Argentina’s G20 Sherpa, Pedro Villagra Delgado: Agriculture is an important issue

Argentina’s G20 Sherpa, Pedro Villagra Delgado

The G20 group of nations, currently presided over by Argentina, has been among the opinion leaders in global matters. Argentina’s 2030 agenda for sustainable development which was adopted by the UN General Assembly, sets clear targets for different socio-economic concerns. The Free Press Journal connected with Argentina’s G20 Sherpa, Pedro Villagra Delgado who was in Mumbai recently to attend the Geoconomic Dialogue conference, to know the action areas of G20 nations. Delgado, an Argentine Ambassador with Masters in law and a diplomat who handled numerous responsibilities across diverse locations, spoke to Pankaj Joshi and R N Bhaskar about food security in length.

Edited excerpts:

How much do you see your discussions as an influence on the food security question?

Food security has always been a priority area for the G20 nations. On ground it means there is nutritious food available at reasonable rates for the 7-8 billion population on the planet. The other focus is how we can integrate the world’s food production into the food processing chains which have been set up in different parts of the world. It is an ambitious project.

For food security, it is important that we change our mindset and get over resistance to modified foods. We must understand that mankind has been modifying crops since 10,000 years – the food we eat is not what our ancestors ate.

In that context, genetically modified (GM) food is not necessarily evil. We must be agnostic and focus on what matches our health, nutrition and cost standards on sustainable basis. The main bone of contention in GM crops is the terminator gene clause, which causes the next generation of seeds to be sterile and needs constant investment in purchase of seeds. Argentina, during its negotiations with the agro-chem companies, has done away with this clause. We must be realistic in our approach when it comes to feed this kind of population— we either increase yields or we chop down our forest cover to increase cultivation area. Today, in so many product lines, we are consuming synthetic food, be it beef or rice or other things. Now juxtapose that with the debate on GM foods and you see that it is rather silly.

What are the immediate points on the 2030 agenda that stand out as action areas?

If you look at the world from the perspective of the 2030 agenda, inequality is indeed widening everywhere. It is not just restricted to developing nations— even in developed economies you will see pockets where income and living standards are much below the average of that nation. The disturbing report from our discussions is that such pockets are growing in size almost everywhere.

It is not just in income that the inequality has manifested itself. Within the developed segments, you can see a stark gap between men and women. In digital economy exposure, for instance, the gender access to types of mobile, the usage levels of digital services are vastly different. In financial inclusion women are similarly lagging behind, and we are not talking about only those population segments which are outside formal access circles.

In fact, if we were to look at the women empowerment part of the 2030 agenda, it is clear that the informal segment or community is the target market. And here women must be prime target for the financial inclusion exercise. Women’s financial inclusion is not only socially relevant, it also makes eminent economic sense. Women are so much capable and in areas like the care system, they do a far better job than men can. That is more vital than it appears, for a planet which is ageing and with longer lifespans. The care system has to scale up and women empowerment is a must for that. In the context of actionable areas, another is corruption which again is endemic and not confined to developing economies.

If we revisit the 2030 agenda, it is now more relevant than ever. The agenda is an indisputable driving force for our discussions, and as Sherpas our task of guiding discussions to a common ground, and to actionable resolutions, is therefore made simpler. As a member nation, Argentina is focussed towards building consensus-based systems for fair and sustainable development. We aim to keep people-centric policies as the key of G20.

How do you reconcile food security with global trade velocity and with agri-sector protection, which is a priority for each country?

We cannot ignore the fact that agri-sector is a large source of employment within the domestic economies of many nations. It is necessary to be flexible, to be practical while discussing free trade in agri-commodity terms because the matters involved cannot be quantified in narrow terms. In that context, I would say that the G20 is much more flexible in its views compared to the WTO.

The issue that I have is the way activity is handled within the sector. Eventually, the marginal population involved in the agri-sector (landless labourers or small farmers) will tend to grow poorer rather than richer, unless they adopt technology to improve yields and reduce toil. The agri-sector is one of the sectors where the 21st century does not show up in the living and working standards of a large segment of the constituent population. Agriculture must be competitive to be sustainable as an employer sector –hard work and low pay is not the way to go.

It also behoves us to make technology affordable and easy to implement. If I were to speak for Argentina, our percentage population involved in agriculture is on the lesser side, we depend more on automation. Therefore, for us the need is trained manpower. We are in fact looking at GPS-enabled machines very soon, which would perhaps do away with the manpower element. We in the G20 are planning greater emphasis on study of soil and water throughout the world, so as to optimise crop patterns. In technology terms, soil-less agriculture could catch the fancy of nations in future. Today, unless you factor in the cost of land, it is seen as expensive. On the flip side, the soil-less agriculture, or hydroponics, and similar technological breakthroughs which raise the crop production of economies, might indirectly cause protectionism to rise further, and we may have to live with that.