Sustainable food

Written evidence submitted by Oxfam

Oxfam welcomes the opportunity to make a submission to the Environmental Audit Committee’s inquiry into the environmental and social consequences of food production and consumption. Oxfam works with partners around the world to find lasting solutions to poverty and injustice. Currently, we work in more than 70 countries – including the UK – and respond to an average of 30 emergency situations each year. Oxfam believes that people are entitled to five fundamental rights: a sustainable livelihood; basic social services; life and security; to be heard; and equity. We work to support people in realising these rights and fight poverty and suffering through campaigning, long-term development work, and emergency response. Oxfam GB is a member of Oxfam International, a confederation of 14 Oxfam affiliates around the world.


1. At the current time, the world faces the unprecedented challenge of pursuing human development, and ensuring food for all, in ways that will both keep the planet within essential ecological boundaries and end extreme poverty and inequalities. There are three major challenges that the new global system must meet in order to achieve this goal:

· The production challenge: we must produce enough nourishing food for nine billion people by 2050 whilst remaining within planetary boundaries for the use of land, water and atmospheric space, among others;

· The equity challenge: we must empower women and men living in poverty to gain the resources to grow or to buy enough food to eat;

· The resilience challenge: we must manage volatility in food prices, and reduce vulnerability to climate change.

2. To accomplish these three major challenges, the UK government has an opportunity, and a responsibility, to contribute to three essential shifts:

· Prioritise the needs of small-scale farmers in developing countries by: reversing the CAP subsidies that reward agro-industrial farms in the North while penalising small-scale farmers in developing countries; increasing funding support for smallholder agriculture (and especially women) in developing countries specifically to access natural resources, technology, and markets; and following through on food security commitments.

· Build resilience and increase equity by reforming international governance of trade, food aid, financial markets, and climate finance in order to reduce the risks of future shocks and to respond more effectively when they occur.

· Create needed policy frameworks including a global deal on climate change, and ensure a new global climate fund is operationalised and financed using innovative mechanisms such as a financial transactions tax or levies on international aviation and shipping. New global regulations are also needed to govern investment in land to ensure it delivers social and environmental returns.

How can the environmental and climate change impacts of the food we choose to eat best be reduced? What are the land-use trade-offs that affect food production and supply and how should these be managed?

3. Population growth and changing diets are creating rising food demand. These demands must be met from a rapidly depleting resource base: land has already been lost through erosion, desertification, salination, toxification, nutrient depletion, overcultivation, overgrazing, acidification, and soil compaction. [1] Further, this resource base is being squeezed by other uses such as biofuel production, carbon sequestration and forest conservation, timber production, and non-food crops. As a result, the share of land devoted to food production has peaked (see figure below.)

Source: Calculated from

4. Water, a critical resource for agriculture, is also becoming constrained. Nearly three billion people live in areas where demand outstrips supply. [2] In 2000, half a billion people lived in countries chronically short of water; by 2050 the number will have risen to more than four billion. [3] By 2030, demand for water is expected to have increased by 30 per cent. [4] Agriculture accounts for 70 per cent of global fresh water use, [5] and is both a driver and increasingly a victim of water scarcity.

5. As the availability of land and water becomes increasingly limited and demand intensifies, many governments in developing countries are offering up large areas of land, often amidst corruption and for very low prices. Companies, investors, and food-insecure governments are all rushing to secure supplies of land. This began with the 2008 food price crisis, and continues unabated: in 2009, Africa saw 22 years’ worth of land investment in 12 months (see Figure 5). [6]

6. And, while governments, companies, and investors are obtaining land, smallholders are struggling to gain access. In Guatemala less than 8 per cent of agricultural producers hold almost 80 per cent of land – a figure that is not atypical for Central America as a whole. [7] There is a further gendered aspect to the problem: in those developing countries for which data are available, women account for only 10–20 per cent of landowners. [8] They are often responsible for most food production, yet they are systematically discriminated against by land tenure arrangements which make it hard for them to access land on the same basis as men. New global regulations are needed to govern investment in land to ensure it delivers social and environmental returns.

