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April 15, 2008

Modern agriculture highly productive but at high cost: IAASTD

Despite being highly productive, modern agricultural practices have exhausted land and water resources, squelched diversity and left poor people vulnerable to high food prices, according to a United Nations scientific report.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) says that the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) report is the result of three years of cooperation between nearly 400 scientists, the governments of developed and developing countries, and representatives of civil society and the private sector.

The report recommends that agricultural science place greater emphasis on safeguarding natural resources and on ‘agro-ecological’ practices, including the use of natural fertilizers, traditional seeds and intensified natural practices, and reducing the distance between production and the consumer.

The report states, “Business as usual is no longer an option” as global grain stores are today at their lowest level on record and prices of staple foods such as rice, maize and wheat are expected to continue to rise because of increased use of crops such as maize and soybeans for biofuels.

The need for action is urgent, the report says, because many poor people are now reliant on the global food market, where soybean and wheat prices have increased by 87% and 130% in the last year.

The report comes at the time when food riots are becoming a regular global events, and the organisations such as the World Bank, The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Food Programme have issued warnings about rising food costs as crops are diverted to biofuel production.

"Agriculture is not just about putting things in the ground and then harvesting them... it is increasingly about the social and environmental variables that will in large part determine the future capacity of agriculture to provide for eight or nine billion people in a manner that is sustainable," said UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner during his opening address at the conference.

"If our modern agricultural systems continue to focus only on maximising production at the lowest cost, agriculture will face a major crisis in 20 to 30 years time. There is a collective ignorance about how agriculture interacts with natural systems and this must change," warns Steiner.

The IAASTD report warns that Africa is particularly at risk from climate change and is likely in the coming years to suffer the negative consequences of limited water resources. Already nearly half of its renewable water resources are below the minimum level necessary for development.

The report was presented for approval to the plenary session of the IAASTD intergovernmental panel in Johannesburg last week, where host country South Africa was criticised for failing to send representatives to the event.

While the Department of Agriculture explained that the invitation had come too late, some local delegates believe that they may have been one of various countries to snub the event over lack of support for genetically modified crops (GMOs).

Last year various biotechnology companies and industry association Crop Life International withdrew from the assessment process on the grounds that the report was sceptical of the benefits and particularly cautious about the potential risks of genetically modified crops.

The report will be officially launched simultaneously in several cities, including Washington D.C., London and Nairobi on 15 April 2008.

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