15 April 2008

Africa: Reinventing Agriculture

Johannesburg — The results of a painstaking examination of global agriculture are being formally presented Tuesday with the release of the final report for the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD).

The assessment has explored how agriculture can be reinvented to feed the world's expanding population sustainably in an era of multiple challenges -- not least those presented by climate change and a growing food crisis that has led to outbreaks of violence in a number of developing countries.

The expertise of some 400 scientists and other specialists was tapped for the IAASTD; governments of wealthy and developing nations also contributed to the assessment, along with civil society and the private sector.

Both scientific knowledge and traditional skills were evaluated under the IAASTD, which marked the first attempt to bring all actors in agriculture together to address food security. Contributors produced five regional assessments, and a 110-page-plus synthesis report.

Amongst the 22 findings of the study that chart a new direction for agriculture: a conclusion that the dominant practice of industrial, large-scale agriculture is unsustainable, mainly because of the dependence of such farming on cheap oil, its negative effects on ecosystems -- and growing water scarcity.

Instead, monocultures must be reconsidered in favour of agro-ecosystems that marry food production with ensuring water supplies remain clean, preserving biodiversity, and improving the livelihoods of the poor.

"Given the future challenges it was very clear to everyone that business as usual was not an option," IAASTD Co-chair Hans Herren told IPS. He was speaking at an Apr. 7-12 intergovernmental plenary in South Africa's commercial hub, Johannesburg, where the assessment findings were reviewed ahead of Tuesday's presentation.

While global supplies of food are adequate, 850 million people are still hungry and malnourished because they can't get access to or afford the supplies they need, added Herren -- who is also president of the Arlington-based Millennium Institute, a body that undertakes a variety of developmental activities around the world. A focus only on boosting crop yields would not deal with the problems at hand, he said: "We need better quality food in the right places."

The notion that yield can no longer be the sole measure of agricultural success was also raised by Greenpeace International's Jan van Aken, who said that the extent to which agriculture promotes nutrition needs to be considered. A half-hectare plot in Thailand can grow 70 species of vegetables, fruits and herbs, providing far better nutrition and feeding more people than a half-hectare plot of high-yielding rice, he added.

The IAASTD further notes that experts in agricultural science and technology must not only work with local farmers, but also economists, social and health scientists, governments and civil society.

"We can't solve these problems in the agriculture department alone," observed the other IAASTD co-chair, Judi Wakhungu, who is also executive director of the African Centre for Technology Studies. The centre is headquartered in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.

"Leadership will be needed to make this change," she added, in acknowledgement of the fact that most governments, research centres and others in sectors linked to agriculture are unaccustomed to joining hands, and often compete for funding.

The plenary was marked by some disagreement over the ever-controversial matters of biotechnology and trade: indeed, during a long and fraught debate over biotechnology, the meeting very nearly fell apart. U.S. and Australian government representatives objected to wording in the synthesis report that highlighted concerns about whether the use of genetically modified (GM) crops in food is healthy and safe.

This issue, along with challenges pertaining to trade, had been thoroughly debated over the three-year IAASTD process and the final wording reflected scientific evidence. The report says biotechnology has a role to play in the future but that it remains a contentious matter, the data on benefits of GM crops being mixed; it further notes that patenting of genes causes problems for farmers and researchers.

Syngenta and the other biotech and pesticide companies abandoned the assessment process late last year.

The impasse at the plenary was broken when the two countries agreed to a footnote in the report indicating their reservations about the wording. They also agreed to accept the report as a whole, along with Canada and Swaziland: "Our government will champion this even though we have reservations on some parts," the Australian delegate told the meeting.

The other 60 countries represented at the plenary took a stronger position, moving beyond acceptance to adopt the report.

"I'm stunned. I didn't think it would pass," said Janice Jiggins of the Department of Social Science at the University of Wageningen in the Netherlands, and one of the experts who worked to review the totality of agricultural know-how and the effects of farming around the world.

There was also broad endorsement from civil society.

"We have a very strong anti-GMO (genetically-modified organism) stance but agreed to accept the synthesis report findings because it was neutral," noted van Aken. "We're not happy with everything, but we agree with the scientific consensus in the synthesis report."

Now, the IAASTD moves from testing the endurance of researchers to trying the political will of decision makers.

"These documents are like a bible with which to negotiate with various institutions in my country and transform agriculture," the Costa Rican delegate told the Johannesburg gathering, through a translator.

Others were more circumspect about the prospects for the assessment, but still hopeful.

"We're all headed in the same direction now, even if some are walking and some are running," said Wakhungu.

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