The future of agriculture

Over the last two years approximately 400 agriculturalists from around the world have been writing a report on the role of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology (AKST) in sustainable development. This is to be presented at an Intergovernmental Plenary attended by about 90 Governments and other interested parties in Johannesburg in April 2008.

The International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) has been implemented both regionally (6 sub-global reports) and globally. The task and challenge posed by IAASTD was to assess how AKST can be utilized to: 

  • reduce hunger and poverty,
  • improve rural livelihoods,
  • facilitate equitable and environmentally, socially and economically sustainable development.

This list of important outcomes indicates that IAASTD recognizes that the function of agriculture is to achieve better food production in ways that protect and even restore natural resources (soil, water, vegetation cover, biodiversity and climate), while meeting all the social and economic needs of rural communities. Against these ambitious and exacting criteria, modern agriculture does not score very highly. Encouragingly, however, our review of AKST worldwide did identify many examples, mostly implemented on a small-scale, of land use practices that have a variety of positive attributes and do act as pointers to a more sustainable future.

In the global chapter on the impact of AKST on sustainable development over the last 50+ years we examined the scientific literature and made 290 Impact Statements. These statements were analysed by Goal (6 IAASTD goals), Certainty (6 levels), Range of impacts (-5 to 0 to +5), Scale (6 scales) and the Specificity of the impact (e.g. only occurred in arid areas). From this data we identified ten major ‘lessons and challenges’, as follows:

1. The fundamental failure of the economic development policies of recent generations has been reliance on the draw-down of natural capital, rather than on production from the ‘interest’ derived from that capital and on the management of this capital. Hence there is now the urgent challenge of developing and using AKST to reverse the misuse and ensure the judicious use and renewal of water bodies, soils, biodiversity, ecosystem services, fossil fuels and atmospheric quality.

2. AKST research and development has failed to address the ‘yield gap’ between the biological potential of Green Revolution crops and what the poor farmers in developing countries typically manage to produce in the field. The challenge is to find ways to close this yield gap by overcoming the constraints to innovation and by improving land husbandry.

3. Modern public-funded AKST research and development has largely ignored traditional production systems for ‘wild’ resources. It has failed to recognize that a large part of the livelihoods of poor small-scale farmers typically comes from indigenous plants (trees, vegetables/pulses and root crops) and animals. The challenge is to promote the diversification of production systems through the domestication, cultivation, or integrated management of a much wider set of locally-important species for the development of a wide range of marketable natural products.

4.  AKST research and development has failed to fully address the needs of poor people, for the wide range of goods and services that confer health, basic material for a good life, security, community wellbeing and freedom of choice and action.  The challenge is to meet the needs of poor and disadvantaged people – both as producers and consumers, and to re-energize some of the traditional institutions, norms and values of local society that can help to achieve this.

5. Malnutrition and poor human health are still widespread, despite the advances in AKST. Malnutrition arises from an unbalanced diet, either due to food shortages or to over-eating ‘fast-food’. The challenge is to enhance the nutritional quality of both raw foods produced by poor small-scale farmers, and the processed foods bought by urban rich from supermarkets.

6. Intensive farming is frequently promoted and managed unsustainably resulting in the destruction of environmental assets and posing risks to human health, especially in tropical and sub-tropical climates. Many practices involve land clearance, soil erosion, pollution of waterways, inefficient use of water, and are dependent on fossil fuels for the manufacture and use of agrochemicals and machinery. The key challenge is to reverse this by the promotion and application of more sustainable land use management, including those that mitigate climate change.

7. Agricultural governance and AKST institutions alike have focused on producing individual agricultural commodities. They routinely separate out the different production systems that comprise agriculture, such as cereals, forestry, fisheries, livestock, etc, rather than seeking synergies and optimum use of limited resources through technologies promoting Integrated Natural Resources Management. The challenge is to mainstream the range of biological, ecological, landscape/land use planning and sustainable development frameworks and tools that lead to more integrated systems.

8. Agriculture has become very isolated from non-agricultural production-oriented activities in the rural landscape. There are numerous organizational and conceptual ‘disconnects’ between agriculture and the sectors dealing with (i) food processing, (ii) fibre processing, (iii) environmental services, and (iv) trade and marketing and which therefore limit the linkages of agriculture with other drivers of development and sustainability. The challenge for the future is for agriculture to increasingly develop partnerships and institutional reforms to improve connectivity across the sectors.

9. AKST has suffered from poor linkages among its key stakeholders and actors. For example, public agricultural research is usually organizationally and philosophically isolated from forestry/fisheries/environment research and thus does not adequately support the multi-functionality of agriculture. The main challenge facing AKST is to recognize all the livelihood assets (human, financial, social, cultural, physical, natural, informational) available to a household and/or community that are crucial to the multi-functionality of agriculture.

10. The ‘Globalization’ pathway to agricultural development has dominated agricultural R&D, as well as international trade, at the expense of the needs of local communities. The challenge is to scale up the more durable and sustainable aspects of the community-oriented initiatives, so improving the balance between Globalization and Localization.

Roger Leakey is Coordinating lead Author of the Global Report on the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) 


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