15.04.2018 |

IAASTD report calling for radical changes in agriculture turns ten

IAASTD co-chairs Judi Wakhungu, Hans Herren and Director Bob Watson in 2008

The way the world grows its food has to change radically to better serve the poor and hungry if we are to cope with a growing population and climate change while avoiding social breakdown and environmental collapse. That was the message of the press release published on April 15th 2008, announcing the adoption of the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD). On behalf of the United Nations and the World Bank, more than 400 scientists had summarised the state of global agriculture, its history and its future in a four-year-process. The outcome was a 600-page global report, five separate regional reports, as well as one synthesis report and seven executive summaries for decision makers which were adopted sentence by sentence by an intergovernmental plenary in Johannesburg on April 11th 2008.

The assessment found that modern agriculture has brought significant increases in food production. But the benefits have been spread unevenly and have come at an increasingly intolerable price, paid by small-scale farmers, workers, rural communities and the environment. “Business as usual will hurt the poor. It will not work,” said Professor Robert Watson, who was Director of the IAASTD. “We have to applaud global increases in food production but not everyone has benefited,” he stressed. “Continuing to focus on production alone will undermine our agricultural capital and leave us with an increasingly degraded and divided planet.” Watson argued that “business as usual would mean more environmental degradation and the earth’s haves and have-nots splitting further apart. It would leave us facing a world nobody would want to inhabit.” The report called for institutional, economic and legal frameworks to be put in place that combine productivity with the protection and conservation of natural resources like soils, water, forests, and biodiversity.

The IAASTD clearly debunked the myth that industrial agriculture is superior to small-scale farming in economic, social and ecological terms and recognised the pivotal role that small-scale farmers play in feeding the world. “Opportunities lie in those small-scale farming systems that have high water, nutrient and energy use efficiencies and conserve natural resources and biodiversity without sacrificing yield,” was one of 22 key findings of the global summary. The report called for more investment in smallholders in order to combat hunger. “Significant pro-poor progress requires creating opportunities for innovation and entrepreneurship, which explicitly target resource poor farmers and rural laborers,” was another finding. “This will require simultaneous investments in infrastructure and facilitating access to markets and trade opportunities, occupational education and extension services, capital, credit, insurance and in natural resources such as land and water.”

The civil society groups that participated in the IAASTD process welcomed the report even though they did not fully agree with some of the government-negotiated conclusions. “A new era of agriculture begins today” was the headline of their statement released on April 15th 2008. The organisations, that included Greenpeace, Pesticide Action Network or Third World Network, described the IAASTD as “a sobering account of the failure of industrial farming” that “calls for a fundamental change in the way we do farming, to better address soaring food prices, hunger, social inequities and environmental disasters.” They said its key message was that small-scale farmers and agro-ecological methods provide the way forward to avert a food crisis and meet the needs of local communities. “We call on all governments, civil society and international institutions to support the findings of this report, implement its progressive conclusions, and thereby jumpstart the revolution in agricultural policies and practices that is urgently needed to attain more equitable and sustainable food and farming systems.”

Ten years have passed since the adoption of the report. When asked about his opinion on its impact, IAASTD Co-chair Hans Herren said in 2016 that the report had been “gaining traction at many different levels”. In an interview for a brochure about the IAASTD, Herren said that one of the messages which had made it to the mainstream of international discussions was “the recognition that present agriculture and food systems are not in line with the need for a sustainable world” and that “agriculture must transform from being a contributor to a solver of problems such as climate change, public health or environmental degradation”. What has been most ignored according to Herren is the need to also radically transform industrial food systems. “It is still assumed that developed countries, with their unsustainable industrial agriculture and food systems have to ‘feed the world’,” he said. “The message that countries need to maximize their own capacity to produce food and protect their own farmers, also addressed as food sovereignty, has yet to be taken into account in the agriculture and food policies of developed countries.” (ab)

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