Science in Society Archive

The Independent Science Panel (ISP) is a panel of scientists from many disciplines, committed to the
Promotion of Science for the Public Good. Read our statement here

Sustainable World - A Global Initiative

Please support this unique Global Initiative to make our food production system sustainable, to ameliorate climate change and guarantee food security for all

Current food production system due for collapse

World grain yield fell for four successive years from 2000 to 2003, bringing reserves to the lowest in thirty years. The situation has not improved despite a 'bumper' harvest in 2004, which was just enough to satisfy world consumption.

In too many food production regions of the world, conventional farming practices have severely depleted the underground water to the point where rivers and lakes have dried out, topsoil has been eroded away, and wild life decimated. At the same time, world oil production may have passed its peak; oil price hit a record high of US$58 a barrel on 4 April 2005, and is expected to top US$100 within two years. This spells looming disaster for conventional industrial agriculture, which is heavily dependent on both oil and water. The true costs of our current food production system are becoming all too clear (see Box 1).

Box 1

True costs of industrial food production system

  • 1 000 tonnes of water are consumed to produce one tonne of grain
  • 10 energy units are spent for every energy unit of food on our dinner table
  • 1 000 energy units are used for every energy unit of processed food
  • 17% of the total energy use in the United States goes into food production & distribution, accounting for more than 20% of all transport within the country; this excludes energy used in import & export
  • 12.5 energy units are wasted for every energy unit of food transported per thousand air-miles
  • 20% of all greenhouse gases in the world come from current agriculture
  • US$318 billion of taxpayer's money was spent to subsidize agriculture in OECD countries in 2002, while more than 2 billion subsistence farmers in developing countries tried to survive on $2 a day
  • 90% of the agricultural subsidies benefit corporations and big farmers growing food for export; while 500 family farms close down every week in the United States
  • Subsidized surplus food dumped on developing countries creates poverty, hunger and homelessness on a massive scale

Getting our food production sustainable is the most urgent task for humanity; it is also the key to delivering health, ameliorating the worst effects of climate change and saving the planet from destructive exploitation. The benefits of sustainable food production systems are also becoming evident (see Box 2).

Box 2

Some benefits of sustainable food production systems

  • 2- to 10-fold energy saving on switching to low-input/organic agriculture
  • 5 to 15% global fossil fuel emissions offset by sequestration of carbon in organically managed soil
  • 50 to 92% reduction in carbon dioxide emission from the soil on switching from conventional tillage to no-till agriculture
  • 5 tonnes of carbon dioxide emission disappear with every tonne of nitrogen fertilizer phased out
  • 2-3-fold increase in crop yield using compost in Ethiopia, outperforming chemical fertilizers
  • Organic farming performs as well or slightly better than conventional industrial farming in the US
  • Small farms are 2 to 10 times more productive than larger farms
  • Organic farms support significantly more birds, bats, invertebrates and wild plants than conventional farm in Europe
  • Organic foods contain more vitamins, minerals and other micronutrients than conventionally produced foods
  • 1 000 or more community-supported farms across US and Canada bring $36m income per year directly to the farms
  • £50-78m go directly into the pocket of farmers trading in some 200 established local farmers' markets in the UK
  • Buying food in local farmers' market generates twice as much for the local economy than buying food in supermarkets chains
  • Money spent with a local supplier is worth four times as much as money spent with non-local supplier

The Independent Science Panel (ISP) and the Institute of Science in Society (ISIS) are launching this Sustainable World initiative to engage with all sectors of civil society to make our food production system truly sustainable.

We are convening a special ISP group on Sustainable Agriculture (ISP-SA) - currently 18 strong - and a task force of sponsoring organizations and individuals who will make direct input into a comprehensive report on sustainable agriculture at the end of a year. The report will include a series of recommendations for government and inter-governmental agencies on the social, economic and political policy and structural changes needed to implement a sustainable food production system.

ISIS and ISP are in a unique position to draw these previously disparate strands together into a powerful scientific and social consensus. We have scientists in many disciplines working together and some of the scientists are competent across several disciplines. A majority of the scientists are already working with grass-roots organisations and local communities in both the developed and developing countries, or are supporting their activities in other ways.

There will be a series of consultations (by post or e-mail) with our sponsors, and two to three working conferences throughout the year when the report is being drafted, depending on finances available.

A major international conference to launch the final report will take place in 2006. Copies of the report will be sent to all relevant governments and inter-government agencies as the start of a campaign to get the recommendations implemented.


The Independent Science Panel consists of dozens of prominent scientists from around the world concerned over the commercialisation of science and the consequent failure of the scientific establishment to protect the public from the hazards of emerging technologies ( ) . The Panel published its first report, The Case for a GM-Free Sustainable World , in June 2003, documenting scientific evidence of the problems and hazards of GM crops as well as the proven successes and promise of all forms of sustainable agriculture. The report was widely circulated and adopted, and translated into several major languages within a year. It was presented in three successful briefings to government and inter-governmental agencies in 2004, receiving widespread coverage in the popular media.

At the European Parliament briefing in October 2004, ISP delivered its strongest message: invest in sustainable agriculture right now, as there is no other way to really feed the world under global warming . The present initiative is intended to take that message forward.

