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International Agricultural Assessment: We Need a Paradigm Shift

By Ben Block

A commission of international agriculture experts unveiled a series of reports on Wednesday calling for an end to "business-as-usual" farming practices to avoid widespread environmental degradation and increasing food scarcity.

The group of more than 400 experts, known as the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), concluded through its global and regional studies that governments and industries need to discontinue environmentally damaging farming methods. Farmers should have greater access to agricultural technology and science, especially in the developing world, to ensure productivity increases without further environmental degradation, the reports say.

The commission's conclusions come during one of the most severe food crises since the productivity boom of the Green Revolution. Rising prices for basic commodities such as rice, wheat, and corn have led to violent protests around the world, from Haiti to Egypt to the Philippines. Widespread environmental degradation and uneven distribution policies are contributing to shortages, especially in the developing world, the reports say.

The reports are the largest international collaboration to date to advocate more sustainable farming practices such as crop diversification, use of organic fertilizers, and the adoption of labeling and certification schemes. More controversially, the commission suggests policy options that include "ending subsidies that encourage unsustainable practices." The reports also stress the ineffectiveness of genetically modified crops in aiding food productivity in some developing regions.

Global society must undertake a "paradigm shift" in agriculture, the authors said at a press briefing. And without more sustainable practices, the problems will only worsen. "These are long-term trends that we really need to take into account," said Shelley Feldman, a Cornell University sociology professor and report co-author. "We're going to continue to work with less labor; less water; less arable land; increasing land policy conflicts; the loss of biodiversity, genetic species, and ecosystems; increasing levels of pollution; and as we all know, climate change."

Because many farmers lack knowledge about sustainable practices, governments should increase their financial support for research and programs that encourage less-damaging techniques, the reports say. In North America and Europe, large transnational corporations currently dominate the funding for agricultural R&D, considerably influencing research priorities, they note.

"We have to think more about linking researchers and stakeholders in new and innovative ways.... We have to make sure our agriculture production systems have ecological benefits," said Mary Hendrickson, director of University of Missouri's agriculture extension networking project and another co-author. "Even here where there are significant investments in science and technology...we need to redirect funding."

The studies' more controversial findings splintered the commission, which formed with original ambitions of a multilateral consensus on the need to increase food availability, especially for the poor. But the biotechnology industry, including representatives of Sygenta and Monsanto, pulled out in March, saying the study was biased against genetically modified crops. "Our input was not being taken appropriately. We were looking to see references to plant science technology and the potential role it can contribute," Denise Dewar, executive director of industry trade group CropLife International, told press at the time.

Biotechnology is described in the reports as offering tremendous possibility for improving productivity with products such as water-resistance crops. But concentrated ownership has restricted access to genetically modified crops in developing nations. Such concentration drives up costs, inhibits independent research, and undermines local farming practices, the reports say. "The products of bioengineering are not really useful for developing countries because [the crops] are not adapted varieties. They're not the crops people grow there," said Hans Herren, an IAASTD co-chair.

Herren said industry scientists failed to attend meetings on time and attempted to edit the reports at the last minute. Despite the industry's complaints, Herren said the reports received overwhelming support from the 64 governments who voted on the commission at a meeting in Johannesburg, South Africa, last week. At the meeting he told the attendees, "The real losers are the people who are not here right now."

The United States, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom had the strongest reservations about the commission's stance on agricultural subsidies and trade. The reports note that developing-country farm markets are often opened to international competition prematurely, which can depress developing agricultural industries and worsen poverty. Herren said the commission was originally instructed not to discuss trade due to political sensitivity, but he said the topic could not be avoided.

"We feel that trade liberalization, open markets, do have a lot of benefits, but only if the playing field is leveled out ahead of time," said Herren, who is president of the Millennium Institute in Arlington, Virginia. "We felt that this is something that's important to look at."

The reports are the result of a three-year, $12 million effort by the World Bank and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. Launched in 2002 at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, the IAASTD, led by former Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change chair Robert Watson, coordinated the more than 400 experts from the world's universities, think tanks, governments, and industries.

Ben Block is a staff writer at the Worldwatch Institute who covers everything environmental for Eye on Earth. He can be reached at

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This is a really interesting development. Hopefully this story gets picked up by mainstream media, and gets a bit of attention. Given that it relates directly to recent news stories about Haiti and other places experiencing food shortages, it might resonate quite strongly and at least lead to more widespread discussion of potential solutions to these issues.

Posted by: Louis Simoneau on 21 Apr 08

I'm really happy that this issue is finally getting some attention. In addition to sustainable agricultural practices, I think there's a great opportunity to pay attention to the health of workers who are affected by harmful agricultural practices. For example, a lot of pesticides are used in Columbia on flower crops. This is terrible for the environment, but is also making the people who cut the flowers expose themselves health risks for their skin and liver. (There's a good video on this called "Poisoned Flowers" at .) We don't necessarily need or want to stop buying flowers and other products entirely, but we should be aware of what can be done to have more environmentally-friendly production of products that also provides better working conditions.

Posted by: Justin Lam on 22 Apr 08

This report is what the IPCC's is for climate change.

There are many ways in which agriculture can be made more sustainable. One of those could be the utilization of biochar, a very old but powerful technology.

See: Biochar Fund.

I think a key to all this is access to better knowledge and information amongst the many farmers in developing countries. Information technologies have a crucial role to play in the future of agriculture.

On another note: the classic agricultural inputs, especially fertilizers as well as petroleum products, are rapidly becoming extremely expensive. So a smarter form of agriculture that relies less on these environmentally problematic inputs might simply become an economic necessity.

Posted by: Laurens Rademakers on 23 Apr 08

I work with farmers in the third world. Almost all are below the poverty line by global or national standards.

Recently, on a farmer's rice plot, I was shown a test area of 26 different rice varieties collected from farmer-breeders. They bragged about one variety they have pegged "Climate Change Variety" because it withstood both the scorch of summer and the strange persistent flooding that destroyed so many crops this year.

They told me it has been growing for hundreds of years, and they are planning to catapult it into popularity in the community.

I feel a mass rebellion growing against hybrid and patented seeds. The local is beginning to sniff out the global. As farmers (despite language and educational barriers) begin to see and feel the large picture, they are bringing awesome insights to the fore.

Posted by: BVM on 27 Apr 08



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