Science in Society Archive

Sustainable World Coming

Independent scientists, economists, politicians, and activists met to share knowledge and ideas for sustainable food systems as the industrial model is close to collapse. Rhea Gala reports on the Sustainable World First International Conference

Independent scientists join forces with global civil society

Independent scientists from four continents joined national politicians and many interested individuals and groups to discuss strategies for changing agriculture worldwide to a diversity of locally-based sustainable systems that can provide food sovereignty and security to all and protect the earth from the ravages of global warming. This was the occasion of the Sustainable World Global Initiative's first International Conference, organised by ISIS, which took place 14-15 July, starting in the UK Parliament in Westminster, London, to a near-capacity audience that includes people who have come from Scotland, Wales and Ireland, Belgium, Australia and South Africa.

The need to move away from large-scale high input industrial monocultures has long been accepted by many people as being essential for providing livelihoods to the many millions of small farmers in the South and the relatively few farmers remaining in the North, who are also responsible for conserving our plant and animal genetic diversity that have been decimated by decades of industrial monocultures. There is now an added sense of urgency as the industrial model is showing all the signs of failing under global warming, and water and oil, on which industrial monocultures are heavily dependent are both rapidly depleting.

Policies that promote food export and contravene human rights in the South also exacerbate global warming by adding food miles, or worse, encouraging “food swaps” – shipment of the same food commodities such as milk and meat - across the globe. World cereal yields from conventional industrial agriculture have been decreasing for four years in a row; so it was highly significant that speakers shared their experience of sustainable agriculture systems from around the world, which outperform the industrial model in productivity while restoring autonomy and responsibility to farmers, and result in greater social participation within the local community.

But what policy and structural changes are needed to implement truly sustainable food systems?

The big picture

Dr Mae-Wan Ho, director of ISIS and member of the Independent Science Panel opened the proceedings by introducing the Sustainable World Global Initiative. She berated governments and political leaders for their overwhelming commitment to the prevailing neo-liberal economic model that underlies social inequity, environmental destruction and global warming and emphasised that there is a wealth of existing knowledge that can both provide sufficient food for everyone and ameliorate climate change.

Chairperson Peter Ainsworth MP introduced Alan Simpson MP who declared that irreverence, heresy, and the breaking of rules were necessary to raise awareness in the face of deepening water, energy and food insecurity. He warned that by 2025, 6bn people will suffer water stress, causing ‘water wars'; yet decades of overproduction by agribusiness is a major cause of water depletion.

He advocated the removal of patenting and intellectual property rights and, instead, to reinstate the public ownership of useful technologies that save resources. Woking, an English town with a population of around 100 000, for example, currently controls and produces 135% of its energy from renewable sources. Alan warned strongly against the nuclear option. He said that there are dissenters in all parties who believe in the return and development of diverse and sustainable food production and the right of all countries to meet their own food security needs without external interference. He spoke in favour of localised sustainable systems that are connected and informed internationally.

Sue Edwards apologised for Dr Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher's absence and presented his paper that posed the question ‘What does the word ‘sustainable' mean in the context of food for everyone?' It means that food must be available to the very poorest person now, and into the indefinite future. There is currently both plenty of food that is overeaten by some, and plenty of hunger, even where food is present.

If people were to become the sole inheritors of the Earth, which is threatened by mass extinctions caused by capitalization/commercialization of all our resources, then we shall all be dead, he said. Therefore a more equitable system is urgently needed that is committed to reducing or at least maintaining populations at a sustainable level; and at the same time, the devolution of power back to local communities from which it was usurped. All people need to have the land to grow the food of their choice . Tewolde warned against GM crops that represent a further decrease in diversity and an increase in the privatisation of nature.