Partners and Sponsors


Sustainable World Team


Dr. Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher

Recipient of the Right Livelihood Award, representative of the Ethiopian government and African Union in championing the rights of the poorest countries at the FAO Commission on Plant Genetic Resources, and key negotiator of the Cartagena Biosafety Protocol


Dr. Mae-Wan Ho

Director of Institute of Science in Society, Editor/Art Director of Science in Society quarterly, pioneer of the physics of organisms and much published author and researcher across many scientific disciplines

Independent Science Panel - Sustainable Agriculture Group

Current Membership

Prof. Miguel Altieri

University of California, Berkeley, world authority on agroecology; General Coordinator of United Nations Development Programme's Sustainable Agriculture Networking and Extension Programme (SANE); Chair of NGO Committee of the Consultative Group in International Agricultural Research (CGIAR); formerly Technical Advisor of Latin American consortium on Agroecology and Development (CLADEs); author and co-author of many books and papers, much cited.

Prof. David Bellamy OBE

Internationally renowned botanist, environmentalist, broadcaster, author and campaigner; recipient of numerous awards; President and Vice President of many conservation and environmental organizations.

Dr. Elizabeth Bravo V.

Co-founder of Acción Ecológica; part-time lecturer at Universidad Politécnica Salesiana, Ecuador; researcher and campaigner on biodiversity and GMO issues.

Dr. Judy Carman

A Director of the Institute of Health and Environmental Research and Affiliate Senior Lecturer in Department of Public Health, University of Adelaide; was senior epidemiologist in the Communicable Disease Control Branch of South Australian Department of Human Services. B.Sc. Honours Organic Chemistry and Ph. D. Medicine in nutritional biochemistry and metabolic regulation, also Master of Public Health specialising in epidemiology and biostatistics.

Dr. Phil Davies

Director, Institute of Health and Environmental Research Inc., Kensington Park, Australia; application of cell culture technology to breeding wheat, barley, oats, field peas and lentils.

Sue Edwards

Editor of 7-volume Flora of Ethiopia and Eritrea; Director, Institute for Sustainable Development, Ethiopia, responsible for introducing organic composting agricultural practice to Tigray, which has made organic agriculture a major strategy for food security in Ethiopia.

Dr. Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher

Edward Goldsmith

Recipient of the Right Livelihood and numerous other awards, environmentalist, scholar, much published author and Founding Editor of The Ecologist.

Dr. Ingrid Hartman

Soil scientist and resource management researcher, Humboldt University, Humboldt, Germany; member of many important committees and networks, including the United Nations Steering Committee of Nutrition, the African Ecological Economic Society and German-Ethiopian Association for the promotion of cultural exchange, and academic and economic collaborations.

Dr. Mae-Wan Ho

Lim Li Ching

B Sc. Ecology, M.Phil. Development Studies, Researcher in Sustainable Agriculture and Biosafety, Third World Network.

Martin Khor

MA (Econ) University of Cambridge, and Master of Economics (University Science Malaysia); Director of Third World Network; prominent spokesperson and commentator at World Trade Organisation; many books and papers published, and widely quoted.

Dr. Per Kølster

Fuglebjerggaard, Hemmingstrupvej 8, DK-3200, Helsinge

Agronomist and farmer, board member of Practical Ecology, Danish organisation for organic practice with 3 100 members; formerly assistant professor at agricultural university in Denmark, researching and teaching organic agriculture for 15 years

Dr. Eva Novotny

Astronomer and campaigner on GM issues for Scientists' for Global Responsibility.

Prof. Bob Orskov OBE

Head of International Feed Resource Unit, Macaulay Institute, Aberdeen, Scotland, Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Fellow of the Polish Academy of Science.

Dr. Michel Pimbert

Agricultural ecologist and Principal Associate, International Institute for Environment and Development; worked previously with International Crop Research Institute for the Semi Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) in India and World Wide Fund for Nature in Switzerland; consultant and research partner for UN FAO, UN Research Institute for Social Development, UNESCO and World Conservation Union; author and editor of key books on natural resource management, participatory action research, political ecology of biodiversity, rights and culture.

Dr. Peter Rosset

Agricultural ecologist and rural development specialist; former co-Director of the Institute for Food and Development Policy, Oakland, California, USA; written extensively on the agronomic, ecological and economic impacts of agricultural technology; A. B. Hon. From Brown University, M.Sc. Applied entomology, Imperial College, London, and Ph.D. Agricultural Ecology, University of Michigan.

Prof. Peter Saunders

Professor of Applied Mathematics, King's College, London; author of close to 100 papers including several books; researches on modelling complex system, and in particular, problems in global warming and diabetes.

Prof. Oscar B. Zamora

Professor of Agronomy, Department of Agronomy, University of the Philippines Los Banos College of Agriculture, Laguna, The Philippines; served in his government's delegation to the Conference of Parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity and FAO International Technical Conference on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.

Web design and communication

Andy Watton and Julian Haffegee


Sam Burcher, Rhea Gala and Andy Watton


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Article first published 01/01/01

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