Rich and poor nations are being urged to diversify their crops and boost support to small farmers, according to a new report launched by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).

The Trade and Environment Report 2013 recommends a rapid and significant shift away from "monoculture and industrial farming" because they are not providing sufficient affordable food where needed while the environmental damage caused by this approach is unsustainable.

Instead, the report released on September18 says that the goal should be "mosaics of sustainable regenerative production systems that also considerably improve the productivity of small-scale farmers and foster rural development".

The report, subtitled "Wake up before it is too late: Make agriculture truly sustainable now for food security in a changing climate", says that the highest priority must be given to enabling the rural poor to become self-sufficient in food or to earn sufficient income through agriculture so that they can buy food.

It warns that continuing rural poverty, persistent hunger around the world, growing populations, and mounting environmental concerns must be treated as a collective crisis. Urgent and far-reaching action is needed before climate change begins to cause major disruptions to agriculture, especially in developing countries.

Climate change will drastically impact on agriculture primarily in the developing regions with the highest future population growth, such as sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, the report forecasts. Much slower agricultural productivity growth in the future and fast-rising populations in the most vulnerable regions will almost certainly worsen current problems with hunger, drought, rising food prices, and access to land.

Almost one billion people currently suffer from hunger, and another one billion are malnourished, the report notes, even though current global agricultural production already provides sufficient calories to feed a population of 12 to 14 billion. Some 70 percent of the hungry or malnourished are themselves small-scale farmers or agricultural labourers, indicating that poverty and access to food are the most critical challenges.

The past strategy of relying on international markets to meet staple food demand, while specializing in the production and export of "lucrative" cash crops, has recently failed to deliver its desired results, because it has relied on low staple food prices and no shortage of supply in international markets, conditions that have drastically changed since the turn of the century, the report notes.

Also, globalization has encouraged high levels of specialization. This has resulted in an increasing scale of production of a smaller variety of crops, and has created enormous cost pressures, the report states. All this has aggravated the environmental crisis of agriculture and has reduced agricultural resilience.-VNA