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April 15, 2008

IAASTD report pans industrial agriculture

As Africa prepares for its own version of the “green revolution” being championed by US-based foundations, a new UN report paints a gloomy future for industrial farming.

The report, titled The International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development, decries the current tendency to emphasise agricultural research into variety improvement, biotechnology and productivity, saying such research ought to be redirected towards addressing social inequities and environmental problems. It is also apparent that the report recognises that indigenous knowledge has something to offer to agricultural progress.

Most importantly for the development of agriculture in East Africa and elsewhere on the continent, the report cautions against exposing developing countries to unregulated international competition as is about to happen once the European Union and the Africa, Carribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries adopt the Economic Partnership Agreements.

The report says that such competition is likely to have long-term negative effects on food security, poverty alleviation and the environment. The future of farming lies in making agriculture sensitive to the world’s environment, it says.

Prepared by a panel of scientists, the report was released last week during a UN conference in South Africa. The conference was attended by scientists and government representatives from all over the world to discuss the final UN report.

In his address, Achim Steiner, the executive director of Unep said; “Agriculture is not just about putting things in the ground and then harvesting them.” He argued that growth in agriculture has continued to depend largely on increasing use of social and environmental resources, which will determine its future capacity to provide for billions of people.

The report is the culmination of a three-year assessment carried out by several hundred scientists who have been taking stock of the current state of farming in the world. The report has unflattering things to say about large-scale commercial agriculture, which it claims has failed, and calls for a systematic reassessment of past and ongoing agricultural research, with a view to steering it towards addressing hunger, severe social inequities and contradictions as well as environmental problems.

If adopted, it will largely inform the future of global agriculture and could be the death knell of large-scale commercial agriculture. But though there is optimism that it will be formally adopted by UN member states, there are also fears that powerful Western governments might employ muscle to water down its scientific findings and tailor it to suit their interests.

The report challenges the basic tenets of the green revolution, which are based on the use of increasingly aggressive and expensive chemicals that seem to not only threaten the very soils they are supposed to protect but also water resources, the air and even the farmers themselves. To the authors of the report, “the ecological footprint of industrial agriculture is already too large to be ignored.”

Owing to such radical thinking, it has come under criticism by the US, the World Bank, the global genetic engineering industry and other supporters of the green revolution who term it “unbalanced and one-sided.” However, all those criticising the report were involved in the process of selecting the participating scientists and editors of the report.

The latter were selected by a multi-stakeholder bureau comprising industry, governments and international organisations, to guarantee a balanced selection of the scientists. The US is particularly criticised for crying foul allegedly because it was unable to handpick its own spin-doctors.

The import of the report is that it provides an opportunity for the world to debate the need for a fundamental change in the way farming is handled. That the future of agriculture lies in securing biological diversity and in adopting labour-intensive farming that works with nature and the people, not against them.

However, Africa is generally catching up with the rest of the world in embracing chemical-intensive agriculture. The report equates such farming to mining since it extracts as much economic value as possible from each piece of land.

It argues that while such farming may provide short-term gains in production, it is not sustainable and compromises the dwindling agricultural area upon which global future food supply depends. Besides, it fails to fails to offer food security and a healthy, diverse diet to local communities.

The report is also an indictment on what some of the participants at the Johannesburg conference termed the “false promise” of genetic engineering. Without saying so, the report asks all concerned parties to support a real revolution in farming if agriculture is to meet the needs of local communities and the environment, restore the largely degraded land (particularly in Africa) and enable the poor to combat hunger, displacement and depletion of their resources and culture.

The East African

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