.

HB: That was an extremely important part of the agreement in Bali, but the task now is to demonstrate that any agreement we reach will be sufficient to deal with the problem. It’s the negotiators’ task, but in the end it’s all going to have to add up, which means we are all going to have to make a contribution. The fundamental question is: what’s fair?

Finance flowing from the better-off bits of the world to pay for adaptation, mitigation and low-carbon development is fundamental to unlocking contributions the other way. There needs to be confidence. The developing world will look at the better-off and say: “we remember you making commitments before on development assistance,” and will ask if the money actually turned up. Some countries have better records than others, but you need to create a mechanism that gives those who are signing up the confidence that we will get real commitments the other way.

IH: Don’t we need a revolution in the way we do things, rather than the kind of incremental change the British government is pursuing: buying in carbon savings, rather than changing the nature of the economy?

HB: From the climate’s point of view, it doesn’t matter where the carbon is saved. If you can save a tonne of carbon in a most cost-effective way, there can’t be anything wrong with that.

IH: But changing an advanced economy into a low-carbon economy will not be achieved by buying emissions

HB:There’s no question about the pace of change. I know we have less time than we thought, but 10 years ago if someone had proposed a bill that put cutting emissions on the statute book, with an independent climate-change committee and a target of reducing our emissions by 80% by 2050, most people wouldn’t have known what they were talking about. In those 10 years we have come a very long way, and that shows that the political process can respond. The fact that the British Climate Change Bill is the first in the world reflects some credit on the UK.

Any business looking at the future knows – as Nick Stern’s work showed – that emissions are going to cost. The Confederation of British Industry’s strong backing for the bill tells me that business understands that if they continue to expose themselves to carbon-intensive development and high energy costs, they are not doing the best for the future. Ten years ago, what investor would have asked about carbon exposure going forward? 

There is market pressure because people want to know what they are investing in, in a world in which carbon will become more expensive. How do you redirect investment – which is taking place anyway – from a high-carbon future to a low-carbon future? The government’s job is to create a framework and incentives: the Climate Change Bill, ETS [European Emission Trading Scheme], regulation on light bulbs and cars, landfill levy, these are all examples of government helping people to make the right decisions.

Our renewable energy strategy is a firm commitment and we have overtaken Denmark in offshore wind. We are going to introduce a feed-in tariff for microgeneration and we are one of a small number of countries that will meet our Kyoto commitments. We have demonstrated that an economy can grow without its emissions growing.

Hilary Benn is UK secretary of state for environment, food and rural Affairs

Isabel Hilton is editor of chinadialogue

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