Radical change needed, GM crops not a solution
Please find below a selection of news coverage on the report of the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology (IAASTD), which was released on 15 April.
- Ample resources
wasted, global study warns
Sixty countries backed by the World Bank and most UN bodies yesterday called for radical changes in world farming to avert increasing regional food shortages, escalating prices and growing environmental problems.
But in a move that has led to the US, UK, Australia and Canada not yet endorsing the report, the authors said GM technology was not a quick fix to feed the world’s poor and argued that growing biofuel crops for automobiles threatened to increase worldwide malnutrition.
The report was issued as the UN’s World Food Programme called for rich countries to contribute $500m (£255m) to immediately address a growing global food crisis which has seen staple food price rises of up to 80% in some countries, and food riots in many cities. According to the World Bank, 33 countries are now in danger of political destabilisation and internal conflict following food price inflation.
The authors of the 2,500-page International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development say the world produces enough food for everyone, yet more than 800 million people go hungry. ”Food is cheaper and diets are better than 40 years ago, but malnutrition and food insecurity threaten millions,” they write. ”Rising populations and incomes will intensify food demand, especially for meat and milk which will compete for land with crops, as will biofuels. The unequal distribution of food and conflict over control of the world’s dwindling natural resources presents a major political and social challenge to governments, likely to reach crisis status as climate change advances and world population expands from 6.7 billion to 9.2 billion by 2050.”
Robert Watson, director of IAASTD and chief scientist at the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said: “Business as usual will hurt the poor. It will not work. We have to applaud global increases in food production but not everyone has benefited. We have not succeeded globally. In some parts of India 50% of children are still malnourished. That is not success.”
Watson said governments and industry focused too narrowly on increasing food production, with little regard for natural resources or food security. “Continuing with current trends would mean the earth’s haves and have-nots splitting further apart,” he said. “It would leave us facing a world nobody would want to inhabit. We have to make food more affordable and nutritious without degrading the land.”
The report - the first significant attempt to involve governments, NGOs and industries from rich and poor countries - took 400 scientists four years to complete. The present system of food production and the way food is traded around the world, the authors concluded, has led to a highly unequal distribution of benefits and serious adverse ecological effects and was now contributing to climate change.
The authors say science and technology should be targeted towards raising yields but also protecting soils, water and forests. ”Investment in agricultural science has decreased yet we urgently need sustainable ways to produce food. Incentives for science to address the issues that matter to the poor are weak,” said Watson.
The GM industry, which helped fund the report, together with the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, the World Health Organisation and the British and US governments, abandoned talks last year after heated debate.
The scientists said they saw little role for GM, as it is currently practised, in feeding the poor on a large scale. ”Assessment of the technology lags behind its development, information is anecdotal and contradictory, and uncertainty about possible benefits and damage is unavoidable,” said the report.
”The short answer to whether transgenic crops can feed the world is ’no’. But they could contribute. We must understand their costs and benefits,” said Watson yesterday.
The authors also warned that the global rush to biofuels was not sustainable. ”The diversion of crops to fuel can raise food prices and reduce our ability to alleviate hunger. The negative social effects risk being exacerbated in cases where small-scale farmers are marginalised or displaced form their land,” they said.
Responding to the report, a group of eight international environment and consumer groups, including Third World Network, Practical Action, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, said in a statement: ”This is a sobering account of the failure of industrial farming. Small-scale farmers and ecological methods provide the way forward to avert the current food crisis and meet the needs of communities.”
Lim Li Ching, of Third World Network in Malaysia, said: ”It clearly shows that small-scale farmers and the environment lose under trade liberalisation. Developing countries must exercise their right to stop the flood of cheap subsidised products from the north.”
Guilhem Calvo, an adviser with the ecological and earth sciences division of Unesco, one of the report’s sponsors, said at a news conference in Paris: ”We must develop agriculture that is less dependent on fossil fuels, favours the use of locally available resources and explores the use of natural processes such as crop rotation and use of organic fertilisers.”
At a glance
Bio-energy - The report says biofuels compete for land and water with food crops and are inefficient. They can cause deforestation and damage soils and water.
Biotechnology - The use of GM crops, where the technology is not contained, is contentious, the UN says. Data on some crops indicate highly variable yield gains in some places and declines in others.
Climate change - While modest temperature rises may increase food yields in some areas, a general warming risks damaging all regions of the globe. There will be serious potential for conflict over habitable land.
