What is sustainable agriculture?

An interesting debate on what constitutes sustainable agriculture was held in April at the 8th session of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development in New York. The session also discussed the pitfalls and limitations of the Green Revolution and genetic engineering technologies.

by Lim Li Lin

A FASCINATING and oftentimes heated debate on what constitutes sustainable agriculture and how best to feed the world now and in the future took place last April at the United Nations.

The Mad Cow Disease and growing concerns over the health and environmental hazards of genetically engineered crops have contributed to a new level of debate over agriculture options for the future.

It was thus timely that sustainable agriculture was a major theme of the 8th session of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD 8) in New York. The CSD monitors the follow-up to Agenda 21, the action plan of the 1992 Rio Summit. Every year the CSD considers different chapters of Agenda 21. Cross-cutting issues such as technology, economic issues, consumption and production patterns are factored into each meeting.

The agenda for this year was sustainable agriculture and integrated planning and management of land resources. Also on the agenda was a cluster of economic issues - trade, investment and finance.

The highlight of CSD 8 was the multistakeholder dialogue on sustainable agriculture. This format of dialogue was started in CSD 6. The main ‘stakeholders’ each year for the topic of the dialogue engage over two days in a debate that is more conducive to drawing out issues and positions of the various ‘stakeholders’. Government delegates are informed by the debate and the Chair’s summary of the dialogue feeds into the final negotiated text.

The setting has been somewhat successful in furthering a real debate, which normally makes little headway in UN-style open plenary sessions. The stakeholders this year in the dialogue on sustainable agriculture were non-governmental organisations (including indigenous peoples, women’s groups and the scientific community), farmers, trade unions and agri-business.

The dialogue itself was divided into four segments - choices in agricultural production, consumption patterns and safety regulations; best practices in land resource management to achieve sustainable food cycles; knowledge for a sustainable food system; and globalisation, trade liberalisation and investment patterns.

Fresh from the successful conclusion of the Biosafety Protocol negotiations in Montreal earlier this year, the Chairman of CSD 8, Juan Mayr Maldonado, the Minister of Environment for Colombia, had called on non-governmental organisations and other stakeholders to put all of the most contentious issues on the table.

Minister Mayr had successfully chaired the final stages of the biosafety negotiations after the talks collapsed in Cartagena in February last year. His novel methods of facilitating discussion between negotiating groups in a transparent and open manner had gone a long way towards breaking the impasse in the negotiations, leading to the eventual adoption of the Biosafety Protocol.

Provocative questions

During the CSD preparatory meetings in February, Minister Mayr had called for an honest and open debate on the real issues surrounding sustainable agriculture - what it means to the various stakeholders, how this is to be achieved and what production systems and practices can meet the goal of feeding the world’s population now and in the future.

During the dialogue, the Chair posed provocative questions for the stakeholders to debate, encouraging a frank and open discussion. 

One of the issues that the Chair raised was whether genetic engineering had a role to play in sustainable agriculture. Speaking on behalf of NGOs, Dr Mae-Wan Ho from the Institute of Science in Society and the Open University, UK refuted this. She said that genetic engineering is unsustainable as there is scientific evidence of actual and potential hazards of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) on health and the environment, as these new and artificial constructs are complicated and very unstable.

She highlighted the growing concern among the scientific community over modern biotechnology as it is based on flawed science and threatens human health, the environment, food security and sustainable food systems. Dr Ho pointed out that an open letter signed by more than 310 scientists from 36 countries calls for a moratorium on the environmental release of all GMOs and a ban on patents on life-forms and living processes.

NGO representatives were not alone in voicing opposition to the use of genetic engineering in agriculture. A representative of the US National Family Farm Coalition pointed out that a farmer using GE seeds in 1999 had to incur an extra US$42 in costs per acre, whilst having less yield. ‘We would also have to worry about being sued by other farmers whose farms are contaminated by genetic transfer from GM farms.’

A number of representatives from NGOs and farmers’ groups also called for a moratorium on the release of GMOs into the environment in the absence of proof of the safety of these organisms.

The lack of holistic understanding about the crisis that faces modern agriculture, food production and food security was identified by many NGO representatives as a stumbling block towards achieving truly sustainable agriculture. Technological quick-fixes were often developed and promoted by agri-business to serve their commercial self-interest.

The ‘Green Revolution’, characterised by the intensive use of agrochemicals and hybrid seeds, once heralded as a miracle and resounding success, was now facing declining yields and severe adverse environmental and health impacts. The so-called ‘Gene Revolution’ ‘is likely to exacerbate this trend’, the NGOs said.

