Rethinking agriculture, democratizing agricultural research

The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier de Schutter, has called for a fundamental change in current agricultural policies, which are deemed incompatible with the fight against climate change and the commitment to support small-scale farming (Item 1). Continuing agriculture on the current path that is increasingly dependent on fossil fuels, oil and gas, is “agriculture committing suicide”. He instead calls for a shift to more resilient, diverse small-holder agriculture.

Rethinking agriculture also requires addressing governance issues, including involving farmers and citizens by more participatory means. This implies a fundamental shift in food and agricultural research to make them more democratic and accountable to society (Items 2 and 3).

A recent IIED publication, “Democratising Agricultural Research for Food Sovereignty in West Africa”, clearly articulates farmers’ recommendations for agricultural research and its governance. Among other things, they said research should focus on improving the productivity of local crop varieties and farming practices such as seed sharing, as well as research on ecological farming, instead of focusing on intensive farming. Furthermore, the farmers highlighted the need for direct farmer involvement in setting the public research agenda and strategic priorities.

With best wishes,

Lim Li Ching
Third World Network
131 Jalan Macalister
10400 Penang


Item 1

World Food Day: The Road from Rome to Cancun

[15 October 2010] ROME - Remember 2008: the prices of agricultural commodities doubling in a matter of months, food riots in about thirty developing countries, 150 million more people facing hunger. Two years later, as the Committee for World Food Security holds its annual session in Rome and celebrates World Food Day, there is little to rejoice about.

The stocks have been replenished, but no bold efforts have been made to reform the food systems: food-deficit countries still are in a highly vulnerable situation, small-scale farmers are still not sufficiently supported, and poor consumers are still not shielded from price increases.

Yet, there is something even worse than efforts that come too little, too late: it is efforts that, because they are focused on the short term and on quick wins, may be achieving the very opposite that we need.

Of course, we have learned the cost of under-investing in farming and after 30 years of neglect, there is a renewed interest in agriculture, both within the private sector and among governments. But the recipes promoted to re-launch agriculture may not be up to the challenges we are facing today. The provision of chemical fertilizers, the greater mechanisation of production or the expansion of irrigation seem far away from the professed commitment to fight climate change and to support small-scale, family agriculture. In reality, these “solutions” will mostly benefit the larger plantations. And it is their industrial model that is expanding.

If we were to stick to this approach, this would be a recipe for disaster, threatening the ability for our children’s children to feed themselves. Agriculture is already directly responsible for 14 percent of man-made greenhouse gas emissions – and up to one third if we include the carbon dioxide produced by deforestation for the expansion of cultivation or pastures. As a result of temperature changes, the yields in certain regions of Sub-Saharan Africa are expected to fall by 50 percent by 2020 in comparison to 2000 levels, and conservative estimates locate the global agricultural capacity in 2080 between 10 and 25 percent below the current levels.

Today already, weather-related events linked to climate change mean an increase in the number of floods and droughts, shorter and less predictable rainy seasons, and more volatile agricultural markets. In addition, the approaches that are currently promoted make food production increasingly dependent on fossil fuels, oil and gas, at the very same moment that the extraction of these resources is nearing its peak. Agriculture choosing this path is agriculture committing suicide.

This can change. We can improve the resilience of agriculture to climate change by combining diverse crops on the same farm, by planting more trees, and by developing water harvesting techniques to moisture the soil. The classic ‘Green Revolution’ approaches should be fundamentally rethought to achieve this. Agriculture, now part of the problem of climate change, should be made into part of the solution. Operating this shift requires that we think together climate change and agricultural development, when the two are too often dealt with in isolation from one another, left to different policy makers. We need to travel the road from Rome to Cancun – home of the next climate change summit in December.

