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DEVELOPMENT: Towards a New and Improved Green Revolution

Stephen Leahy

JOHANNESBURG, Apr 6 2008 (IPS) - As food prices soar and hundreds of millions go hungry, experts from around the world will this week present a new approach for ensuring food security, at the intergovernmental plenary for the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD). The Apr. 7-12 conference is taking place in South Africa&#39s commercial hub, Johannesburg, and will be attended by representatives of an estimated 60 governments.

Rice ready for harvest. Credit: Amantha Perera/IRIN

Rice ready for harvest. Credit: Amantha Perera/IRIN

In the past year the price of corn has risen by 31 percent, soybeans by 87 percent and wheat by 130 percent. Global grain stores are currently at their lowest levels ever, with reserves of just 40 days left in the silos. Meanwhile, food production must double in the next 25 to 50 years to feed the additional three billion people expected on the planet by 2050.

"The question of how to feed the world could hardly be more urgent," said Robert Watson, director of the IAASTD and chief scientist at the British environment and agriculture department.

The findings of the three-year IAASTD indicate that modern agriculture will have to change radically from the dominant corporate model if the world is to avoid social breakdown and environmental collapse, he explained. "Agriculture has a footprint on all of the big environmental issues…climate change, biodiversity, land degradation, water quality, etc."

The IAASTD brought together more than 400 scientists who examined all current knowledge about agricultural practices and science to find ways to double food production in the next 25 to 50 years and do so sustainably, while helping to lift the poor out of poverty. They concluded that the way to meet these challenges is through combining local and traditional know-how with formal knowledge.

The effort produced five regional assessments and a synthesis report, as well as an executive summary for decision makers.

Representatives from 30 governments of developed and developing countries, the biotechnology and pesticide industry and a wide range of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), including Greenpeace and Oxfam, were involved. Public sessions were also held to gather input from producer and consumer groups, as well as others within the private sector.

However, last year the two biggest biotech and pesticide companies, Syngenta and BASF, along with their industry association – Crop Life International – abandoned the assessment process. This was on the grounds that the final draft of the synthesis report was overly cautious about the potential risks of genetically modified crops, and sceptical of the benefits.

"It&#39s unfortunate that they backed out…I don&#39t think they are used to working with a wide variety of participants as equals," said Josh Brandon, an agriculture campaigner with the Canadian branch of Greenpeace. He had high praise for the scientists involved in IAASTD – and for the attention given to problems presented by biotechnology and the Green Revolution, such as the patenting of seeds, genetic contamination, and air and water pollution by pesticides.

The term "Green Revolution" was coined in 1968 by William Gaud – then administrator of the United States Agency for International Development – in reference to the increased agricultural yields that were experienced in Asia and Latin America from the late 1960s through greater use of fertilizers and better crop varieties, amongst others.

However Robert Paarlberg, a political scientist and agriculture policy expert at Harvard University, in the United States, also has concerns about the way in which the IAASTD tackles biotechnology.

He is particularly critical of the assessment for sub-Saharan Africa, saying it reads as if written by activists "who believe that the Green Revolution was a tragedy not a triumph of lifting hundreds of millions out of hunger and poverty in Asia."

Paarlberg, who did not participate in the IAASTD, recently published a book titled &#39Starved for Science: How Biotechnology Is Being Kept Out of Africa&#39. In it, he argues that poverty and hunger in Africa are largely a result of agriculture there not having been improved by science, including modern biotechnology.

But Harriet Friedman, a sociologist at the University of Toronto in Canada and one of the editors of the assessment documents, counters that the IAASTD is based on scientific findings, not opinion: "The biotech industry and its supporters have a very narrow view of agricultural science."

The assessment places the focus on improving sustainable agriculture and small-scale production, which is receiving little investment for research. Paarlberg said that U.S. funding for agricultural research in Africa had dropped substantially in the past years, as had financing from the World Bank.

The bank is a major sponsor of the IAASTD along with a number of United Nations agencies.

In addition to analysing how the world can be fed, the assessment focuses on supporting poorer communities with agricultural science and technology, noted Cathy Holtslander, a project organiser for the Beyond Factory Farming Coalition, an animal protection NGO in Canada.

The final synthesis document, to be presented at the end of this week, is intended to act as a blueprint for governments about the future direction of agriculture.

"It&#39s not necessary that the assessment&#39s findings are accepted by all governments," said Friedman. "This about a sea change in public consciousness."

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