New Scientist articles on the IAASTD
Andy Coghlan New Scientist magazine, Issue 26505, April 2008, pages 8-9
FARMS just produce food, right? Not for long perhaps. If a controversial utopian vision of how to save the world is accepted at a meeting in South Africa next week, farming could undergo its biggest transformation in history.
In this vision, farmers won't just have to produce enough to head off the Malthusian food crisis economists believe is threatening the planet as its population grows ever larger. They will also be made custodians of nature, crusaders in the battle to combat climate change, engines of economic growth and gurus spreading technology and education to the remotest corners of the world.
'Agriculture can do more than just focus on production,' says Bob Watson, director of the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), the project that he hopes will change agriculture forever when the final draft of its report is published on 15 April. 'Farming can help supply clean water, it can help to protect biodiversity, and it should be managed in a way that manages our soils sustainably,' says Watson, who used to be head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
Now Watson wants the IAASTD to do for agriculture what the IPCC has done for climate change, bringing together under one banner the best scientific and technological evidence on what works in farming. Conceived in 2002 by the World Bank and the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, the IAASTD began work under Watson's command in 2004 with the aim of improving life, health and prosperity for millions of poor farmers (see New Scientist, 7 August 2004, p 17).
The underlying objective is to use farming know-how to raise the world's poor out of poverty, to even out the share of resources between rich and poor, and reverse the accelerating decimation of forests and natural resources on which survival of the world depends. All this against the backdrop of the 30 per cent contribution that agriculture makes to global warming.
Now the science-based global assessment and the five regional assessments that accompany it are almost complete. The 400 scientific experts who have spent the past four years drafting the plan - with the help of 30 governments and 30 major charities and non-governmental organisations - reconvene next week in Johannesburg, South Africa, to agree on the final text.
The haggling will be fierce, however, because the draft strays into divisive economic, ideological, legal and political territory - way beyond its original brief of simply showcasing science and technology that can help poor farmers.
For some delegates, the proposed options for change are too radical to stomach. Representatives of the biotechnology industry, for example, stormed out of the negotiations earlier this year, arguing that the potential of genetically modified crops to help poor farmers and combat global warming was being overlooked, and undue weight given to alternatives such as organic farming.
The two sides of the argument appear on pages 16 and 17 of this issue.
Equally controversial, the draft IAASTD plan advocates sweeping changes in world trade rules to overcome the economic barriers preventing poor farmers from selling and exporting their produce. It says that market forces alone can't be trusted to bring prosperity and food security to the poor, and that trade rules unfairly favouring rich countries and multinational corporations must be reformed (see 'A fair deal?').
In another radical move, the plan calls for dramatic changes in property rights so that poor farmers - especially the women who do most of the agricultural work in poorer countries - can secure legal ownership of the land their families have occupied for centuries. Only then will they have the collateral to secure the loans and technology they need to improve their productivity, and to build the roads and transport links vital for delivering their produce to the marketplace (see 'The long road').
As a whole, the proposals create a new paradigm for agriculture which gives farmers a central role in stabilising communities, lifting countries out of poverty, guaranteeing food security, reversing global warming and keeping a fair and sustainable balance between the resources available to farming and nature.
To achieve these goals, the pattern of subsidies needs to change radically, the draft argues. Subsidies that allow European and North American farmers to produce food surpluses so cheaply that they can be 'dumped' way below cost price on markets in developing countries need to be scrapped, because they undercut locally produced food. Instead, subsidies should reward environmental stewardship and practices that reduce global warming, such as replanting trees and forests or growing crops in ways that minimise energy consumption, pesticide use and pollution.
Equally radical, anti-monopoly laws should be used to rein in the power and resources of the multinational companies that dominate world seed and fertiliser markets. Intellectual property laws also need to be reformed to prevent patents on novel crops from stifling new research and agricultural innovation.