7. One factor that is encouraging these land grabs is production of biofuels, placing a growing demand upon limited arable land. Biofuel mandates such as those in the EU, introduce major sources of new demand into food markets that are inflexible, amplifying price movements. And by making crops substitutable for oil, biofuels facilitate contagion between energy markets and food markets. If the EU continues on the current course of action, it may derive 10 per cent of transport energy from biofuels (primarily biodiesel) by 2020. Oxfam estimates that even if the EU excludes all biodiesel produced from deforested land, indirect effects such as palm oil partially replacing other edible oils diverted for biodiesel use could result in emissions from deforestation of up to 4.6bn tonnes of CO2 – nearly 70 times the annual CO2 saving the EU expects to make by reaching its 10 per cent target in 2020. [9] Costly biofuel programmes also draw funding away from other, more beneficial programmes. Support measures for biofuel programmes currently cost about $20bn a year worldwide, and this is set to more than double by 2020. [10] Dismantling support measures such as blending and consumption mandates, subsidies, tax breaks, and import tariffs would be good for taxpayers and better for food security.

8. While resource constraints are already impacting food production, climate change is an additional threat. First, it will impact growth in yields: estimates suggest that rice yields may decline by 10 per cent for each 1C rise in dry-growing-season minimum temperatures. [11] Second, it will increase the frequency and severity of extreme weather events such as heat waves, droughts and floods. Changes in the seasons - longer, hotter dry periods, shorter growing seasons, and unpredictable rainfall patterns - are already bewildering poor farmers, making it harder for them to decide when best to sow, cultivate, and harvest their crops. [12] To stop excessive greenhouse gas emissions from devastating the livelihoods of men and women living in poverty, a global deal on climate change must be reached.

9. Climate change will also exacerbate food supply shocks, further impacting volatile prices. Poor wheat harvests in 2006 and 2007 were identified by some as contributing factors to the last crisis. Adaptation is an urgent priority for developing countries, which Oxfam estimates will cost $100 billion a year by 2020. Moreover, the institutional framework for delivering climate finance is a complicated mix of multilateral and bilateral channels, massively increasing transaction costs for developing countries trying to access the funds available. A new global climate fund is needed to act as a one-stop shop for developing countries. Such an institution was agreed at the international climate talks in Cancun in 2010, but countries must now urgently ensure this agreement is acted upon. Reaching agreement on a set of innovative funding mechanisms – such as a financial transactions tax or levies on international aviation and shipping – which can raise the money automatically remains a critical priority for the international community and is on the agenda of the G20 in 2011.

How can the Government help to deliver healthy food sustainably, whilst also delivering affordable food for all?

10. The case for government-led investment in smallholder farming and supporting infrastructure is clear. Investing in smallholder agriculture will build resilience and boost incomes and food availability in hunger hotspots, especially if the investment is sensitive to gender inequalities. [13] Furthermore, history shows that investing in agriculture has provided a crucial ‘growth spark’ in the take-off of most successful developing economies. [14]

11. The 500 million small farms in developing countries support almost two billion people, nearly one-third of humanity, [15] and do so without the access to markets, land, finance, infrastructure and technologies that large farms have. Addressing this inequity offers a crucial opportunity to address the challenges of sustainable production and resilience. Pressures on land and water can be reduced through new practices and techniques that boost yields, use soils and water more sensitively, and reduce their reliance on inputs – techniques such as drip-feed irrigation, water harvesting, low- or zero-till agriculture, agroforestry, intercropping, and the use of organic manures. These would also significantly reduce the carbon footprint of agriculture.

