From the Editors
Small Organic Farms are the Way Ahead
Finally a change of heart at the top
The release of International Assessment of Agricultural
Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) on 15
April 2008 took the world by surprise in more ways than one.
There has been remarkably little publicity for
an exercise in which 400 scientists took 4 years to produce this 2 500-page
report. It is a thorough appraisal of global agriculture, on a scale comparable
to the Intergovernment Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). All the more startling
and significant are its conclusions.
The IAASTD calls for a fundamental change in
farming practice to counteract soaring food prices, hunger, social inequities
and environmental disasters. It says genetically modified (GM) crops are highly
controversial and will not play a substantial role in addressing climate change,
loss of biodiversity, hunger and poverty. Instead, small-scale organic farms
are the way forward; with indigenous and local knowledge playing as important
a role as formal science. And the rush to grow crops for biofuels could exacerbate
food shortages and price rises.
The director of IAASTD, Prof. Robert Watson, has been pressing home
these messages in the mainstream media. Watson brought a great deal of experience
to this role. He is chief scientist at the World Bank and independently, at
the UK Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). He
chaired the IPCC from 1997 until he was voted out of the chair in 2002, apparently
because the US government
hoped that his successor would not be as strong an advocate of a change in
global energy policies.
The initiative for IAASTD came from the World Bank in partnership with
international organisations that included the United Nations Food and Agriculture
Organisation, United Nations Environment Programme, United Nations Development
Programme, the World Health Organisation, and representatives of governments,
civil society, private sector and scientific institutions worldwide.
In short, the IAASTD was a major undertaking by mainstream institutions,
not known for radical ideas that would change the world. Even more remarkable,
60 countries have already signed up to the report; and while the UK Government
is not among them, Watson indicated that it has the full support of the Prime
What ISIS has been working for
Regular readers will recognize the conclusions of the IAASTD
in the pages of Science in Society, and will have been just as elated
as we are because of that. (We are also very pleased because one of the co-authors
of IAASTD is Lim Li Ching, who was deputy editor of SiS (2002-2004)
before she moved to Malaysia and joined the Third World Network full time.)
The inescapable conclusions of the IAASTD, inescapable through sheer
weight of evidence, are repeated, even more forcefully in our ISIS-TWN report,
Food Futures Now *Organic *Sustainable
*Fossil Fuel Free, launched in UK Parliament on Earth Day 22 April 2008.
Everyone felt inspired and optimistic, as decades of corporate propaganda
are swept away, and we can finally get down to the urgent task of implementing
sustainable food systems for the world. As the London Daily Mail commented: “For
years, biotech companies have answered critics by insisting genetically modified
crops are essential to bringing down food prices and feeding the world's hungry.
Well, now we know they’re not.”
Food Futures Now goes further. We argue that organic
agriculture is the only way to feed the world, and the most effective
way to mitigate climate change. Organic agriculture
and localised food and energy systems can potentially compensate for all greenhouse
gas emissions due to human activities and free us from fossil fuels.
Business as usual is not an option, and GM crops a bigger
The United Nations has declared 2008 the
year of the food crisis, as grain shortages and sharply rising food prices
led to a string of food riots around the world. The immediate cause of the
food crisis is the huge divestments of corn and other food crops to producing
biofuels as oil prices went through the roof. The outlook for food production
is grim if we carry on business as usual, and considerably worse, if we were
to adopt GM crops.
Climate change is hitting harder and quicker than expected. Temperature
rise and change in rainfall patterns will reduce crop production by up to
16 percent. Glaciers are melting 20 times faster than predicted, and rising
sea levels will put a third of the world’s farmlands in coastal regions under
threat of flooding and salination while much of the rest will be starved of
water as glaciers disappear because rivers fed by glacial melt will dry up.
Weather extremes are increasingly frequent, and can cut crop harvests by a
third or more. Global warming is also changing the ecology of pests and diseases
to which industrial monoculture crops are especially susceptible. Above all,
our industrial agriculture and food system is a major driver of global warming,
heavily dependent on fossil fuels, and more seriously, on fossil water for
irrigation. Aquifers have been pumped dry in most of the main food producing
regions of the world, amid ever diminishing soil fertility and crop yields,
and other chronic failures of the industrial Green Revolution.
The pro-GM lobby has been using the food crisis as to promote GM crops.
A UK government Research Council
was caught supporting a marketing exercise for the biotech industry disguised
as scientific survey ("UK Farmers Upbeat about GM Crops"
Debunked, SiS 38), even as irrefutable evidence against GM crops
has been piling up.
Data compiled by the US Department of Agriculture and studies carried
out in universities consistently show either no yield increases or yield drags
in GM crops. The use of glyphosate herbicide on the
major crops went up more than 15-fold between 1994 (when GM crops were first
introduced) and 2005, and was not compensated by a decrease in other herbicides.
Farmers have found it necessary to apply larger amounts of both glyphosate
and other herbicides to kill weeds that have become resistant to glypohsate.
GM crops have proven more harmful for biodiversity
than conventional industrial agriculture in UK government-funded Farm Scale Evaluations,
despite manipulations in favour of GM crops (Bogus Comparison
in GM Maize Trial, SiS 22). Anecdotal evidence
since 2005 from farmers around the world indicates that GM crops require more
water than their conventional industrial counterpart. In short, GM crops have
all the worst features of industrial Green Revolution varieties exaggerated,
including susceptibility to diseases and climate extremes on account of genetic
uniformity; plus outstanding safety concerns described in many issues of SiS
including this one, and which the IAASTD has recognized.
The turning point is now or never
The turning point is now or never. We
have neither the time nor the resources to squander on GM crops, and they
should be swept off the agenda once and for all.
On the other hand, we do have all the means at our disposal to overhaul
our agriculture and food system to alleviate the food crisis and mitigate
Food Futures Now combines the latest scientific analyses, case studies on farmer-led
research, and farmers’ own experiences and innovations that often confound
academic scientists wedded to outmoded and obsolete theories. And you can
get a hint of how the dominant knowledge system has to be transformed to support
the radical overhaul of the agriculture and food system that the IAASTD calls
Most valuable are the practical know-how, the knowledge
and innovations of local farmers who have succeeded in freeing themselves
from the shackles of Green Revolution agriculture, or rehabilitated their
degraded, arid land into fertile oases. These farmers demonstrate in concrete
ways how, by placing themselves within the symbiotic, circular economy of
nature, they can increase productivity while saving on inputs, and allowing
nature to thrive, increasing the ‘natural capital’ on which all life as much
as industry depends. Particularly inspiring is the story of local farmers
in sub-Saharan Sahel, who have greened the desert by saving and replanting
trees, thereby creating more rain for the regions. It shows how human ingenuity
and appropriate action could work effectively in times of climate change.
Let us take heed and take heart.