Any lifting in agri-food output must be done sustainably and without an over-reliance on chemical inputs, according to President Michael D Higgins.

President Higgins has claimed that the reliance of modern agri-food systems on imported fertilisers, pesticides and seed has its roots in colonialism.

The President was speaking at an awards ceremony on Friday where he was presented with the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s (FAO) Agricola Medal, with his speech centred on Africa.

He hit out at a “reluctance” in many quarters of the international community to work beyond an “immediate humanitarian response” to food shortages to create “sustainable structures” for the future of farming.

Output from farmland

“Increases in food production must be sustainable, even as we continue to lose land to environmental degradation and climate change, with all the horrific attendant loss of biodiversity that is involved,” President Higgins said.

“We now need best ecological practices in agriculture, including agro ecology, to become widespread.

'Colonially-imposed food system'

“This is substantially different from mere adjustments to the productionist agronomy model, a colonially-imposed food system, which has exacerbated food insecurity by creating over-dependence on a small number of staples and an over-reliance on imported fertiliser, pesticide and seeds.”

“I am concerned about any initiatives that solely focus on a one-size-fits-all approach and that places an emphasis on large-scale monocropping, formal seed systems and high-tech solutions, such as climate-smart agriculture, digital and precision agriculture and chemical inputs.

“These methods are so often placed out of reach for small-scale farmers owing to their cost, threaten their autonomy and traditional practices and pose risks to the environment.”

The President acknowledged that measures of sustainability are not solely dependent on low levels of farm output, adding that intensification may be needed in some cases to boost food security.

“To increase production, there may well be [a] need in part and in special circumstances for intensification, but that intensification must be in the control of the majority, allow agency and, above all, access to land and land security for women,” he commented.

An example he gave was increases in the tillage areas of some countries which could feed into deforestation and a reduction in biodiversity.

Food waste

President Higgins also criticised the “dysfunctionality” of food systems, which allow 1.6bn tonnes of food to be wasted in the developed world where obesity levels “continue to spiral” – when UN figures class half of the global population as malnourished.

Some 2.4 billion people are experiencing moderate or severe food insecurity and 3.1 billion people cannot afford a healthy diet, he said.

The UN FAO was established immediately after World War II with the objectives of eliminating hunger, improving nutrition and raising living standards, issues which President Higgins stated remain “as urgently demanding of action now” as they had been in the post-war years.

The President’s comments come weeks after he called for a ban on international arms trading and a halt to growing global military spending to fund efforts aimed at stamping out hunger and malnutrition.