Dr Mae-Wan Ho stressed the enormous scope for mitigating global warming by making our food system sustainable, by halting deforestation, replanting forests for agroforestry, and harvesting biogas from agricultural and food wastes that at the same time conserve nutrients for crops and livestock. She presented a model of sustainable development – illustrated by a “dream farm” - that depends on maximizing internal inputs to increase productivity and hence carbon stocks and sinks, which, she believes, should replace the dominant model of infinite, unsustainable growth

She showed how the carrying capacity of a piece of land is far from constant, but depends on the way the land is used. Thus, by maximising internal input to support diverse productive activities, it increases the wealth of the local economy and hence the number of people that can actually be supported .

Michael Meacher MP spoke of the five factors that would force government to change their policies sooner or probably, much later, unless we put informed and relentless pressure on them. The factors are: the dependence of current systems on oil for which demand is exploding; population movement due to water stress because we have squandered and polluted our water; the intensity of climate change that will affect us in many ways, the decrease in biodiversity that undermines our future, and escalating food miles that will cause gridlock.

Meacher advised the promotion of low input mixed organic agriculture that saves ten times the energy of industrial holdings, while factoring in all the external costs of industrially produced food, thus exposing the lie in the UK government's ‘cheap food' policy. The development of a sustainable food policy would inform governments while reminding them of better policies that they pay lip service to but neglect. A new approach to environmental and social accounting would highlight problems of overexploitation of people and nature and offer alternatives that would bring the public on board.

The Common Agricultural Policy

A lively conference dinner was followed by a stimulating discussion about the Common Agricultural Policy led by Caroline Lucas MEP and Martin Khor, Director of the Third World Network. It was generally agreed that the Common Agricultural Policy and the Agreement on Agriculture at the World Trade Organisation have similar effects on family farmers in both North and South, but Martin stressed that in the South, farmers are likely to actually die from losing farming livelihoods, there being no social welfare payments to fall back on .

Dr. Mae-Wan Ho raised the question of why trade when people's livelihoods are not assured? Why produce for export before a country is self-sufficient in food as many Third World countries could be? Isn't this concentration on trade a case of the tail wagging the dog?

There was general agreement to make policies as fair as possible for small farmers in the South while working to curb the powers of transnational agribusiness.

Knowledge-based actions for sustainable food systems

Friday brought a crowded agenda: a host of speakers with interesting experiences to relate.

Peter Bunyard of the Ecologist magazine gave a telling account of how the destruction of the Amazon rainforest affects global weather. The Amazon plays a crucial role in regulating and stabilizing world climate, which is thrown of balance when vast areas of rainforest are cleared to produce soya for animal feed, from which Brazil earns $8bn annually.

The Sahara and Amazon Basins are connected by weather systems that are the inverse of each other and the circulation is recharged by the Amazon, which is now failing, turning it into a carbon source instead of a sink. The oceans are losing the ability to regulate terrestrial temperature, and that too, will affect climate irreversibly. Sustainable forest use, which clears only small areas of forest that can renew themselves over 40 years, also avoids throwing the forest ecosystem out of balance. Can we return to these ways, perhaps by compensating Brazil and other countries such as Argentina for lost revenue, or cancelling their national debt to begin with?

Sue Edwards spoke about sustainable agriculture in Tigray Ethiopia. She and Tewolde have been working with local communities to build their knowledge, confidence and independence, in creating local infrastructures that support food security. They found that compost applied on crops such as faba bean, finger millet, maize, teff, wheat and barley, resulted in an increase in yield over chemically fertilized crops. This occurred from the first season, and also in subsequent seasons when no compost was added, through soil improvements by previous composting. Ponds and gullies were made to conserve water, and grass crops for animal food and thatching proved very successful. This ecological agriculture adds to local sustainability through decreasing or eliminating external inputs particularly fertiliser, and increasing animal, crop and soil biodiversity, water resources, and social and economic equity.

