From April 7-12, 2008, nothing less but the future of agriculture was up for debate. Governments and scientists from around the world gathered in Johannesburg to debate the final report of the United Nations' International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD).
Adopted by more than 60 countries, the historic final report calls for a fundamental change in the way we do farming, to better address soaring food prices, hunger, social inequities and environmental disasters. The only three countries present who refused to endorse the report were Australia, the US and Canada.
IAASTD is an ambitious, four-year, US$10-million project that aims to do for hunger and poverty what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has done for the challenge of global warming. Its final report acknowledges that genetically engineered (GE) crops are highly controversial and will not play a substantial role in addressing the key problems of climate change, biodiversity loss, hunger and poverty.
Several hundred scientists worked for three years to take stock of the current state of farming, globally. All relevant UN institutions were involved in the project and the final report reflects the best scientific thinking on the subject. It is hard to imagine that any national or international institution will ignore its major findings in future decisions on agricultural research and development.
The US, Canada and Australia, have criticised the report as unbalanced and one-sided and the genetic engineering industry even walked out on the process. But their allegation of an unbalanced assessment is untenable. They themselves were involved in the selection of all the scientists and editors of the report - together with a multi-stakeholder bureau comprising industry, governments and international organisations. The Australian Government had full input into the report and could add any objections that it had to the text in footnotes.
For decades, the science and politics of agriculture has been dominated by an agriculture based on high chemical inputs, that treats soil, water, air and farmers as expendable resources. It is indeed a revolution that the global scientific community concludes, in the Summary for Decision Makers of the report, that “the ecological footprint of industrial agriculture is already too large to be ignored”.
The strength of the IAASTD is the fact that all stakeholders were involved in the process and thus a balanced selection of scientists was guaranteed. The jury was fairly picked and came back with a clear vote for a fundamental change in the way we do farming.
The agriculture of the future is one that works with nature and the people - not against them. Millions of farms on all continents already prove that ecological and sustainable agriculture can provide sufficient food, increase food security, replenish natural resources and provide a better livelihood for farmers and local communities.
Today’s chemical-intensive agriculture is more like mining than farming. While it may provide short-term gains in production, it is not sustainable in the long term and compromises the dwindling agricultural area upon which our future food supply depends. It also fails to meet the needs of local communities for livelihoods, food security and a healthy, diverse diet.
The IAASTD report calls for a systematic redirection of agricultural research, to better address hunger, severe social inequities and environmental problems. It will now become a key reference point for the future of agriculture and impact UN and World Bank projects around the world.
By not endorsing the IAASTD report Australia has shown itself to be out of step with the rest of the world. While other nations all over the world are rejecting GE crops and moving towards more sustainable agriculture techniques, Australia is moving in the opposite direction.
For the first time, Australia now faces the introduction of GE food crops into its fields and food chain, with the states of New South Wales and Victoria’s recent approval of GE canola.
One of the reasons Australia refused to endorse the IAASTD report is that it highlights the need for more research into the risks associated with GE crops. The IAASTD report also recommends that governments should recognise consumer preference with respect to GE crops; recognise and protect farmers’ seed rights; and ensure that no cross-contamination takes place.
To fully exploit the potential of sustainable agriculture, a sea-change in research priorities is needed. From now on, the majority of investment in agricultural research and knowledge dissemination - nationally as well as internationally - must be focused on sustainable farming systems. This means diverting funding away from GE crops and industrial farming towards more sustainable farming techniques.
Jan van Aken attended the United Nations’ International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) in Johannesburg from April 7-12.