Adaptation for Profit: Increasing agriculture productivity without compromise?

large agAre you a capitalist?

This was the question asked of the attendees of “The Business Advantage: Scaling up Private Sector Climate Action in Agriculture” side event at COP 23.  None of us admitted to being a capitalist.  But then we were ask if we valued social or environmental economy.  The unanimous answer was, yes.  “Well..,” said Tony Simons, Director of ICRAF, “…you are a capitalist.”

The most basic notion of capitalism is to take actions to maximize something.  Thus, if we choose to maximize anything, even something like social well-being or the world’s natural systems, we are capitalizing.  We are capitalists.  So what does this have to do with how the private sector can contribute to climate change mitigation?  According to Simons and a panel of representatives from IFAD and CGIAR, joining hands with the private sector is the most feasible way to spread climate-smart agricultural (CSA) practices.  But first, we must dispel the common belief that capitalism itself is an evil within a system.

If we are to realize food security, and mitigation and adaptation in the agricultural sector, the panel argued that innovations in agriculture need to be scaled up.  The panel asserted that there are ways to intensify farming practices as to realize system efficiency.  This would mean realizing higher yields and increased meat production while reducing the greenhouse gas emissions associated with agriculture.  While, there were various techniques discussed, there was no forthright application of science offered.  Nonetheless, the general consensus was that these techniques needed to be communicated to the private sector and financial institutions needed to be convinced of them.  After all… scaling up of agricultural innovations costs money.  But apparently, this will not happen without joining hands with the private, industrial agriculture sector.

small scaleWhile scaling up innovations to take climate action in the agriculture sector makes good sense, I left the event troubled by two thoughts.  First, the concept of establishing global CSA practices requires bridging the gap between the small-scale and industrial farmer and providing funding to the small-scale farmer to take on these innovations.  Unfortunately, lending institutions are not amiable to doling out large quantities of small loan amounts.  But this is precisely what needs to happen if small-scale farmers are going to scale-up CSA.  Thus, the paradox. If small farmers are going to scale up CSA, they need funding to do it.  But a lending institution wants to see a “bankable” project before lending- something a small farmer cannot show without some financial assistance.  It’s a catch-22.

Furthermore, if the private sector is going to get on board, they must be able to make a profit.  “Profitability should be the angle of approach,” they said.  “The private sector can contribute to NDCs in terms of mitigation, but it will not do so without realizing tangible (financial) benefits.”  And indeed this is so.  One corporate food and agriculture representative who sat on the panel assured us that sustainable, climate-smart agriculture was in their best interest.  Yet, she noted that her corporation’s first priority was yield, then resilience.  Is it really possible to increase productivity without compromising the climate system…or the corporate bottom line?

What seemed conveniently left out of this equation in the end was social and environmental economy.  After all, are we not all capitalists?