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Farming revolution needed to feed the world's hungry

Demand for food is expected to double in the developing world in the next 25-50 years (World Bank)
Demand for food is expected to double in the developing world in the next 25-50 years
World Bank

Soaring world food prices have led to panic buying, rioting and, according to the UN, are threatening to destabilise national governments. The past few weeks have seen civil unrest in West Africa, parts of Asia and the Caribbean, as staple foods become increasingly unaffordable. When it comes to producing enough food for everyone, the warning from the IAASTD's Professor Robert Watson is clear: "Business as usual will not succeed."

The organisation is calling for an urgent, radical reform of agriculture in order to feed the world's 850m hungry people, reduce poverty and improve rural livelihoods. Its landmark report into the state of world farming comes at a time when agriculture has seldom had such a high public profile. Last year the world consumed more food than it produced and the availability of water and arable land declined. With the prospect of an imminent global food crisis, the IAASTD's call for a drastic overhaul of agriculture has already been widely endorsed.

Paradigm shift

The IAASTD brought together over 400 experts, including scientists, governments, NGOs and food producers from all over the world. Its three-year study concluded that while improvements in agricultural technology and practice have increased food production, these gains have been unevenly shared and have resulted in environmental degradation. In order to address these problems, it calls for agriculture to become "multifunctional."

More work is needed to ensure the poorest of the poor benefit from advances in scientific knowledge (IRRI)
More work is needed to ensure the poorest of the poor benefit from advances in scientific knowledge
IRRI

"It means a farmer with his plot of land should not only produce food, but do it in a way that reduces greenhouse gases, that effectively maintains soil quality and maintains water quality," explained Watson, speaking at a press conference in London on the day of the report's global launch.

The authors predict that world demand for food will double in the next 25-50 years, and calls for significant investment in research and technology to develop new, sustainable methods of food production that will benefit the poorest of the poor. It highlights dryland agriculture, fisheries, crop-livestock systems and the impact of climate change as major areas of concern. "We must move in a way that is agro-ecological, that protects the natural resource base," said Watson.

Rising to the challenge

The report, which is backed by the UN, the World Bank and 60 governments, is critical of some first-generation biofuels derived from crops, urging efforts to develop new sources of bioenergy to ease pressure on world food prices. Population growth, poor harvests and rising demand for food and animal feed in industrialising countries have all, according to Watson, compounded the problem.

The authors embrace the importance of both organic agriculture and biotechnology in hunger and poverty alleviation, although neither is considered sufficient in its own right. The controversial science of transgenics may also play a key role - by providing drought-resistant seed, for example - although this is regarded as only part of the answer, with more research needed into the potential health and environmental risks.

The IAASTD report highlights the importance of more scientific research to combat world hunger (WRENmedia)
The IAASTD report highlights the importance of more scientific research to combat world hunger
WRENmedia

The report advocates international trade reform, to ensure poor producers share the benefits of freer agricultural markets. Access to credit for small producers, improvements in extension services and the empowerment of women are also highlighted as areas for immediate action.

The report calls for more participatory research involving smallscale farmers and scientific institutions, more public and private sector investment and an increase in regional and global co-operation. "The world, and our future, is in our hands, collectively," said Watson.

Call-to-arms

At the Kenya launch of the report in Nairobi, one of the authors - Dr Washington Ochola - was keen to stress its importance to smallscale farmers in Africa: "To Africans it means an awakening call to reengineer our policies and our rural development programmes, without forgetting farmers, without forgetting key players in the private sector, without also forgetting the issue of participatory technology development."

Although three of the world's largest producers - the USA, Australia and Canada - have not endorsed the report, and the UK is deliberating the findings, the IAASTD has placed agriculture and the role of smallscale producers firmly at the heart of development efforts. It is now up to the international community to rise to the challenges ahead.

Date published: May 2008

 

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The New Agriculturist is a WRENmedia production.

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