87% of global support to producers in the agricultural sector is “price distorting and environmentally and socially harmful”, according to the UN.

A new report is calling for the “repurposing” of the $470 billion in support. Total global support amounts to $540 billion per year, making up 15% of total agricultural production value. By 2030, this is projected to soar up more than three times to $1.759 trillion.

The reportA multi-billion-dollar opportunity: Repurposing agricultural support to transform food systems – was launched this week by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

The report finds that “current support to producers mostly consists of price incentives, such as import tariffs and export subsidies, as well as fiscal subsidies which are tied to the production of a specific commodity or input”.

“These are inefficient, distort food prices, hurt people’s health, degrade the environment and are often inequitable, putting big agri-business ahead of smallholder farmers, a large share of whom are women,” according to the UN.

“While the majority of agricultural support today has negative effects, about $110 billion supports infrastructure, research and development, and benefits the general food and agriculture sector.

“Reconfiguring agricultural producer support, rather than eliminating it, will help end poverty; eradicate hunger; improve nutrition; promote sustainable agriculture; mitigate the climate crisis; restore nature; and reduce inequalities.”

‘Wake-up call’ on the eve of UN summit

The director-general of the FAO, QU Dongyu, described this report, released “on the eve” of the UN Food Systems Summit, as a “wake-up call”.

He said governments around the world need to “rethink agricultural support schemes to make them fit for purpose to transform our agri-food systems”.

Agriculture is “one of the main contributors to climate change through greenhouse gas emissions from different sources”. According to the report, these sources include: manure on pastureland; synthetic fertilisers; rice cultivation; burning crop residue; and land-use change.

“At the same time, agricultural producers are particularly vulnerable to impacts of the climate crisis, such as extreme heat, rising sea levels, drought, floods, and locust attacks,” the UN said.

“Continuing with support as usual will worsen the triple planetary crisis [climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution] and ultimately harm human well-being.

“Meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement requires shifting support, especially in high-income countries for an outsized meat and dairy industry, which accounts for 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

“In lower-income countries, governments should consider repurposing their support for toxic pesticides and fertilisers or the growth of monocultures.”