This change also requires that we adapt our modes of governance. We won’t shift to a carbon-free agriculture if we remain hostages to the short-termism of markets and of electoral politics. The immediate expectations of shareholders and of voters cannot be ignored, but the aspirations of citizens must be allowed to grow into something larger, that recognizes our debt towards future generations, and that enriches democracy into something more permanent and closer to the citizen. We can do this by binding ourselves to multi-year strategies, adopted by participatory means, that identify the range of measures that must be taken in various policy areas, with a clear timeline for action and an allocation of responsibilities across various branches of government.

It is always tempting for the proponents of business-as-usual to dismiss as utopian proposals that are so far-reaching that they seem to be “revolutionary” in nature, and to dismiss other proposals as so minor and insignificant that they will not really make any difference.

We must move beyond this false opposition. What matters is not each of the policy proposals considered in isolation, whether reformist or more revolutionary. It is the pathway that matters: the sequence of measures that, piece by piece, may lead gradually to a carbon-neutral agriculture, that protects the ecosystems and that sustainably feeds the planet. Once part of a multi-year strategy, the set of measures that we need to move towards sustainable food systems cannot be so easily dismissed: what seems utopian now may be seen as achievable if it is the point of arrival of a long-term plan. And changes that may seem trivial at first will be seen in a very different light once they are presented as part of a broader and more ambitious strategy.

Our democracies are premised on the idea that even the greatest collective problems can be solved if broken down into pieces and addressed one by one. It is an idea that we must now reclaim.

Item 2

World Food Day Marked by Call to Democratise Agricultural Research and Ensure Food Sovereignty

International Institute for Environment and Development, UK (IIED), 16 Oct 2010

The United Nations' Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter, has backed citizens worldwide who are demanding a fundamental shift in food and agricultural research to make them more democratic and accountable to society.

De Schutter outlines his support in the foreword to a multimedia publication that the International Institute for Environment and Development will launch on World Food Day (16 October).

The publication focuses on West Africa and includes video clips and audio files that feature the voices and concerns of food producers from across the region.

A related website ( - also launching on 16 October - brings the concerns of marginalised food producers from West Africa, South Asia, the Middle East and the Andean region of South America to a global audience.

"Food and agriculture policy and research tend to ignore the values, needs, knowledge and concerns of the very people who provide the food we all eat - and often serve instead powerful commercial interests such as multinational seed and food retailing companies," says project leader Dr Michel Pimbert of IIED.

"Agricultural research and policy must shift to focus on what farming communities and food consumers want and need. Farmers and other citizens must play a central role in defining strategic priorities for agricultural research and food policies."

The multimedia publication presents the findings of citizens' juries - held in 2010 - at which farmers, pastoralists, food processors and consumers from Mali, Senegal, Burkina Faso and Benin heard evidence from expert witnesses and made recommendations about the future of agricultural research and its governance.

The jurors called for direct involvement in the design and implementation of agricultural research. Among other things, they said research should focus on improving the productivity of local crop varieties and farming practices such as seed sharing instead of moving towards more intensive farming that relies on hybrid seeds and expensive external inputs.

"The democratisation of agricultural research is a vital for those who seek to make the human right to adequate food a reality," writes De Schutter.

"I wish to applaud the efforts that led to citizens‚ juries in West Africa and farmers' assessments of public research for making such a significant contribution to the key values of participation and ownership that are at the heart of what democratisation means."

The website shows how parallel processes to those underway in West Africa are revealing that small-scale farmers and pastoralists in Asia, Latin America and the Middle East also want more citizen controlled and inclusive forms of agricultural research.

"Achieving food sovereignty requires radically different knowledge than that on offer today in mainstream research institutes and policy think tanks," says Michel Pimbert. "Such a transformation depends on farmers and 'ordinary' citizens directly deciding what kind of agricultural research they want - for whom, how it should be done, where and by whom, and with what likely consequences."

"This is why the democratic process described here is so important for food security, local livelihoods and human well being, and resilience to climate change."

"The 2008 food price crisis was a wake up call to the reality that despite advances in agricultural research, about a billion people remain hungry," says Farah Karimi, executive director of Oxfam-Novib.