Trade and markets - Subsidies distort the use of resources and benefit industrialised nations at the expense of developing countries.
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.
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.
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.
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.
GM foods 'not the
answer' to world's food shortage crisis, report says
Genetically-modified crops are not the solution to spiralling food prices or Third World hunger, according to a powerful international report published yesterday.
Questions remain over their effects on human health and the environment, it warns.
Sixty governments, private industry, scientists, consumer groups and social campaigners have delivered a blueprint for global agriculture for the next 50 years.
It delivers a remarkable snub to "Frankenstein Foods" and the industrialisation of farming while offering a boost to organic and small-scale agriculture.
The authors also warned against the rush to grow crops to be turned into fuel - biofuels - saying this could exacerbate food shortages and price rises.
This represents a direct challenge to government policy in the UK, Europe and the U.S. Publication of the report triggered an international row after the U.S. government, which has attempted to impose GM crops on the world, refused to sign up to the global initiative.
The row carries echoes of the Americans' refusal to sign up to initiatives to tackle global warming.
The International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development has been working for five years to develop a new approach to world food production.
Its director, Professor Robert Watson, said the industrialisation of farming since the Second World War has failed to produce the food needed by the world.
As a result, while the families in the West have plenty to eat, some 850 million people around the world go to bed hungry each night.
In recent months, GM companies, trade bodies and associated scientists have issued a deluge of propaganda suggesting biotech crops are the key to feeding the Third World.
Professor Watson and his team made clear that GM or transgenics – moving genes between plant species - was not the solution to providing plentiful cheap food.
He said: "Are transgenics the simple answer to hunger and poverty? I would argue, no."
He said much more research was needed to establish whether they offer benefits and do not harm the environment.
Professor Watson said the industrialisation of agriculture, of which GM is a part, has led to the heavy use of artificial fertilisers and other chemicals.
These have harmed the soil structure and polluted water ways.
The leeching of the soil of essential minerals means food is less healthy than 60 years ago.
The professor, a renowned expert on climate change and chief scientist at the UK food and farming department DEFRA, suggested organic farming practices offer many benefits.
UK GM crop trials have shown that associated farming practising destroy the weed population, removing food for bees, butterflies and other insects, and harm the food supply for birds.
There have been concerns the food could trigger unforeseen allergies.
Professor Janice Jiggins, of Wageningen University, questioned whether GM crops have been proven as safe. "There are many legitimate concerns about the presence of transgenics in food, as well as the safety standards that might be appropriate as these enter into animal and human food," she said.
This week the Government and EU imposed new laws that will require all fuel pumped into cars to contain 2.5 per cent of biofuels.
It is suggested that turning crops such as maize, wheat and sugar cane into a biofuel will help the world reduce the creation of greenhouse gases.
However, the IAASTD said this policy - driven by the U.S. government - could be misplaced.
Professor Watson said giving over land to biofuels was one of a number of factors driving sharp increases in food prices in the last year.
The report was published simultaneously in the UK, Washington, Delhi, Paris, Nairobi and a number of other cities.
'harms poor and environment'
Free trade in agricultural markets can undermine attempts to ease poverty in developing countries and harm the environment, says a UN and World Bank backed report.
"Opening national markets to international competition ... can lead to long-term negative effects on poverty alleviation, food security and the environment," says the International Assessment of Agricultural Scienceand Technology for Development (IAASTD) report.
The report urges agricultural science to pay greater attention to safeguarding natural resources.
It promotes 'agro-ecological' practices, such as the use of natural fertilisers and traditional seeds and reducing the distance between the farm and the consumer.
Professor Robert Watson, director of the report's secretariat, says while calling for changes to agricultural practices is an "old message", it "has not always had resonance in some parts of the world".
"If those with power are now willing to hear it, then we may hope for more equitable policies that do take the interests of the poor into account," he says.
The IAASTD also calls for a careful study of the environmental impacts on genetically modified crops and biofuels without taking a clear overall stance on either issue.
Some 60 governments, including Brazil, China, France and India, have approved the report.
But the US, Australia and Canada have not endorsed the entire report and the UK has not yet officially responded.
"The US objection [to the report] was primarily around the trade issue...They also felt we were not as positive as they would have liked on some of the new forms of biotechnology and transgenics. They have a less nuanced perspective than us," Watson says.
The IAASTD, whose co-sponsors also include the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization, says the benefits of increases in agricultural production are unfairly distributed with the current system often increasing the gap between rich and poor.
