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Farm differently

Report>>A report riles industrial farming nations and agribusiness

By Archita Bhatta
Published: Tuesday 15 July 2008

-- (Credit: SURYA SEN)A report riles industrial farming nations and agribusiness

The us, Canada and Australia have rejected an International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (iaastd), which believes there should be a shift in practising agriculture, to a 'multifunctional' style that recognizes the ecosystem service values as well as cultural values of agriculture. It suggests small-scale farming and agriculture free of genetic manipulation can be the answer to soaring food prices, hunger, social inequities and environmental disasters. The report was released at an intergovernmental plenary in Johannesburg, South Africa, on April 15 this year.

"The iaastd is unique in the history of agricultural science assessments," says the executive summary, "in that it assesses both formal science and technology and local and traditional knowledge." The release marks the end of a process that began in August 2002, when the World Bank and the Food and Agricultural Organization announced a global consultative process, at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, to determine whether an international assessment of agricultural knowledge, science and technology was needed. A particular stimulation was the state of scientific understanding of biotechnology, specifically transgenics. During 2003, eleven consultations were held, overseen by an international steering committee; in September 2004, the committee recommended the need for such an assessment.

In January, Nature pointed out, "Insiders agree the current draft is decidedly lukewarm about the technology's potential in developing-world agriculture. The summary report, for example, devotes more space to biotechnology's risks than to its benefits". Science is clearer: "Industry scientists and some academics--mainly agricultural economists and plant biologists--believe the assessment was hijacked by participants who oppose genetically modified crops and other tools of industrial agriculture."

"Even reputed science portals like SciDev have said that the report is anti-science. But it is very much a pro-science report. What they cannot stand is that the report asks for better and more targeted s&t," said Rajeswari Raina, senior fellow at the Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research, and one of the authors of the assessment.

The report says that agricultural policy worldwide has emphasised on increasing yields through "improved germplasm, and increased water, agrochemicals and mechanisation" that has had negative consequences on environmental sustainability. Environmental sustainability in agriculture, on the other hand, lay in small farms, since such farms have "high water, nutrient and energy use efficiencies".

The report points out that gm crops are highly controversial and will not play a major role in addressing the challenges of climate change, loss of biodiversity, hunger and poverty. As Raina explains, "usa, Canada and Australia had difficulties agreeing with the conclusion that modern biotechnology is (and promises to be) useful for reducing hunger and poverty and environmental degradation."

Syngenta's walkout
Syngenta walked out of the assessment process, disagreeing over its conclusion on gm crops. "We do not believe that the currentreport adequately reflects the role modern science and technology, and in particular our industry's technologies, have played in supporting agriculture," said Mdard Schoenmaeckers, head of media relations, Syngenta. "Biotechnology, crop protection chemistry, the importance of intellectual property, and the role of the private sector have been treated superficially. Equally missing is a vision of the role of science and technology in the future of all types of agriculture."

"Governments and their corporate friends simply do not like the iaastd's criticism of the dominant industrial farming model, the caution over gmos and its call for a radical change of direction in food and agricultural research. Business has too much to lose," said Michel Pimbert, programme director of the sustainable agriculture, biodiversity and livelihoods programme at the International Institute for Environment and Development (iied). Pimbert said that the iaastd gathered the views of hundreds of scientists, policymakers, and others over three years but it did little to engage directly with farmers and consumers to find out and incorporate their views, a gap the iied hopes to fill.

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