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April 10, 2008

Global agricultural science and technology assessment meeting held in South Africa

Representatives from countries, civil society and the private sector are meeting this week in Johannesburg, South Africa, to review the findings of the three-year International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD). This global initiative has examined agriculture from all angles, to determine how farming might be done more sustainably in the future.

At the opening plenary of the Apr. 7-12 meeting, Achim Steiner -- executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) -- addressed delegates about the need for new agricultural strategies. UNEP is one of the sponsors of the Johannesburg gathering.

Acknowledging that certain changes might be difficult to embark on, Steiner nonetheless called on delegates to "Draw inspiration from South Africa to do something that no one thought was possible...(take on) the difficult challenge of walking forward together."

IPS environment correspondent Stephen Leahy sat down with Steiner to find out more about the difficulties facing agriculture around the world.

IPS: Why is this the time for agriculture to move in a new direction?

Achim Steiner (AS): Agriculture is increasingly reaching limits in terms of arable land and water availability, reduction in soil fertility and increasing environmental impacts. Modern industrial agriculture considers these impacts as extraneous even though the loss of ecosystem services undermines the very basis of what sustains agriculture. 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.

IPS: How is the IAASTD different in its approach?

AS: Agriculture is among the most diverse forms of human activities; it touches many things. There isn't one simple answer to the big challenge of agriculture in the 21st century. This assessment not only looks at agricultural science and technology, but at the reality of its impacts on the environment and society.

Up 'til now, agriculture has been the domain of professional agriculturalists with a narrow focus on increasing productivity. IAASTD has brought in many other voices to create a broad vision that includes production, social and environmental dimensions.

Food insecurity is not a result of lack of production but of the inadequacy of agricultural capacity to deliver food -- such as trade issues (and) the 40 percent loss of food, post-harvest. This is also something society at large wants: to see a broader vision for agriculture.

IPS: How can we cope with the effects of climate change on food production?

AS: It is critical for agriculture to be able to adapt to climate change. Changes in rainfall, seasonality and ecosystem functioning will have considerable impacts on agriculture, otherwise. Agriculture must factor in the fact that it will have far greater vulnerability. We must invest in climate-informed policies and research that manage these risks downwards and at the same time reduce agriculture's significant emissions of greenhouse gases.

IPS: Will the departure of the biotechnology industry last year from IAASTD discussions affect the outcome here?

AS: It was regrettable and a lost opportunity for that segment of the private sector to engage with society in this important effort. However, their claim that the IAASTD summary reports were unfair to their industry is a fallacy. This is not about biotechnology versus organic agriculture; there no unitary way forward.

The IAASTD is creating a set of sign posts to guide future agriculture research and policy based on the evidence of where we stand today and how we got here. Multiple viewpoints from governments and others will remain a part of this week's discussions and the final report will stand without their participation.


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