The report aims to set the agenda for hunger and poverty reduction in the next 50 years when demand for food is expected to rise sharply.
Food prices have already started to climb, which Watson says has been driven by increased demand, unfavourable weather, export restrictions, commodity market speculators, increased land use for biofuels, particularly in the US, and rising energy costs.
Dr John Williams, a commissioner to the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research and a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, says the report shows we can't just focus on agricultural research that deals with increasing production alone.
He says the report highlights the "huge problem" we have in finding ways to produce sufficient food for a rapidly growing population and halting the damage and increasing pressure on our natural resources, soils, water and biodiversity.
"We've got to look at whole ecological, energy and water systems to appreciate the impacts or the footprint of our food on our natural resource base," he says.
Urgency means 'technology essential'
But Dr Eric Craswell, a visiting fellow at the Fenner School of Environment and Society at the Australian National University and former senior academic advisor to the United Nations Institute for Environment and Human Security, criticises how the report handles issues like trade and biotechnology.
"With the urgency of food production problems we can't afford to be so picky about some of these issues. Why should developing country farmers be denied the opportunities of modern science in biotechnology, fertilisers and so on?"
While the report does not say poor countries should be denied access to such technologies, it recommends assessing their risks and benefits.
Craswell welcomes, however, how the report draws together the ideas of scientists and non-government organisations, especially in relation to the link between agriculture and the environment.
UN scientists say
industrial agriculture has failed
As Africa prepares for its own version of the “green revolution” being championed by US-based foundations, a new UN report paints a gloomy future for industrial farming.
The report, titled The International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development, decries the current tendency to emphasise agricultural research into variety improvement, biotechnology and productivity, saying such research ought to be redirected towards addressing social inequities and environmental problems. It is also apparent that the report recognises that indigenous knowledge has something to offer to agricultural progress.
Most importantly for the development of agriculture in East Africa and elsewhere on the continent, the report cautions against exposing developing countries to unregulated international competition as is about to happen once the European Union and the Africa, Carribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries adopt the Economic Partnership Agreements.
The report says that such competition is likely to have long-term negative effects on food security, poverty alleviation and the environment. The future of farming lies in making agriculture sensitive to the world’s environment, it says.
Prepared by a panel of scientists, the report was released last week during a UN conference in South Africa. The conference was attended by scientists and government representatives from all over the world to discuss the final UN report.
In his address, Achim Steiner, the executive director of Unep said; “Agriculture is not just about putting things in the ground and then harvesting them.” He argued that growth in agriculture has continued to depend largely on increasing use of social and environmental resources, which will determine its future capacity to provide for billions of people.
The report is the culmination of a three-year assessment carried out by several hundred scientists who have been taking stock of the current state of farming in the world. The report has unflattering things to say about large-scale commercial agriculture, which it claims has failed, and calls for a systematic reassessment of past and ongoing agricultural research, with a view to steering it towards addressing hunger, severe social inequities and contradictions as well as environmental problems.
If adopted, it will largely inform the future of global agriculture and could be the death knell of large-scale commercial agriculture. But though there is optimism that it will be formally adopted by UN member states, there are also fears that powerful Western governments might employ muscle to water down its scientific findings and tailor it to suit their interests.
The report challenges the basic tenets of the green revolution, which are based on the use of increasingly aggressive and expensive chemicals that seem to not only threaten the very soils they are supposed to protect but also water resources, the air and even the farmers themselves. To the authors of the report, “the ecological footprint of industrial agriculture is already too large to be ignored.”
Owing to such radical thinking, it has come under criticism by the US, the World Bank, the global genetic engineering industry and other supporters of the green revolution who term it “unbalanced and one-sided.”
However, all those criticising the report were involved in the process of selecting the participating scientists and editors of the report.
The latter were selected by a multi-stakeholder bureau comprising industry, governments and international organisations, to guarantee a balanced selection of the scientists. The US is particularly criticised for crying foul allegedly because it was unable to handpick its own spin-doctors.
The import of the report is that it provides an opportunity for the world to debate the need for a fundamental change in the way farming is handled. That the future of agriculture lies in securing biological diversity and in adopting labour-intensive farming that works with nature and the people, not against them.
However, Africa is generally catching up with the rest of the world in embracing chemical-intensive agriculture. The report equates such farming to mining since it extracts as much economic value as possible from each piece of land.
