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« M. Lamy Out of Step on Food Prices | Main | UNCTAD XII is Over. . .More Work Ahead »

April 28, 2008

Will the International Assessment of Agriculture Bring a New Era?

On April 12, the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) reports on agriculture were approved by 57 governments meeting in Johannesburg, South Africa. The approval capped a six year-long process of negotiating terms of reference for the project, selecting more than 400 authors, and three full rounds of writing, editing and rewriting in response to thousands of comments from around the world. Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States have not signed on to the reports, despite many changes to the “Summary for Decision-Makers” and the “Synthetic Reports” on cross-cutting themes that were made to gain their support.

I went to two of the four author/reviewer meetings, was a Lead Author for the “policy options” chapter of the Global Report and reviewed the chapter on Agricultural Knowledge Science and Technology (AKST) investment. 

Here are some of the key findings:

  • The way the world grows its food must radically change to better serve the poor and hungry if the world is going to cope with a growing population and climate change.
  • A new system must focus on the needs of small farms in diverse ecosystems.
  • The industrial agriculture model focused almost exclusively on production has come at a high environmental cost.
  • The patenting of genetically engineered crops has concentrated ownership of resources, driving up costs and undermining local farming practices.
  • Women, who make up a large proportion of farmers in developing countries, continue to struggle with low income, limited access to education, credit and land, and deteriorating work conditions.

The paper concluded that a new agriculture system should focus on: fighting poverty and improving rural livelihoods; enhancing food security, using natural resources in a sustainable way, improving human health and greater equity in agriculture.

Much of the criticism about the IAASTD report comes from a few governments and the agricultural biotechnology industry, which had supported the creation of the IAASTD on the understanding that it would promote the industry and trade liberalization as primary vehicles for AKST investment and research. Industry representatives withdrew from the IAASTD when they couldn’t control its content in the writing and comment process to which they had agreed. I suspect that much of the criticism of the report as “anti-science” comes from those who have not read the whole report or from those whose notion of ASKT encompasses a very narrow range of science. For example, in contrast to the conventional call for focusing public investment in yield-increasing technologies, the IAASTD assesses the policy options and investments for post-harvest technologies to ensure that existing production does not spoil. Sometimes “low tech” solutions obviate the need for costly “high tech” science.

Civil Society Organizations issued an April 12th statement in Johannesburg, entitled “A new era of agriculture begins today.” (More comments and articles on the assessment can be found here). Whether or not the optimism of this title is justified will depend on whether and how governments and CSOs interpret and implement the findings of the report. What cannot be denied is that a massive literature review supports the IAASTD conclusion that the 20th century focus on increasing agricultural production, while “externalizing” the social and environment costs of that production, is unsustainable.

The IAASTD literature review is not just “scientific,” in the natural science and laboratory sense of the term, though it includes literature from agronomy, climate science, ecology, epidemiology, hydrology, molecular biology, plant virology, soil science, veterinary science etc. The review includes the economic, legal, political science, sociological and trade policy literature that helps decision-makers decide which ASKT policies to adopt and which investments to make. To dismiss the IAASTD because it concerns policy options and investments – and is not an AKST risk assessment on narrow questions of safety – is to misunderstand the assessment mandate given to the IAASTD authors: assess which AKST policies and investments can contribute to sustainable development and other IAASTD objectives.

If the misunderstanding is genuine, it can be corrected through the kind of discussion employed in the IAASTD comment process. If the misunderstanding is willful, then the terms of battle are set between a peculiar notion of “science” and the range of AKST policy and investment options in the IAASTD.

Steve Suppan

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