"In an ever more interdependent world, the global challenges of climate change, food and financial crises are putting pressure on food systems. It is therefore ever more important to re-examine the resilience of small-holder agriculture, and its great contribution both to local and global food security."

"The book highlights the issues of West African farmers on how they see agricultural research best serve their interest and the global public good of sustainable and equitable food systems," adds Karimi. "As Oxfam Novib, we happily supported this important research of the IIED. Oxfam Novib commends the work of Michel Pimbert and IIED, not only for this critical and well written analysis, but also for creatively bringing forward the voices of West African farmers in this innovative multi-media publication."

Notes to editors

Professor Olivier De Schutter was appointed the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food in March 2008 by the United Nations Human Rights Council. He is independent from any government or organization, and he reports to the Human Rights Council and to the UN General Assembly. For more on the work of the Special Rapporteur on the right to food, visit

Dr. Michel Pimbert is the Team Leader of Food and Agriculture at IIED.

The multimedia e-book - Democratising Agricultural Research for Food Sovereignty in West Africa - is co-published by the International Institute for Environment and Development, the Coordination Nationale des Organisations Paysannes du Mali (CNOP), the Centre Djoliba, the Institut de Recherche et de Promotion des Alternatives en Développement (IRPAD), Kene Conseils, and the Union des Radios et Télévisions libres du Mali (URTEL). The book and the process it describes were co-funded by the Government of The Netherlands, the Swiss Development Cooperation, Oxfam-Novib and The Christensen Fund.

Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. It puts those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations.

The International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) is an independent, non-profit research institute. Set up in 1971 and based in London, IIED provides expertise and leadership in researching and achieving sustainable development (see:

Item 3

Ending Africa’s Hunger Means Listening to Farmers

Stephen Leahy

NAGOYA, Japan, Oct 16 (IPS) - Africa is hungry - 240 million people are undernourished. Now, for the first-time, small African farmers have been properly consulted on how to solve the problem of feeding sub-Saharan Africa. Their answers appear to directly repudiate a massive international effort to launch an African Green Revolution funded in large part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Instead of new hybrid seeds, chemical fertilisers and pesticides, family farmers in West Africa said they want to use local seeds, avoid spending precious cash on chemicals and most importantly to direct public agricultural research to meet their needs, according to a multi-media publication released on World Food Day (Oct. 16).

"There is a clear vision from these small farmers. They are rejecting the approach of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa," said report co-author Michel Pimbert of the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), a non-profit research institute based in London.

"These were true farmer-led assessment where small farmers and other food producers listened and questioned agricultural and other experts and then came up with their own recommendations," Pimbert told IPS.

"Food and agriculture policy and research tend to ignore the values, needs, knowledge and concerns of the very people who provide the food we all eat - and often serve instead powerful commercial interests such as multinational seed and food retailing companies," he said.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter, backs the need for a fundamental shift in food and agricultural research to make it more democratic and accountable to society.

"I applaud the efforts described here to organise citizen's juries and farmers' assessments of agricultural research in West Africa," writes De Schutter in a forward to the IIED publication titled "Democratising Agricultural Research for Food Sovereignty in West Africa".

The publication includes video clips and audio files that feature the voices and concerns of food producers from across the region.

About half a billion Africans depend on small-scale farming of less than two hectares. Most of the smallholder farmers are women. There is serious concern about the direction of Africa's public agriculture research, which is mainly funded by donor countries. Funders exert control over what type of research they fund and that almost always reflects a northern science and technology bias favouring new hybrid seeds that must be purchased every year and chemical fertilisers, said Pimbert.

To find out what smallholder farmers want African public agricultural research to do for them, independent farmer-led assessment of the current agricultural research was done in Mali. Those findings fed into two citizen/farmer juries comprised of 40 to 50 ordinary farmers and other food producers. Each jury addressed specific issues such as what kind of agricultural research smallholders want and how food and agricultural research can be more democratic.