‘Corporations are intensifying their ownership of intellectual property rights, and further threatening food security by making both commercial and communal farmers even more tied to corporate-owned seeds and chemical inputs. Indigenous knowledge and protection of centres of seed diversity are undermined.’

The consensus among NGOs at the CSD was that sustainable agriculture must be ‘ecologically sound, economically viable, socially just, culturally appropriate and based on holistic scientific approaches, including indigenous and community-based knowledge systems’.

Indigenous and traditional methods of food production and agriculture were often wrongly characterised as ‘backward’ and inefficient. Agriculture research and development institutions and agencies have paid scant attention to traditional, indigenous, small-scale, ecological and organic farming practices, which have yet to be mainstreamed into agricultural policy despite evidence of their long-term sustainability.

But as Dr Miguel Altieri, an expert on agroecology based at the University of California, Berkeley, said during the dialogue, ‘The scientific paradigm of industrialised agriculture has ignored the fact that agriculture is an ecological process. Monocultures are one technical fix for one problem, but they have resulted in decline in yields and pest losses are now at 37%. Agroecology is a different paradigm.’

Dr Altieri had also informed a lunchtime forum organised by Third World Network that there were already 5 million hectares of farms being recuperated through ecological methods by two-and-a-half million farming families across the world. ‘These are lighthouses in an expanding farmer-to-farmer network, which can be models that can spread if we have the right policy.’

During the dialogue, Martin Khor of Third World Network said that there have been many studies that have shown that organic or ecological farming is not only as good as but superior to, modern agricultural methods. He referred to the study by the National Academy of Sciences that found that farmers who apply few or no chemicals to crops are usually as productive as those who use pesticides and synthetic fertilisers.

In the face of such overwhelming evidence of the sustainability of organic and ecological farming, in terms of ecological benefit, livelihoods and productivity, Khor challenged the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) to put half its funds for research into organic and ecological agriculture.  

Another topic that was hotly debated was the impact of globalisation on agriculture. NGOs identified trade liberalisation and export-oriented food and fibre production as one of the key drivers threatening sustainable agriculture.

Chee Yoke Ling from Third World Network spoke on behalf of the NGOs Caucus on Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems. She criticised the continuing assertion that globalisation necessarily enhances sustainable agriculture and sustainable development, as this assertion is often based upon ‘models and research whose premises and data have proved to be, in the best case, mistaken, and, in the worst, manipulated to serve a particular political or corporate agenda’.

Negative impacts

‘A case in point is the FAO study on the impact of agriculture liberalisation on 16 developing countries, which concluded that liberalisation under structural adjustment programmes had clear negative impacts, and similar measures required under the WTO [World Trade Organisation] Agriculture Agreement would thus have negative impacts as well.’

She pointed out that the background paper prepared for CSD 8 by the FAO had omitted these findings, and, worse still, had misrepresented the study.

‘Since the implementation of the WTO Agreement on Agriculture, the impact of the rules and disciplines of the Agreement and the WTO has added to the burden of developing countries. For the vast majority of developing countries, the lowering of tariffs and removal of import control and domestic support have undermined local food production and farmers’ livelihoods in the onslaught of cheap subsidised imports...’

‘At the same time, the OECD [Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development] countries that are commodity exporters have failed to honour their commitments to reduce subsidies, and worsen the dumping of cheap subsidised food on developing countries, violating rules that prohibit export dumping.’

One of the main recommendations that came out from the ‘multistakeholder’ dialogue, supported by NGOs, farmers and trade unions was for the establishment of a working group on sustainable agriculture and rural development. Industry was also not opposed to this proposal. The major groups considered that such a ‘multistakeholder’ process could play a catalytic role in implementing sustainable agriculture and rural development (SARD) by fostering new and stronger alliances between diverse stakeholders. The working group would identify priority areas for SARD and, where possible, capture common ground for common actions.

However, this proposal was not retained in the final text on sustainable agriculture. Instead, the final text merely invites continued stakeholder dialogue on SARD, including facilitating the adequate and meaningful participation of stakeholders from developing countries. This had disappointed many who had hoped that a working group on SARD would be able to bring the debate even further and hopefully mainstream into policy the right paradigm and approaches to achieving sustainable agriculture. There was also disappointment that many of the positive recommendations from the dialogue were not incorporated into the final text, or had been watered down in the inter-governmental negotiating process.

Nevertheless, many good recommendations and the main points that resulted from the headway made in the UN debate had been, by and large, incorporated in the Chair’s summary of the dialogue. This would be a valuable input in discussions that will need to be intensified on the truly viable options for sustainable agriculture.

Lim Li Lin is a researcher at Third World Network.