Lim Li Ching, lead author of the IAASTD's East and South Asia and the Pacific report, is a Senior Fellow at the Oakland Institute and works with the biosafety programme at Third World Network (TWN), an international NGO based in Malaysia.
An independent and multi-stakeholder international assessment of agriculture has concluded that a radical change is needed in agriculture policy and practice, in order to address hunger and poverty, social inequities and environmental sustainability questions.
The final report of the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology (IAASTD) was launched simultaneously on 15 April 2008 in Washington, London, Nairobi, Delhi, Paris and a number of other cities worldwide.
The report (the product of work of over 400 authors) was finalized at a meeting of over 50 governments held in Johannesburg 7-12 April 2008.
"Business as usual is not an option", said Professor Robert Watson, Director of the IAASTD and chief scientist of the UK's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Watson was formerly the chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The methodology of the IAASTD's work and process is similar to that of the IPCC.
The report's message is that the business-as-usual scenario of industrial farming, input and energy intensiveness, and marginalization of small-scale farmers, is no longer tenable. While past emphasis on production and yields had brought some benefits, this was at the expense of the environment and social equity. Moreover, there is a recognition that excessive and rapid trade liberalization can have negative consequences for food security, poverty alleviation and the environment.
The IAASTD report calls for a systematic redirection of investment, funding, research and policy focus towards the needs of small-farmers. This involves creating space for diverse voices and perspectives, particularly those who have been marginalized in the past, including poor farmers and women. The IAASTD report says that greater emphasis is needed on safeguarding natural resources and agro-ecological practices, as well as on tapping the wide range of traditional knowledge held by local communities and farmers, which can work in partnership with formal science and technology. Sustainable agriculture that is biodiversity based, including agro-ecology and organic farming, is beneficial to poor farmers, and needs to be supported by the appropriate policy and regulatory frameworks.
Over three years, from 2005-2007, the IAASTD had conducted an evidence-based assessment on the potential of agricultural knowledge, science and technology (AKST) for reducing hunger and poverty, improving rural livelihoods, and working towards environmentally, socially and economically sustainable development. It aims to drive the agenda for agriculture for the next fifty years.
The IAASTD was launched as an intergovernmental process, with a multi-stakeholder Bureau, under the co-sponsorship of the FAO, GEF, UNDP, UNEP, UNESCO, the World Bank and WHO. In a comprehensive and rigorous process, more than 400 authors were involved in drafting the report, drawing on the evidence and assessments of thousands of experts worldwide.
The drafts were subjected to two independent peer reviews. The experts for the assessment included persons from the research community, international agencies, NGOs and industry, though representatives from industry decided not to stay with the process.
The process itself was a path-breaking one, in which governments, research institutions, industry and civil society shared equal responsibility in its governance and implementation. The success of this experiment supports the value of civil society participation as full partners in intergovernmental processes and future international assessments.
The IAASTD held its intergovernmental plenary meeting from 7-12 April in Johannesburg, South Africa to discuss and finalize the global and five sub-global assessments, and the Synthesis Report that integrates their findings.
The Synthesis Report also focuses on eight cross-cutting issues - bioenergy, biotechnology, climate change, human health, natural resource management, traditional knowledge and community based innovation, trade and markets and women in agriculture.
Fifty-four governments accepted and approved the various components of the report at the meeting. However, by the end of the meeting, Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States had yet to sign on to the final report.
While there are indications that some of these governments may eventually formally accept and approve the documents, the United States remains the key government that is unlikely to do so, claiming that the report is "unbalanced", particularly with regard to its analysis and proposals for trade and biotechnology issues.
The agrochemicals and biotechnology industry, which had earlier been a full participant in the IAASTD process, withdrew from the process before the final plenary meeting with similar claims. It claimed that industry perspectives, particularly its view that genetically modified (GM) crops are key to reducing poverty and hunger, were not adequately reflected in the report.
The report's lack of specific support for GM crops was based on a rigorous and peer-reviewed analysis of the empirical evidence. After consideration of the evidence on both sides of the debate, the report is notably muted in relation to the claimed benefits of GM crops, highlighting instead the lingering doubts and uncertainties surrounding them.
For poor farmers, the report concludes, GM crops are unlikely to play a substantial role in addressing their needs. In any case, longer-term assessments of the environmental and health risks, and regulatory frameworks, are needed.
Another key concern highlighted in relation to GM crops is the dominance of the biotechnology industry in agricultural R&D, at the expense of other agricultural sciences. Furthermore, the report notes that farmers face new liabilities from GM crops, particularly as a result of the detection of GM crops in conventional and organic crops that leads to patent infringement suits and loss of certification, respectively.
During the Johannesburg meeting, there were heated and protracted discussions on GM crops. However, the United States pre-empted debate on the biotechnology section of the Synthesis Report, by asking that its reservation against the whole section be noted. It said it did so because the section was "unbalanced". China then asked to be included in the reservation. No other country objected to this section.
Other key findings of the IAASTD report acknowledge that market forces alone cannot deliver food security to the poor. It particularly reiterates that developing countries are accorded special and differential treatment in agricultural trade, especially on the grounds of food security, farmers' livelihoods and rural development.
While hinting that trade rules unfairly favoring rich countries and multinational corporations must be reformed in order to benefit poor farmers, the report however falls short of providing specific guidance that speaks to the current WTO negotiations on agriculture.
Even though the trade policy options could have been stronger, the United States and Canada still placed their reservations on the section of the Synthesis Report dealing with trade and markets, essentially objecting to language that spelt out the negative effects of agricultural liberalization.
The report also recognizes that there are weaknesses and inequities in the current intellectual property rights regime, in relation to genetic resources. Strong intellectual property protection on genetic resources has affected public research and farmers' rights to seeds. However, the report did not call for a reform of the intellectual property rights regime, following objections from the United States. Nonetheless, some policy options to address the issue are retained in the report.
While recognizing the urgent need to address climate change, for which agriculture is a significant contributor of greenhouse gases, the IAASTD report also cautions governments on biofuels. This is because the diversion of agricultural crops to fuel can raise food prices and reduce the ability to alleviate hunger throughout the world.
At the end of the plenary meeting, following the acceptance and adoption of the various components that made up the IAASTD report, co-chair Judi Wakhungu reminded all participants that "now we are walking in the same direction".
Nonetheless, while the report provides the policy options that could really make a difference, the challenges ahead are formidable and need the concerted effort of governments, civil society and the co-sponsoring agencies of the IAASTD, in particular the FAO, the World Bank, UNDP and UNEP.
Civil society organizations attending the meeting called on all governments, civil society and international institutions to support the findings of the report, implement its progressive conclusions, and thereby jump start the revolution in agricultural policies and practices that is urgently needed to attain more equitable and sustainable food and farming systems in the future.
This article was first published in the Third World Network's South-North Development Monitor (SUNS) #6457, Thursday 17 April 2008. TWN is involved in efforts to bring about a greater articulation of the needs and rights of peoples in developing countries; a fair distribution of world resources; and forms of development which are ecologically sustainable and fulfill human needs.