The jurors listened to and questioned a wide range of expert witnesses from Africa and Europe. They considered the evidence presented in light of their experiences and agreed on a series of recommendations for their respective governments. Those included direct farmer involvement in setting the public research agenda and strategic priorities, research into traditional varieties and ecological farming, and the idea that such research should be funded by their own governments not outsiders as is the case presently in West Africa.

It's a fully open and participatory process, said Pimbert, who has been involved in similar processes in India and South America. Jurors are carefully selected to reflect a broad range of localities, variety of knowledge and gender. An independent oversight panel with representatives from a number of countries such as Senegal, Burkina Faso, Niger and Benin acts like election observers to make sure the entire process is fair and open.

"This has never happened in West Africa before. For that matter, ordinary farmers in Canada or the U.S. have never been asked what they want public ag research to do for them," he said.

Farmers and "ordinary" citizens directly deciding what kind of agricultural research they want is vital for achieving food security, local livelihoods and human well being, and resilience to climate change, Pimbert said.

Following the food crisis in 2008 there is a major push for a "new green revolution" in Africa, championed by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) a $400 million effort headed by Kofi Annan, former secretary- general of the United Nations and funded by the Gates Foundation and the Rockrfeller Foundation. AGRA aims to double or quadruple the yields of smallholder farms.

"We're are choosing to invest in what we believe will work," said Sylvia Mathews Burwell, a member of the AGRA board and president of the Global Development Program, which is one of three focus areas for the Gates Foundation.

AGRA is putting its funding in the development of new seed varieties such as drought-tolerant maize, improving soil fertility and market access and farmer education. They are not presently funding genetically engineered crops.

"Farmers want ag research that will help them feed their families and have extra to sell in the market," Burwell said in an interview. "Our consultants have been out there talking to farmers. We're attempting to include the voice of farmer."

For many, the AGRA approach is a downscaled version of U.S. and European agricultural production, with its central focus on boosting yields with hybrid seeds and fertiliser.

AGRA's objective seems to be to make "farmers dependent on inputs, dependent on markets, instead of the farmers being in charge," said Hans Herren, president of the Millennium Institute in Virginia. Herren was the World Food Prize winner in 1995, and is credited with implementing a biological control programme that saved the African cassava crop, averting a food crisis.

"We have seen from the example in the U.S. and EU where this dependency leads...fewer farmers, lower prices for farmers… more jobless people," said Herren, who was co chair of International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD).

The three-year IAASTD concluded the best hope for the feeding the world was with agro-ecosystems that married food production with ensuring water supplies remain clean, preserving biodiversity, and improving the livelihoods of the poor. The transformation that African agriculture needs is not more large-scale industrial farm production relying on outside inputs of fertiliser but with small farmers practising a multifunctional agro-ecosystem approach, Herren said.

"Smallholders and their authentic organisations (co-ops, small rural technical schools, and the like) have shown that strengthened agro-ecological approaches can produce adequately," said Philip Bereano of the University of Washington in Seattle.

AGRA has failed to "consult with smallholders, listen to their advice, and follow their suggestions," said Bereano in an email from Nagoya, Japan. Bereano is involved with a citizen's group called AGRA Watch, which says major funders from the North are pushing an industrial agri-business development model on Africa.

Agribusiness is setting itself up as the solution to the "food problem" and many governments are listening because the 2008 food crisis shocked them, said Pimbert. "Africa has enormous quantities of land and resources...and now there is a stampede to lock those up."

AGRA, many scientists and large NGOs believe the business approach of high-technology and public-private partnerships is the way to feed Africa, they can't accept the smallholders' worldview, he said. What will happen instead is that smallholders will buy the new hybrid seed, fertiliser and pesticide on credit, eventually be forced off their land to repay their debts and end up in the cities, while large corporate style farms will consolidate smallholder land.

"This is what happened to many of India's smallholders," Pimbert said.