Erkki Lähde, professor of silviculture from Finland showed how an industrial forestry model has proved to be counterproductive for over a century. In this model a forest is clear-cut and a monoculture replanted, with all economic gain coming at the point of clearance. But his research shows that natural forest, with many species in a special “all sizes” distribution, are the most valuable both in biodiversity and economic terms. Sustainable systems all contain many species of many young plants with fewer and fewer older individuals. In the case of trees, standing and fallen dead trees also add to local biodiversity while the living forest continues to evolve. Individual trees are selected for cutting in line with a social model that supports multiple use, more jobs, and which accords with public opinion and mitigates global warming. This model is diametrically opposed to the current dominant model that offers low diversity and the easy technical option of the clear-cut.

Caroline Lucas is concerned that past gains of the EU on environmental issues could easily be lost due to the pressures of an enlarged EU. This includes the sliding away of the EU's sustainable development strategy, and failure to resurrect this strategy at the centre of a new EU agenda. Industry is pushing for less environmental regulation and for voluntary agreements only in the new joining countries .

While the EU was set up to help keep peace in Europe, now it is simply about trade and being the most competitive economy in the world. In the recent referenda on the EU Constitution, people voted against it because they are not served by the EU in meaningful ways, they feel the EU is remote and self-serving. The EU could have seized the moment to put sustainable development as the new big idea, with economic models that protect the environment, regulating multinationals and advocating protective tariffs for poor countries. Europeans would have loved it and other countries would have followed suit.

Hywel Davies MD of Weston A Price Foundation from Switzerland gave an account of the relationship between early coronary artery disease and the lack of nutrient dense food in the western diet. Autopsies on children who died of accidents showed thickening of tissue inside arterial muscle laminae due to multiplication of cells and large deposits of calcium phosphate. These, he said, derived from an excess of vitamin D and other additives present in large quantities in babies' feeding formula and many common foods. They contain supplements to compensate for nutrition removed by food processing, but cause problems that can only be remedied by understanding the importance of natural nutrients to our health and well being. For this reason, we must grow the food that meets these requirements.

David Woodward of the New Economics Foundation described a starting point for addressing the economic inequalities of our current agricultural or other neo-liberal trade systems. It showed how people and the planet can be factored into economics, taking a global view while narrowing the gap between producer and consumer prices. The effects of the new economics aim to increase the sustainability of production while reducing environmental damage.

Jakob von Uexkull president of the World Future Council initiative described how those in power have lost their way, treating people as consumers but not as citizens. In the face of corruption, inertia and cowardice we need an alternative voice to get things changed and implemented in the interests of a sustainable world.

The World Future Council will work closely with national legislators from all over the world to develop step-by-step reforms and legislation to overcome the current “implementation gap”.

Pietro Perrino director of the former Gene Bank of Bari, Italy, one of the worlds largest, described a forced merger with much smaller institutions engaged in genetic modification of crops plants. He told a disturbing tale of how his large germplasm collection is endangered by the merger. He suspects that with the rise of DNA libraries and a research agenda that prioritises GM crops, plant genetic resources that cannot be patented may be an impediment to corporate control; but in any case they are not valued. He asks whether this ‘problem' has ocurred at other genebanks around the world, and who should look after these priceless resources.

Joe Cummins, professor of genetics from Canada said that his country would be the first where farmers legally lose control of their seed. Terminator technology provides the ultimate control of seeds production by multinational corporations. Seed with terminator technology was developed and owned by Monsanto, but that technology (which involved preventing the embryo in the seed from growing) faced worldwide criticism and it was withdrawn by Monsanto. .

Now a new generation of GM crops that are based on control of morphogenesis have spawned a new crop of patents for multinationals, those GM constructions employ toxins including diptheria toxin or even ricin to prevent viable seeds from being formed. The genetic modifications are very likely to persist and spread to crops in the wider environment. Whereas sterile seed guarantees sales to companies; sterile crops have no utility to the farmer, the consumer or the environment.

Dr. Lilian Joensen from Argentina described how corporations in Latin America have coopted ‘sustainable agriculture' using a façade of involvement in social programmes. NGOs have collaborated with them, and propaganda extolling the benefits of free trade have enabled massive destruction of virgin ecosystems and their conversion to soya production. Monsanto's Roundup Ready soya is grown on this land, as well as conventional and certfied organic soya, mainly to feed livestock in Europe and China.

