UN assessment of agriculture, poverty, hunger and the environment
The future of food and farming to be debated in Johannesburg in April
Now that they’ve succeeded in forging a broad global consensus on the dangers posed by planetary climate change, scientists are asking the world’s governments to turn their attention to an equally challenging, if somewhat more prosaic crisis: food, hunger and poverty.
Latest news & comment about IAASTD
"A Collective Ignorance About How Agriculture Interacts With Natural Systems" Interview with UNEP's Achim Steiner (IPS, 04/09/08)
New agri practices counterproductive (iGovernment.in, 04/08/08)
Agriculture must revert to more natural, local production (UN News Service, 04/07/08)
How to kickstart an agricultural revolution (New Scientist, 04/05/08, PDF)
Bridging gulfs to feed the world (Opinion, New Scientist, 04/05/08, PDF)
Monsanto's Harvest of Fear (Vanity Fair, May 2008)
CSO letter to Bob Watson (14/03/08, PDF)
International initiative on world hunger deserted by biotechnology companies (Frontiers in Ecology, 03/08, PDF)
The IAASTD is an unprecedented attempt to bring multiple stakeholders together in the hope of mapping out a strategy to a sustainable agricultural model worldwide.
The IAASTD’s 400+ authors have been examining the multiple social, environmental and political dimensions of farming for over three years now and are prepared to present concrete options for action to address poverty and hunger in ways that protect, rather than damage, our shared natural resources. The secretariat for the IAASTD is headed by Dr. Robert Watson, a former chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and one of the many scientists who recently shared the Nobel Prize with former Vice President Al Gore for work on climate change.
At the conclusion of the weeklong meeting, government representatives will issue a final report that addresses one central question:
What can and must we do differently to sustain productive and resilient farming in the face of environmental crises, overcome persistent poverty and hunger, and achieve equitable and sustainable development?
The IAASTD report notes that the most widespread forms of industrial agriculture have degraded the natural resource base on which human survival depends, and contribute daily to worsening water and climate crises. This statement represents the same type of consensus that was achieved by the Climate Change Panel.
Therefore, many believe the final IAASTD meeting could be a potential watershed event in the effort to transform agriculture and rural livelihoods worldwide. The draft report documents the inequitable distribution of costs and benefits of the present agricultural sector, including the undue influence of transnational agribusiness, the growing impacts of environmental crises, and the unfair global trade policies that result in over half of the world’s population not having enough to eat.
The IAASTD takes a hard look at what has and has not worked in agriculture, concluding that “success” is not determined solely by higher crop yields or short-term technological fixes. Rather success must also be measured in agroecological terms that include climatic and other environmental impacts; the inequities built into local, regional, and global food trade arrangements; and the deterioration of the ability of rural populations to sustain their way of life.
For the majority of the world’s poor and hungry, the report concludes, it will be impossible to achieve sustainable livelihoods without greater access to and control over resources and policy-making processes. The shifts suggested by these findings will therefore inevitably shake up the status quo.
The IAASTD is precedent-setting also for its bold experiment in governance. It is the first inter-governmental process to have a multi-stakeholder governing structure: civil society is at the table and will have an equal voice (although only governments will vote) at the final plenary. This innovation signals a broad realization that designing effective solutions to complex global problems requires participatory solutions and the combined best efforts of scientists, NGOs, consumers and farmer organizations alongside the traditional centers of power – national governments and the private sector.
History shows us conclusively that governments and transnational corporations have not been successful on their own. The IAASTD, therefore, has rankled some participants, particularly the agrichemical and biotechnology industries, who say that their pesticide and genetically engineered products are not adequately credited in the IAASTD reports.
A central challenge we face today is how to strengthen the resilience of our food systems, rural communities and agroecosystems in the face of environmental crises.
The good news is that achieving sustainable and profitable agriculture is possible in our lifetimes. Accomplishing this transition will require concerted action at both the global and local levels, and from both public and private sectors. Successful actions will be guided by these findings:
- Improving agriculture is much more than increasing yields: it requires attention to social, political, cultural and environmental impacts and benefits.
- The future of agriculture is agroecological farming practices and “triple-bottom-line” business practices that meet social, environmental and economic goals.
- Achieving food security and sustainable livelihoods for people in chronic poverty depends on protecting access to and control of resources by small-scale farmers.
- Fair local, regional and global trading regimes can build local economies, reduce poverty and improve livelihoods.
- Strengthening resilience of agricultural systems in the face of changing environmental and social conditions requires change, informed by synthesis of empirical evidence and knowledge from both formal and informal – including Indigenous and local – sources.
- Better governance mechanisms, accommodating democratic participation by the full range of stakeholders, is essential for improving agricultural systems, monitoring and continuous progress toward sustainability and development goals.
The world’s governments should endorse the innovative vision for the future laid out in the IAASTD and commit to working closely with all segments of civil society to facilitate a transition towards more resilient and sustainable food and farming systems.
Just as the climate crisis is “an inconvenient truth,” the recommendations in the IAASTD report are likely to be considered inconvenient for the world’s industrial agricultural establishment and the dominant economies. It is likely that the U.S. government, the agrichemical trade association CropLife, and others who currently benefit disproportionately will argue against doing what needs to be done. Yet the outcome of the upcoming meeting in South Africa represents our first, best chance to apply the lessons of climate change to agricultural policy, and take a decisive step towards the productive, healthy and resilient farming on which our future depends.
On March 14, 2008, a letter (PDF) signed by 73 civil society organizations from around the world, addressed to IAASTD Director Robert Watson, highlighted the organizations’ desire to see a successful outcome of the IAASTD (now convening its final intergovernmental plenary in Johannesburg, South Africa, from 7-12 April). The letter also sought confirmation that previously agreed-on procedures would be upheld at the plenary.
Official information on the Assesssment, including news from the plenary, available at http://www.agassessment.org.