87 per cent of farming subsidies harm the planet, UN warns

Cows at a dairy farm in Petrovskoe village, outside Saint Petersburg, Russia, 08 August 2014. Emissions intensive products, like beef and milk, receive the largest amount of subsidies. (Credit: Keystone/EPA/Anatoly Maltsev)

A new report urges governments to ditch environmentally-damaging food production and instead support sustainable practices.

About 87 per cent of farming subsidies go to crops and practices that harm the environment and human health, a report released by the UN on Tuesday has found. Fiscal advantages and price incentives through import tariffs and export subsidies lead to distorted prices, promote less healthy diets and favour big businesses over small farmers. 

Food production activities such as using harmful fertilisers or burning crop residue  are detrimental to the environment. Over a quarter of global emissions come from agriculture, making the sector a key contributor to the rise in global temperatures. 

The vast majority of support goes to the most emission-intensive products, such as beef, milk and rice, according to the findings by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the UN Development Programme (UNDP).

The study comes a week ahead of the landmark UN Food Systems Summit, which will convene governments, rights groups and businesses in an effort to make food production and consumption more sustainable.

Governments spend roughly $540bn supporting agricultural producers a year, accounting for close to 15 percent of agricultural production value. That figure is expected to increase three-fold by 2030. Redirecting harmful subsidies to support more sustainable practices would go a long way to tackle climate change and other environmental challenges, like pollution.

“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, in a statement.

The authors suggest that reallocating harmful subsidies could also help address hunger and poverty. Around 768 million people were undernourished in 2020 – about 10 per cent of the world’s population – and most are small farmers. Current policies are heavily skewed towards big agribusinesses over small producers. They also largely support unhealthy products like sugar.

Changing these policies could “boost the livelihoods of the 500 million smallholder farmers worldwide – many of them women – by ensuring a more level playing field”, Steiner noted.

However, to enact such a huge change, it will be up to countries to work on their national policies, noted Marco Sanchez, deputy director of FAO’s agrifood economics division and one of the lead authors of the report.

Wealthy countries resort to market distorting measures such as price incentives, while poorer countries put farmers at a disadvantage by purposely keeping food prices low for poor consumers.

Some countries have already started making significant changes, the report underscores. The European Union, for instance, has changed its agricultural policy to promote crop diversification. The Indian state of Andhra Pradesh has developed a program to get its six million farmers to switch to chemicals-free agriculture.

“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 UNEP’s executive director Inger Andersen.