World’s farm subsidies harm health and worsen the climate crisis, says UN report
Almost 90% of the $540bn (£388bn) in global subsidies given to farmers every year are harmful, a startling UN report has found.
This agricultural support damages people’s health, fuels the climate crisis, destroys nature and drives inequality by excluding smallholder farmers, many of whom are women, the UN agencies said.
The biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions, such as beef and milk, received the biggest subsidies, the report said. These are often produced by large industrialised groups that are best placed to access subsidies.
Without reform, the level of subsidies is on track to soar to $1.8tn a year by 2030, further harming human wellbeing and worsening the planetary crisis, the UN said.
Support for the “outsized” meat and dairy industry in rich countries must be reduced, while subsidies for polluting chemical fertilisers and pesticides must fall in lower income countries, the analysis said.
The report, published before a UN food systems summit on 23 September, said repurposing the subsidies to beneficial activities could “be a game changer” and help to end poverty, eradicate hunger, improve nutrition, reduce global heating and restore nature.
Good uses of public money could include supporting healthy food, such as vegetables and fruit, improving the environment and supporting small farmers.
Analyses in recent years have concluded the global food system is broken, with more than 800 million people experiencing chronic hunger in 2020 and 3 billion unable to afford a healthy diet, while 2 billion people are obese or overweight, and a third of food is wasted.
The total damage caused has been estimated at $12tn a year, more than
the value of the global food produced. The report, published by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and the UN Environment Programme (Unep), only includes the 88 countries for which reliable data is available.
Marco Sánchez of the FAO, an author of the report, said: “Current support to farms needs transforming for today’s realities. For instance, the US is now aligning to the Paris climate agreement, which is very welcome, but there is no way they can achieve those climate goals if they don’t tackle the food industries.”
The report found that. between 2013 and 2018, support to farmers totalled an average of $540bn a year, of which 87% ($470bn) was “harmful”. This included price incentives for specific livestock and crops, subsidies for fertilisers and pesticides, and distorting export subsidies and import tariffs.
These damage health by promoting the overconsumption of meat in rich countries and the overconsumption of low-nutrition staple foods in poorer ones.
“If you are not promoting fruits and vegetables, then in relative terms it is very expensive for the consumer to eat healthily,” said Sánchez. “That’s why 2 billion people in the world cannot afford a healthy diet.”
The report highlighted some cases of positive action, such as moves in China to cut chemical fertiliser and pesticide use, the zero budget natural farming policy in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh.
"The true costs of our food system have been hidden for too long,” said Morgan Gillespy, the programme director at the Food and Land Use coalition.
The damage caused to nature by subsidy regimes is $4tn-6tn, according to a recent review, she said.
“Changes in subsidy regimes are likely to be politically controversial and could spark protests among farmers and other groups,” Gillespy said. “But just because it is hard, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t happen. The facts are now clear.”
‘Climate goals cannot be achieved without tackling the food industries’
Marco Sánchez UN FAO