I am finally on my way to Rio+20 2012, which somehow I doubted would actually happen, as I did question whether this was a must attend event, given the widely held view that it will be unlikely to produce any positive results. This doubt was reinforced in recent discussions with several friends, notably John Humphrys, who was withering about the summit, and advised me in his usual style that since was it vanishingly unlikely that Rio would bring about any real change and out of the question that I would be able to influence its outcome in any conceivable way, there was absolutely no point in going.

Despite all this, in the end I came to the conclusion that I still had to go, because I decided that Rio was an event, notwithstanding John’s scepticism and my lack of enthusiasm, where I had a responsibility, in my new role, to at least try to ‘make a difference’. Another huge plus is that my trip has been sponsored by Shumei, a Japanese cultural organisation with a particular commitment to sustainable agriculture, with which I have had a longstanding connection and behind which lies a spiritual philosophy, based on reverence for nature and celebration of beauty.

My day started at the farm. I milked the cows twice yesterday, which was memorable, because of the incredibly wet weather in West Wales, so extreme that our heifers and young bull down on the river meadows at Hafod, actually had to swim to get to drier land last week, and even though the milking herd are currently grazing one of the driest sections of the farm, they have virtually ‘ploughed’ about half an acre of one field which they have to walk through to get to their fresh daily ration of grass. Their hooves have converted the soil to a consistency of gloopy porridge, and it splashes onto their udders, making milking quite a bit longer as a result. Somehow leaving the farm in this way, feeling so intimately connected to the daily challenges of producing milk in an uncertain economic and physical climate, seems a good backdrop to the Rio ‘experience’.

As I waited to board in Terminal 5, I did experience minor trepidation, but now I am feeling better, writing this on the plane, a British Airways Boeing 777, nearly full, with more than a smattering of fellow Rio-ites on board, including some I know and who were also there first time round, in 1992. My only previous experience of attending an event of this kind was the so called COP15 Copenhagen climate summit a couple of years ago, which perhaps influenced my current rather pessimistic attitude towards gatherings of this kind. However, my experience in life is that one’s anticipation, especially negative, is rarely born of the actual events, so it occurred to me that it would be a good exercise to describe what I am expecting now, to see whether it works out differently.

So what am I expecting? A huge gathering, a great jamboree, with many thousands of people, broadly dividing into three groups, the politicians (and their advisors), business people, and the NGOs, meeting in separate enclosures, isolated and protected from ‘ordinary’ life. Each group will spend the next week in furious negotiations, or, in the case of the NGOs ‘networking’, at the end of which not much will have changed. Why? Because of a combination of political inertia, vested interests, and widespread public ignorance of the precariousness of the situation we are in.

That is what I imagine the outcome will be, but it occurs to me that I should also describe what I would like to see if things went well, in other words how would I measure success, in terms of my sphere of interest. Well, it is a sustainable development summit, so obviously one would expect concrete measures to be adopted which would accelerate the transition towards more sustainable food systems. But therein lies one of the problems – to date there has been a marked reluctance to define agricultural sustainability, at least in any meaningful way.

Sustainable agriculture might be defined as follows: systems of food production which build soil fertility through the recycling of nutrients and other key inputs, with the aim of producing adequate quantities of high quality food to nourish a peak population and addressing cultural and social equity issues, whilst minimising use of non renewable inputs, protecting animal welfare and biodiversity and avoiding pollution and other negative environmental outcomes, including greenhouse gas emissions. Such systems will also need to have a high degree of resilience against future shocks, such as the sudden interruption of key inputs or breakdown of transportation systems, as a result of climate events, wars, trade disputes etc. A degree of re-localisation of key staple food distribution would be a definite plus in addressing this.

The approach I have just described is a million miles away from the current globalised, industrialised, high dependency on non-renewable external input model, but the reality is that this latter approach is currently a lot more profitable, both for the food industry and farmers, largely because the so called external costs to the environment and public health are not costed in to the equation. Because of this, the food appears cheaper to the consumer. As a consequence, any substantial change towards food systems based on the above definition will need an enabling policy environment.

So back to my question, how might one measure success? How about this for a shopping list: firstly a Rio sustainable food and farming accord, predicated on an understanding and agreement that a global transition to more sustainable food systems is needed. Secondly an acceptance of the need for definition of terms, followed by policy instruments which create a more enabling economic environments for sustainable food systems. This would include adding taxes to practises which have negative externalities, and shift subsidies in favour of those who adopt sustainable production. Finally, targets against which progress towards the agreed changes, will be monitored against. That is just for starters!

What do I expect will be the actual outcome? Much talk of ‘sustainable intensification’ without any definition of terms; theatrical accords between governments and large food companies, full of fine rhetoric but without much if any of the above substance, and lots of so called ‘trade offs’, which in effect legitimise business as usual, justified by the need to feed a peak population of nine billion.

And what do I think would change this? Probably either a massive shock which is so serious that public opinion is mobilised to the extent that it forces the politicians to deliver real change, or, much less likely but still possible, in an internet rich, post arab spring world, the emergence of a movement built on large numbers of citizens who are highly informed about the issues and recognise the urgency of the need for change.

I admitted earlier that real events rarely turn out the way one anticipates, so now I have revealed my hand, I will write more about the reality of Rio over the next few days.

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