But though the ideas are radical, critics say that the breathtakingly ambitious agenda is practically, economically and politically unfeasible. 'They are proposing everything, and if you propose everything, then you don't prioritise anything,' says one veteran of agricultural development who prefers not to be named. 'We should have simply spent the money on agricultural research in Africa.'
Another potential flaw is that the report makes no recommendations for plans of action. Instead, the global and regional assessments each put forward a series of options. Nor is there any obligation on governments, donors or private companies to act on or fund the report's proposals.
But backers of the IAASTD say that publication of such iconoclastic ideas in a final draft is in itself a triumph. 'Even changing perceptions of farming is quite a shift from the past 50 years, and they should drive the agenda for the next 50,' says a spokeswoman for the IAASTD.
And Watson himself is convinced that things cannot continue as they are. 'If we do persist with business as usual, the world's people cannot be fed over the next half-century,' he warns. 'It will mean more environmental degradation, and the gap between the haves and have-nots will expand. We have an opportunity now to marshal our intellectual resources to avoid that sort of future, otherwise we face a world nobody would want to inhabit.'
A fair deal?
No wonder delegates from agrochemical companies decided to pull out of the IAASTD project.
You can't mistake the accusatory tone within the guarded language of the draft summaries alleging widespread unfairness in trading rules and conventions that favour richer countries and multinationals at the cost of the poor.
In the IAASTD regional report on North America and Europe, the authors call for an end to offloading cheap agricultural surpluses in developing countries. The result of subsidies from rich governments, the surplus is so cheap that customers buy it instead of home-produced goods, destroying local farmers' only chance to sell their goods.
Equally iniquitous, says the report, are today's production chains for commodities such as coffee, which deny farmers a fair slice of the profit. Instead, most of it goes to processing, packaging and retailing companies further along the chain (see Graph).
The report attacks multinational seed and fertiliser companies based in rich countries for creating monopolies and acquiring patents which give them disproportionate power to charge exorbitant prices and ration supplies. 'Four transnational companies provide 30 per cent of the world's commercially available seeds,' says the draft. 'Two firms provide most of the fertiliser in North America and one firm has a 25 per cent market share for fertilisers in Europe.'
The long road
Simple technologies and strategies that help African farmers avoid wasting rainwater and fertiliser could go a long way to raising yields, says the current draft of the IAASTD's regional report on sub-Saharan Africa. And changes to unfair global trade rules will help them sell their produce locally and abroad.
Roads could be the most important missing link. Without them, farmers can't reach the marketplace to sell their produce, either at home or in neighbouring countries. 'There is a real positive correlation between the development of transportation infrastructure and agricultural intensification, yet sub-Saharan Africa has the lowest density of paved roads of any world region,' says the report.
Per Pinstrup-Andersen, a specialist in agricultural development at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, says the observation is spot-on. 'The main obstacle to agricultural and economic development in sub-Saharan Africa is the lack of infrastructure,' he says.
Pinstrup-Andersen says that there have been hundreds of innovations that successfully raised yields on sub-Saharan African farms, but the projects failed because farmers couldn't sell surpluses in more distant markets. Instead, the surpluses drove down local prices and bankrupted the very farmers who had borrowed money to pay for the innovations to raise yields.
Comment: Bridging gulfs to feed the world
New Scientist magazine, Issue 26505, April 2008, page 16-17
FARMING, the world's biggest industry, uses some 40 per cent of the Earth's ice-free land surface. In recent decades it has delivered phenomenal increases in yields of food, fodder, fibre and fuel. Most people now have access to cheap food, and more children are obese than underfed. Yet millions of farmers remain poor and lack access to modern science and technology, and more than 850 million people remain hungry.
Environmentally, the successes of agriculture have come at a price. It uses unsustainable amounts of water, has driven steep losses in biodiversity, is responsible for about 14 per cent of the emissions implicated in climate change, and produces nutrient run-off that has degraded all the world's major estuaries. Factor in growing demand and increasing competition for land and water, and 'business as usual' is not an option.