12. In order to free up large budgetary resources to accomplish this needed investment in smallholder farms, the trade-distorting support measures of the North can be removed. This would not only positively impact developing country small farmers, but also consumers of the North because the costs of Northern country agricultural support policies are borne both by poor farmers in the developing world and by people in developed countries. These consumers pay twice – first through higher tax bills, and second through higher food prices. It is estimated that in 2009, the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) added €79.5 billion to tax bills and another €36.2 billion to food bills. [16] According to one calculation, that costs a typical European family of four almost €1,000 a year. And, although the CAP is meant to help Europe’s small farmers, about 80 per cent of direct income support is given to the wealthiest 20 per cent – mainly big landowners and agribusiness companies. [17] Support to Northern agricultural sectors also distorts trade – for example, by restricting market access or by incentivizing over-production and dumping – and therefore directly undermines the development of resilient agricultural sectors in developing countries.

13. Support for agriculture in developing countries has been in decline for the past few decades and its share of Official Development Assistance (ODA) reached a low point in 2006. Although it has been on the rise since then, it still is under 7 per cent of all aid. [18] This rise in agriculture spending within overall ODA must continue. While Oxfam applauds the 2009 L’Aquila Food Security Initiative (AFSI) commitments of $22bn for aid on agriculture, food security and nutrition over three years to address food insecurity, it is critically important not just to deliver on these commitments, but to follow through on promises of delivery mechanisms . The UK should provide sufficient resources for food assistance in emergencies, support national and regional plans, and pay particular attention to sustainable agriculture, smallholders and women. It is important not to double count funds committed for other purposes such as climate change adaptation. As one of the leading countries contributing to the AFSI, the UK has a responsibility to encourage partner countries to uphold their commitments as well so that the overall initiative is a success.

How can consumers best be helped to make more sustainable choices about food?

14. While some point toward consumers as the solution to the problems of increasing demand and constrained resources, and there are positive consumer choices that can be made, consumers on their own cannot fundamentally change the playing field. The long-term focus should be to solve the critical problems in the food chain such that consumers are not forced to choose between sustainable and equitable food purchasing and that which is damaging to people and the environment.

Which aspects of the food production and supply chain are presenting the biggest problems for the sustainability of the food industry?

15. The simple question facing policy makers is: who will sustainably generate the agricultural surpluses needed to feed a growing population, and how? Although large farms have a role to play, yields are already in decline. Global aggregate growth in yields averaged two per cent per year between 1970 and 1990, but plummeted to just over one per cent between 1990 and 2007. This decline is projected to continue over the next decade to a fraction of one per cent. [19] Moreover, today’s large farms tend to have large ecological footprints, thus undermining the human and natural resources on which food production depend.

16. Yet, throughout the developing world, there is huge untapped potential for yield growth in small-scale agriculture. [20] If the three challenges set out above are to be met, then sustainable models of smallholder production must be the focus of attention. And while less input-intensive, more climate-friendly agricultural practices are not exclusive to small farmers, they are often well suited to this scale of production, and easily adopted.

17. In order to tap smallholders’ ability to increase production, they first must have access to markets. But increasingly markets are governed by small numbers of companies, giving middlemen, processors, aggregators, freighting companies and those controlling brands and distribution more control than farmers. It is estimated that a few hundred companies – traders, processors, manufacturers, and retailers – control 70 per cent of the choices and decisions in the food system globally, including those concerning key resources such as land, water, seeds and technologies, and infrastructure. [21] By setting the rules along the food chains they govern – for prices, costs, and standards – they are able to decide where most of the costs fall and where the risks are borne. In so doing, they extract much of the value along the food chain, while the costs and risks tend to cascade down onto the weakest participants – generally the farmers and labourers working at the bottom.

How might the changing powers of local authorities and the localism agenda hinder, or be used to encourage, more sustainable production and supply of food?

