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April 27, 2008

Small scale farming is the problem, not the solution; IAASTD report is nonsense

by Rob Lyons

A report published last week by the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) has been cited as evidence that industrialised food production is screwing up the planet and impoverishing much of the world.

Commentators and reporters have leapt upon the report to argue that the answer to the world’s food problems is to have more small-scale production in the developing world and to reject many of the trappings of modern agriculture, including genetically modified (GM) crops. Is this really true? Or is this simply a case of environmental and development campaigners looking to impose their ideas on the Third World.

According to its website, the IAASTD is an ‘intergovernmental process with multi-stakeholder bureau comprised of 30 representatives from government and 30 from civil society’, and it is based on ‘multiple international agency co-sponsorship (FAO, GEF, UNDP, UNEP, UNESCO, World Bank, and WHO)’. Earlier this month, delegates met for a week in Johannesburg to put the finishing touches to the ‘synthesis report’ of the project. And like many international reports these days, it is borderline unintelligible.

For example, consider the following extract from its ‘Statement from Governments’, which opens the executive summary and is reminiscent of the worst verbal mangling: ‘This Assessment is a constructive initiative and important contribution that all governments need to take forward to ensure that agricultural knowledge, science and technology fulfils its potential to meet the development and sustainability goals of the reduction of hunger and poverty, the improvement of rural livelihoods and human health, and facilitating equitable, socially, environmentally and economically sustainable development.’

A more comprehensible summation of the report was provided by IAASTD director, Bob Watson, at the launch in London in mid-April: ‘We tried to assess the implications of agricultural knowledge, science and technology both past, present and future on a series of very critical issues. These issues are hunger and poverty; rural livelihoods; nutrition and human health. The key point is how do we address these issues in a way that is environmentally, socially and economically sustainable?’

Watson is right to point out that our current system of food production is failing to meet the needs of many people. ‘The price of food, in real terms, has gone down’, he said. ‘Even today, many food commodities are comparable to the early 1990s; so what’s the problem? Well, we still have over 800 million people going to bed hungry every night. There have been some successes but if we look at it on a region-by-region basis, there have been uneven results.’ He also noted the ecological downsides to current methods of food production. ‘We have lost some of our environmental sustainability. There have been adverse effects in some parts of the world on soils, water, biodiversity; our agricultural systems have contributed to human-induced climate change and, in turn, human-induced climate change threatens agricultural productivity.’

Greenpeace, which was heavily involved in producing the IAASTD report, was clearly cock-a-hoop at the outcome, declaring that the report ‘recommends small-scale farmers and agro-ecological methods are the way forward if the current food crisis is to be solved and to meet the needs of local communities, declaring indigenous and local knowledge play as important a role as formal science. A significant departure from the destructive chemical-dependent, one-size-fits-all model of industrial agriculture.’

In fact, this kind of response is at odds with reality. The expansion of agricultural productivity has been most dramatic in the developed world, where the full benefits of mechanisation, economies of scale, chemical inputs and greater agricultural education have been experienced by many people. Local knowledge may be useful in tweaking general lessons to particular circumstances, but what is required, surely, is the spread of well-established scientific understanding to the poor, not a celebration of mysticism.

If anything, farmers in the Third World need more agricultural productivity and mechanisation, not less. The productivity of agriculture in the developed world has risen far faster than in the developing world. As one writer notes: ‘The ratio of the productivity of the most advanced capitalist segment of the world’s agriculture to the poorest, which was around 10-to-one before 1940, is now approaching 2,000-to-one! That means that productivity has progressed much more unequally in the area of agriculture and food production than in any other area. Simultaneously this evolution has led to the reduction of the relative prices of food products (in relation to other industrial and service products) to one fifth of what they were 50 years ago.’

Nor is it at all clear that Big Agriculture in the developed world, which has an interest in being able to continue to produce food into the future, is particularly destructive. For example, high agricultural productivity in the developed world has tended to mean low prices, leading to the retirement of land from production altogether – there simply hasn’t been the need to continue growing on it. Big, professional agricultural organisations can afford to think about soil quality and sustainability more than poor farmers who live hand-to-mouth. It is people living on the edge that have to get by, come what may; that may mean planting crops on land with declining fertility, cutting down trees for fuel and myriad other desperate measures just to survive.

In one respect, the IAASTD report is right. A major part of the solution to the world’s food problems will come from raising productivity. It’s just that an emphasis on small-scale, organic agriculture that rejects GM crops is unlikely to achieve that. Notably, the USA and China both refused to support the IAASTD’s summary on biotechnology, saying that they ‘do not believe this entire section is balanced and comprehensive.’ Syngenta, a leading biotech company, walked out on the process altogether. Deborah Keith, a Syngenta worker involved in the process, noted in New Scientist that ‘there was blatant disregard for the benefits of existing technologies, and for technology’s potential to support agriculture’s efforts to meet future crop needs. I think this was in part because the differences between various participants’ perceptions about these technologies, and the scientific facts, were not maintained and highlighted. Sadly, social science seems to have taken the place of scientific analysis.’

On the other hand, even the most basic inputs can make a big difference. In Malawi, after a disastrous corn harvest in 2005, the government started providing subsidies for fertiliser. Combined with better rains, the country’s output increased dramatically, allowing it to become an exporter and greatly reduce its dependence on aid - and all against the advice of major Western donors who have tried to encourage the country to grow cash crops for the world market instead without subsidies. Even if there were no wider reform of agricultural production, a more complete application of the best available technology would at least allow producers to make the most of what they have.

Indeed, a recognition of the failure to invest in agriculture is central to the World Bank’s World Development Report 2008. World Bank president Robert Zoellick noted at the launch of the report that investment in agriculture in the developing world has borne little relation to the importance of the sector, mainly due to the policies of Western donors.

Technical fixes alone will not be enough to really transform the situation of agriculture in the developing world; the various regimes of subsidies and trade barriers, for example, hurt farmers and consumers in the developing world by effectively denying them access to major markets while allowing subsidised crops from the West to undermine local markets. But to reject the best available technology in favour of a romanticised view of farming - one that reflects the prejudices of Western NGOs far more than the interests of poor farmers – is even worse.

*Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

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