The International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development
(IAASTD) was set up to take stock of our knowledge, technology and policy, and help find a way to feed the world without destroying it (see 'How to kickstart an agricultural revolution'). With $12 million funding from the World Bank, UN Environment Programme, UN Food and Agriculture Organization and others, it has been a staggering enterprise, involving dialogue between farmers, industry, governments, non-governmental organisations and other civil society groups. More than 400 authors were involved in drafting its report, drawing on the evidence and assessments of thousands of other experts worldwide.
The drafts have been subjected to two independent peer reviews by assessors from industry, government, civil society and specialist research institutes. A single paragraph could call on evidence from over 3000 journal articles, book chapters and reports of experiences in the field, as well as discussions with consultants.
Sadly, one of the main players ducked the challenge of maintaining the dialogue. In the closing weeks, participants from the biotech multinational Syngenta repeatedly failed to deliver key text, even though deadlines were extended for them. The company eventually walked out of the governing bureau (see 'Comment: Why I had to walk out of farming talks'). Nonetheless, many of us see the final drafts, due to be debated next week in Johannesburg, South Africa, as the most comprehensive, rigorous assessment of knowledge, science and technology in the world's largest industry.
The IAASTD process has explicitly value-laden goals: to reduce hunger and poverty; to improve rural livelihoods; and to facilitate equitable, environmentally, socially and economically sustainable development. These demand a unique attempt at joined-up thinking, synthesising knowledge and experience from domains that are normally kept firmly separate. This in turn was almost certain to make dialogue exceptionally difficult - and so it proved.
The process exposed in passing many intriguing and important differences about the role of science. Scientists driven by the intellectual excitement of their work had difficulty grasping how a technology could be benign or harmful in different contexts. Those helping farmers adapt generic technology to local conditions were frustrated that the many technologies with proven pay-offs in yield, farm income, and public and environmental health do not attract interest from companies because they do not consider them profitable.
Elsewhere, members of farmers' organisations and civil society took deep offence at hearing technologies developed by farmers or communities working with NGOs and building on centuries-old traditions dismissed as 'anecdotal' and of no value. In other sessions, those supporting the role of science and technology in helping poor women feed their families were upset to hear phrases such as 'feminist claptrap' thrown at their evidence.
These differences were brought into sharpest conflict by the issue of genetically modified crops. How do we weigh the benefits of GM seeds - and of agrichemicals or trade in agricultural commodities - against evidence that the concentration of control in these areas has left millions poor, increasing numbers malnourished, and farming systems increasingly vulnerable to financial shocks and climate change?
The first generation of GM products set a wrong tone. They offered poor consumers nothing that could not be delivered conventionally, and their environmental impacts have been equivocal. There has been widespread flouting of intellectual property rights laws in some countries, sales of seeds wrongly labelled GM in others, and everywhere the capacity to monitor and regulate GM has failed to keep up.
One early stumbling block to dialogue was a failure to understand distinctions between lab science and what happens when it is applied in the real, messy world. And no sooner is this distinction accepted than another difficulty arises: there is no typical 'real world context' or 'small farmer' against which to measure the contribution and impact of a particular technology. This is not to deny that there have been some successes. Placing powerful communication tools in the hands of small farmers is one recent project - digital devices to record pest pressures and outbreaks are being released to Indian farmers to help them withstand climate change.
In general, however, there is a mismatch between the generalising nature of scientific and technological solutions that have to exploit market opportunities, and the obstinate specifics of farming. The assumption that external solutions can be effectively transferred to small farmers has often proved false. This has left too many farmers without access to science and technology, and a lot of technology irrelevant to farmers' real problems. Transferred technologies can even cause environmental or social harm. Conversely, knowledge and technologies originating from farmers themselves, or through civil society organisations working closely with them, are often so closely tailored to a particular context they cannot be applied generally.
The message of the IAASTD draft is that agriculture badly needs partnerships that bring together diverse interests, experience and disciplines. No task could be more urgent than helping farmers, especially the poorest among them, link their knowledge and expertise to science.