18. As shown above, the lack of sustainability in the food system is an international and systemic problem, and whilst national action will be important, the UK must think internationally . T he real investment opportunities for transforming agriculture towards more sustainable and inclusive models of production lie in the developing world . A localism agenda could unfairly penalise small producers in poor countries whose per capita emissions are minor compared to those of developed countries. Food miles are more complex than ‘local is good’. While the distance food is transported is one important aspect of the environmental footprint of the food we eat, there are other aspects of food production processes that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. When compared to people in developed countries, those in developing countries are responsible for much lower levels of greenhouse gases. And, many livelihoods in developing countries are dependent on export markets. An estimated 1 to 1.5 million livelihoods in sub-Saharan Africa depend directly and indirectly on UK-based supply chains. [22] To take Kenya as an example, the average Kenyan is currently responsible for 0.3 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year while the average Briton is responsible for 10.6 tonnes. Further, all Kenya-UK airfreight trade in fruits and vegetables contributes only 0.1 per cent to total emissions for the UK.

15 April 2011

[1] Evans, L. T. 1998. Feeding the ten billion: plants and population growth . Cambridge University Press.

[2] D. Molden (ed) (2007) Water for Food, Water for Life: A Comprehensive Assessment of Water Management , London: Earthscan, and Colombo: International Water Management Institute.

[3] R. Clarke and J. King (2004) The Atlas of Water, London: Earthscan Books.


[5] D. Molden (ed) (2007) Water for Food, Water for Life: A Comprehensive Assessment of Water Management , London: Earthscan, and Colombo: International Water Management Institute.

[6] Demand for land in Africa has been estimated by the World Bank as 39.7m hectares in 2009, compared with a mean annual area expansion of 1.7m hectares over the period 1961–2007.

[7] Censo Agropecuario Nacional 2003 .

[8] This aggregate figure masks important differences between countries even within the same region. In Africa, for example, the share of landowners who are women ranges from less than 5 per cent in Mali to over 30 per cent in Botswana, Cape Verde and Malawi.

[9] Oxfam International (2008) ‘Another Inconvenient Truth’.

[10] IEA (2010) World Energy Outlook 2010 estimates support for biofuels in 2009 was $20 billion, the bulk of it in the USA and EU. This figure is projected to rise to $45 billion by 2020 and $65 billion by 2035.

[11] Based on one study in the Philippines, see

[12] S. Jennings and J. Magrath (2009) ‘What Happened to the Seasons?’, Oxfam GB paper presented at the Future Agricultures Consortium / Centre for Social Protection conference on seasonality, Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex, Brighton, 8–10 July 2009.

[13] Agriculture is the most important source of employment for women in rural areas in most developing country regions. FAO (2011) State of Food and Agriculture .

[14] Growth originating in agriculture, in particular the smallholder sector, is at least twice as effective in benefiting the poorest people as growth from non-agricultural sectors. FAO (2010) ‘How to Feed the World’, p.2. See also Ha-Joon Chang (2009) ‘Rethinking public policy in agriculture: lessons from history, distant and recent’, Journal of Peasant Studies , Volume 36, Issue 3, July 2009, pp.477-515.


[16] OECD (2009) ‘Agricultural Policies in OECD Countries: Monitoring and Evaluation 2009’.

[17] Legrain (2010) ‘Beyond CAP: Why the EU Budget Needs Reform’, the Lisbon Council e-brief, Issue 09/2010

[18] Down from 20.4 per cent in 1983. Calculated from OECD DAC5 Official Bilateral Commitments by Sector database. Includes forestry and fishing.

[19] Trostle USDA (2008), ibid. Demand for food is expected to increase at an average rate over 1.3 per cent per year through to 2050 (average compound growth rate, based upon a 70 percent increase in demand by 2050).

[20] In the semi-arid tropics, which lie primarily in developing countries where agriculture is almost entirely rain-fed and largely comprises poor, smallholder farms, potential yields under high inputs and advanced management are on average 3.6 times more than the current average yields. Soil moisture management and rainwater harvesting practices could add an additional 10% on average to these high input potentials while further reducing the variability in yields and number of failure years. See

[21] Retail, finance, and the future of food. Report from the conference Future of food: an explo ration of the global food system, London April 28, 2010 .


[22] Chi,K, J. MacGregor, and R. King (2010). Fair miles: recharting the food miles map. IIED and Oxfam.