For the past year, the world has seen a food crisis, an energy crisis, a financial crisis, a global recession and, of course, the looming climate crisis. These are generally discussed separately in different ministries, varying university faculties and numerous policy forums.
However, the Intergovernmental Preparatory Meeting of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development, which kicked off here on Monday, sees them as interconnected and suggests that the only way to address them effectively is through integrated solutions.
Negotiating policy responses to some of the main issues underpinning the food crisis, including agricultural productivity, land management, rural development, desertification and drought, will be the focus of the UN commission's work this year.
The food crisis -- an estimated 963 million people are suffering from hunger and malnutrition with many more are at risk due to volatile prices and supplies -- came to the center of global attention last year when prices for food staples increased dramatically, sharply affecting the poor and the vulnerable.
The Commission on Sustainable Development, whose goal is to ensure that actions are not only economically efficient, but also ecologically sound, and socially equitable -- otherwise they would be unsustainable -- seeks both short-term and long-term solutions to the crisis.
That means not only short-term relief for poor communities and poor countries, but also a long-term investment in agriculture that will enable the world to feed a growing population, allocate some land and water resources to non-food crops, including, where appropriate, biofuels, while protecting the world's forests, biodiversity and soils.
It asks for investing in the capacity of poor communities to adapt to climate change. It asks for a scaling up of rural development experiences, and empowerment of rural communities. It asks for the empowerment of women as a critical building block of the collective response to the multiple crises.
Sha Zukang, UN under-secretary-general for economic and social affairs, stressed that such integrated solutions can only come from the framework of sustainable development. "Now is the time for the champions of sustainable development to step forward," he said.
Several challenges threatened progress toward the attainment of sustainable development goals: the spike in food and energy prices in 2008 had led to a severe food security crisis; food prices remained high as the global financial and economic crisis exacerbated the situation; and poverty was deepening, with hunger and malnutrition on the rise again, he said.
The world also faced the threat of climate change, which UN Secretary-general Ban Ki-moon had made a top United Nations priority for 2009.
"Such multidimensional challenges did not have purely economic, social or environmental solutions," he said. "They required integrated solutions combining all three elements within the framework of sustainable development."
Meanwhile, Tariq Banuri, director of the Division for Sustainable Development in the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, said it was no secret that the global system of agriculture and resource management suffered from several problems.
The problems include the persistence of hunger and malnutrition despite high and rising aggregated food production; the propensity for price volatility, with severe consequences for poor and vulnerable communities; the widening gap between finite land and water resources, stagnant yields and rising demand for food, non-food production and ecosystem needs; and the threat of climate change.
Other problems include the lack of universal sustainable and equitable management of natural resources, as well as universal rural development and empowerment; poor agricultural productivity in Africa; and a lack of yield increases in some regions of the world.
Bedrick Moldan of the Czech Republic, speaking on behalf of the European Union, said the world body should react constructively to the current world financial crisis, which has underlined the need to reform global economic relations.
"The current crisis should be used as an opportunity to move towards a low-carbon and low-resource economy," he said.
For its part, the European Union hoped to address the complex topics on the agenda in an integrated manner, and by following the "red thread" of food security, which was at the heart of the current cycle, he said, adding that a major outcome of the upcoming session should be to strengthen the international community's long-term response to the global food crisis.
"Not only should responsible agricultural practice be one of the central elements of future development policies, rural development should seek to diversify rural economies and improve the quality of rural life," he said. "Improving land-tenure systems, securing land rights and sustainable land and water management were fundamental to that goal."
Ismat Jahan of Bangladesh, speaking on behalf of the least developed countries, said the UN commission was meeting at a time when the global economy had been shattered by the worst global recession since the Great Depression, and the least developed countries would be affected disproportionately.
A recent World Bank study estimated that, in 2009, the financial crisis would trap 46 million more people in poverty, in addition to the 130 million to 155 million pushed into poverty in 2008 by soaring food and fuel prices. The study found that 43 of 107 developing countries were highly exposed to the poverty effects of the crisis, two thirds of which were least developed countries.
The global financial crisis would affect access to credit and other capital inputs, and had a strong food-security dimension, especially because more retrenchments, unemployment and poverty would bring great pressure to bear on the affordability of food for many people, said Jahan.
"Any recovery plan must take into account the specific conditions and problems of rural areas where agriculture was the main economic activity," she said.
The continued maintenance and upgrading of rural infrastructure such as roads and soil conservation works, as well as the development of water sources, could lead to economic sustainability and social uplifting, she said.
Expressing the concern that external assistance to agriculture had been declining since the 1980s in real terms, she pointed out that the sector had accounted for 16 percent of bilateral assistance in 1980, but just 3 percent in 2006.
Agricultural exports from developing countries continued to face high tariff and non-tariff restrictions, a trend that must be reversed. It was important that developed countries fulfill their commitment to devote 0.7 percent of their gross domestic product to official development assistance and 0.2 percent to least developed countries by 2010. In addition, all external debt owed by least developed countries must be canceled without discrimination or conditionality.
Jahan called on developed countries and developing ones able to do so to provide duty-free and quota-free market access to all goods from least developed countries prior to the conclusion of the Doha Round of World Trade Organization negotiations. The current intellectual property regime must provide access to appropriate technologies and related fields at an affordable cost in order to ensure the cultivation of climate-resilient crops.
Assistance must be given to help least developed countries build disaster preparedness and establish early warning systems, she said, adding that there was also a need to support least developed countries with climate-resilient development, including through regional cooperation, access to finance for the rural poor in particular, and mainstreaming gender into agriculture, land use and better environmental management.
Paul Badji from Senegal, speaking on behalf of the African Group, said that the African continent was the world's least developed and was not on track to meet the Millennium Goals by 2015. Exacerbating the situation further was the unfolding global financial and food crises, which threatened to reverse the modest socio-economic gains made by some African countries over the past few decades.
It was imperative that the continent be fully involved in finding durable solutions and ensuring adequate representation in all subsequent multilateral platforms, he said, noting that the continent now faces poverty, hunger, climate change, land degradation and desertification, rapid urbanization, lack of adequate water supplies and energy, HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis and other endemic diseases.
Africa's strong economic performance in recent years was evidence of the creation of an environment conducive for sustainable development, he said.
Unlike other developing regions, growth in Africa had not yet yielded a significant reduction in the number of people living below the poverty line. Average gross domestic product was below the 7 percent minimum annual target rate, and the modest growth was mostly associated with sectors that had little impact on employment and income. At least two thirds of an increasing number of poor Africans lived in rural areas, where agriculture-related activities had great potential to lift people out of poverty, he added.