Soya is the main agricultural source of greenhouse gas. In Paraguay, peasants are being killed to clear their land for more soya. Latin American Indgenous and peasant movements are seen as a threat to US corporate interests. Brazilian Amaggi, the world's main soya producer, says that small holdings don't have economic viability and industrial holdings are needed for competition on world markets.

Dr. Julia Wright of the Henry Doubleday Research Association spoke about Cuba's experience when support from the Soviet Bloc collapsed in the 1990s and most of its fossil fuel resources were lost. The resulting non-industrial production promoted self sufficiency, human scale plantations, ecological techniques, and urban rural migration. By 2000 yield had doubled, wages trebled and calories increased by 25%!

A policy of non-foreign land ownership and a non-wasteful culture helped the transition from fossil fuel dependency. Julia explained that if the government had been committed to organic agriculture, the gains especially in food quality would have been much greater.

Ingrid Hartman from Humboldt University, Germany, spoke about the status of soils and their temporal, spatial and social dimensions. She described how little we know about soil because their cycles of development can last from millions of years to only a few months. And that what we destroy in them through pesticide and fertiliser use causes a deficit of services in the present, but especially in the future.

Soils have a cultural and historical significance that contribute to human rights and are vital for our survival, therefore we should protect them and at least do them the service of making compost to aid renewal.

Hannu Hyvönen, a freelance journalist from northern Finland showed a fascinating video illustrating how increasing the fruit species grown in his locality has countered the genetic erosion caused by fifty years of industrial agriculture and promoted a resurgence of zeal and community spirit.

First the old fruit varieties, mostly apple, had to be sought from near and far before they died out, and grafted to a modern variety. Local people then participated in selecting the tastiest ones as they have for centuries, and these were planted from seed in their thousands for future selection. Old varieties of plum and cherry that thrive near the Arctic Circle are also being rediscovered and saved.

Lim Li Ching, researcher for the Third World Network, previously with ISIS, spoke for Elenita Neth Dano who was unable to attend. Lim described a project for conserving agricultural biodiversity through participatory plant breeding in the Philippines. In this scheme schools are conducted within a community near areas of industrial production to reclaim plant varieties with traits suited to local needs and conditions.

This farmer-led initiative has trained over 1 148 farmers, given them control over their crops, restored traditional varieties to the farm, and increased local awareness of environmental issues. Lim also described a very successful biodynamic system in Mindanao that treats the farm as a living organism.

Martin Khor of the Third World Network then congratulated ISIS for bringing the conference to reality against a tide of mainstream thought that gives credence only to more competition. As it is obvious that independent farmers can create and develop as many viable and interesting farming practices as there are independent farms, we must at all times stress the services that these farmers offer to the environment as well as the good food that they produce.

Dr. Mae-Wan Ho closed the conference by thanking everyone and quoting Schwartzenegger, governor of California: “We know the science, we see the threat, and we know that the time for action is now.” Schwartzenegger set tough targets for reducing California's emissions of greenhouse gases to 2000 levels by 2010, to 1990 levels by 2020, and to 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. More than 100 mayors in the United States have also pledged to decrease greenhouse gas emissions, despite President George W. Bush's continued refusal to sign up to the Kyoto Protocol.

All in all, an extremely lively conference with plenty of audience participation. The breaks were invariably buzzing with activity and energy.

Thanks to conference sponsors: Fondation pour une Terre Humaine, Third World Network, Green People, Ecological Society of the Philippines, International Institute for Sustainable Development, Alara Organic, Josephine Sikabonyi, Alan Simpson MP, Michael Meacher MP, Caroline Lucas MEP, Weston A Price Foundation, HDRA organics and the New Economics Foundation. See list of sponsors of the Sustainable World Global Initiative here:

Available conference papers and power points can be viewed at:  

Article first published 08/08/05

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