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April 15, 2008

IAASTD director Robert Watson speaks

Over the past few years, Robert Watson has had what must qualify as one of the world's tougher assignments: heading an initiative to help agriculture cope with the substantial challenges it faces presently, and the even bigger hurdles ahead.

The three-year International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) has sought to evaluate agricultural knowledge across the spectrum, with the help of governments, civil society, the private sector, and hundreds of experts.

Watson initiated the project while chief scientist at the World Bank; he currently serves as director of the IAASTD -- also as chief scientist at the British environment and agriculture department.

The findings of the assessment are being formally presented Tuesday, this after they were reviewed at an intergovernmental plenary held in Johannesburg, South Africa, from Apr. 7-12. IPS environment correspondent Stephen Leahy chatted to Watson at this meeting about the landmark IAASTD.

IPS: What is the significance of the IAASTD findings for global food security?

Robert Watson (RW): The significance of the IAASTD is that for the first time governments from the developed and developing countries, civil society, scientific authors from natural and social sciences all worked together to address the critical issue of how to get affordable and nutritious food in way that is environmentally and socially sustainable.

IPS: The IAASTD clearly states that business as usual in agriculture is not an option. Why is this the case?

RW: The IAASTD builds on the findings from two previous assessments. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment found that 15 of the planet's 24 natural ecosystems are in trouble or in decline, in large measure due to degradation of land and water -- mainly because of agriculture. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that agriculture is a major contributor to human-induced climate change, and climate change will have a major impact on agricultural productivity.

If we only focus on boosting food production it will only come at the expense of further environmental degradation.

IPS: What do IAASTD findings say about the current food prices, which are at record highs?

RW: There are many factors involved in food prices -- climate variability resulting in declines in harvests in some areas, higher energy costs, biofuel production and speculation on the futures market. Now is the time to ask: how can we increase food production, keep food affordable and ensure farmers can make a decent living? The IAASTD is our best attempt to answer that important question.

IPS: You led the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change initiative and Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. How is the IAASTD different to these assessments?

RW: It was absolutely critical to bring together an understanding of the natural sciences with an understanding of institutions, human behaviour and policies. Most previous assessments have failed to grasp the importance of social sciences. While they might capture the economic perspective they don't capture the other non-economic, social science knowledge.

It is not enough to look at the science and technology of how to grow more food without looking at its impacts on natural ecosystems and on social systems.

IPS: Does IAASTD call for the end of large-scale monocultures?

RW: If monocultures can be modified so they are environmentally and socially sustainable, then they're OK. You can't undermine agriculture's natural resource basis -- the soil, water, biodiversity and so on -- because eventually it will collapse.

IPS: Why was there so little debate about climate change during the intergovernmental plenary?

RW: Climate change is well recognised now as a serious environmental, development, human health and security problem. It is no longer a controversial issue. The challenge for us now is how to maintain and increase agricultural productivity while reducing the environmental footprint, emissions of greenhouse gases and fossil fuel use in the agricultural sector. At the same time we have to adapt agriculture to the changing climate. The IAASTD findings point the way in terms of the kinds of knowledge, science and technology we need to change agricultural practices to cope with this reality.

IPS: You've called the IAASTD a "unique social experiment". What do you mean by that?

RW: All key sectors of society were involved: governments, civil society, industry, farmers, academics, and major international organisations like the World Bank and FAO (United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation). If everyone is affected by the issues of food, environmental and social sustainability, then everyone should be at the table to bring their knowledge and experience to help solve our common problem.

Given the diversity of viewpoints, it was an incredibly difficult and complex process. However I strongly believe this process is the way for the future and can be applied in any context, be it local, regional, national or international.

I can't think of a single important issue today that doesn't involve multiple sectors.


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