It argues that while such farming may provide short-term gains in production, it is not sustainable and compromises the dwindling agricultural area upon which global future food supply depends. Besides, it fails to fails to offer food security and a healthy, diverse diet to local communities.
The report is also an indictment on what some of the participants at the Johannesburg conference termed the “false promise” of genetic engineering. Without saying so, the report asks all concerned parties to support a real revolution in farming if agriculture is to meet the needs of local communities and the environment, restore the largely degraded land (particularly in Africa) and enable the poor to combat hunger, displacement and depletion of their resources and culture.
BBC News, 15 April
The global agriculture system will have to change radically if the world is to avoid future environmental and social problems, a report has warned.
The study, commissioned by the UN and World Bank, concluded that while recent advances had increased food production, the benefits were spread unevenly.
It said that 850 million people were still not getting enough food to eat. The authors added that food prices would remain volatile as a result of rising populations and biofuel growth.
The findings were published by the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), an intergovernmental body that involved more than 400 scientists and 30 governments.
"We tried to assess the implications of agricultural knowledge, science and technology both past, present and future on a series of very critical issues," explained IAASTD director Robert Watson.
"These issues are hunger and poverty; rural livelihoods; nutrition and human health.
"The key point is how do we address these issues in a way that is environmentally, socially and economically sustainable?"
'Need for reform'
Speaking at the launch of the final report in London, Professor Watson said advances over the past 50 years had seen total food production grow faster than the human population had increased.
"The price of food, in real terms, has also gone down. Even today, many food commodities are comparable to the early 1990s; so what's the problem?
"Well, we still have over 800 million people going to bed hungry every night. There have been some successes but if we look at it on a region-by-region basis, there have been uneven results."
He added that the study identified other consequences: "We have lost some of our environmental sustainability.
"There have been adverse effects in some parts of the world on soils, water, biodiversity; our agricultural systems have contributed to human-induced climate change and, in turn, human-induced climate change threatens agricultural productivity."
IAASTD co-chairman Dr Hans Herren said "contentious political and economic stances" were affecting attempts to address some of the imbalances.
"Specifically, this refers to the many OECD member countries who are deeply opposed to any changes in trade regimes or subsidy systems," he stated.
"Without reforms, many poorer countries will have a very hard time."
Food for thought
The authors projected that the global demand for food was set to double in the next 25-50 years, primarily in developing nations.
As a result, they said that it was necessary for the agricultural sector to grow, but in a way that did not result in social hardship or environmental degradation.
As well as looking at the global picture, the IAASTD also examined the situation in different regions:
Central/West Asia and North Africa: unique agricultural biodiversity is beginning to disappear. Likely to suffer the consequences of limited water supplies and climate change
East/South Asia and the Pacific: development in the region is increasing pollution levels. Climate change is likely to trigger large-scale migration
Latin America and the Caribbean: increased yield from agriculture has not led to a significant decrease in poverty. Food imports have created dependence and disruption to local production
Sub-Saharan Africa: agriculture accounts for about 32% of the region's GDP, yet 80% of arable land is experiencing water scarcity
North America and Europe: private sector funding has affected the direction of agricultural research and has increased the influence of transnational companies
The study found that access to food was taken for granted in many nations, and farmers and farm workers were poorly rewarded for acting as stewards of almost one-third of the Earth's land.
It recommended a fundamental rethink of agricultural knowledge, science and technology, in order to achieve a sustainable global food system.
The experts said that efforts should focus on the needs of small-scale farmers in diverse ecosystems, and areas with the greatest needs.
Measures would include giving farmers better access to knowledge, technology and credit. It would also require investment to bring the necessary information and infrastructure to rural areas.
Professor Watson outlined some of the challenges facing the sector over the coming 50 years: "We need to enhance rural livelihoods where most of the poor live on one or two dollars a day.
"We also need to stimulate economic growth because half of the countries in Africa have a significant percentage of their GDP in the agricultural sector.
"At the same time, we need to meet food safety standards and make sure that we do not have pesticide residues, unacceptable levels of hormones or heavy metals.
"All of this must be done in an environmentally and socially sustainable manner."
He warned that agriculture could no longer be approached as a single issue.
"We need to consider the environmental issues of biodiversity and water; the economic issues of marketing and trade, and the social concerns of gender and culture.
"How do we pay farmers to not only produce food, but to value the environmental services?
"Agriculture is far more than just production of food, and that is what we have to recognise."