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Agriculture & Development
Context - Agriculture is closely linked to many concerns, including biodiversity loss, global
warming and water availability. Despite significant increases in productivity,
malnutrition and poverty still plague many parts of the world.
This International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development
(IAASTD) focuses on how to make better use of
agricultural science, knowledge and technology to reduce hunger and poverty, improve
rural livelihoods, and foster equitable and sustainable development.
Latest update: 15 April 2008
1. What challenges does agriculture face today?
© Lars Sundström
For decades, agricultural science has focused on boosting production
through the development of new technologies. It has achieved enormous
yield gains as well as lower costs for large-scale farming. But this
success has come at a high environmental cost. Furthermore, it has not
solved the social and economic problems of the poor in developing
countries, which have generally benefited the least from this boost in
Today’s world is a place of uneven development,
unsustainable use of natural
resources, worsening impact of
climate change, and continued
poverty and malnutrition. Poor food quality and diets are partly
responsible for the increase of
chronic diseases like
obesity and heart disease.
Agriculture is closely linked to these concerns, including the loss of
biodiversity, global warming and
International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development
focuses on agriculture as the provider of food, nutrition, health,
environmental services, and
economic growth that is both
sustainable and socially
equitable. This assessment
recognizes the diversity of agricultural
ecosystems and of local social and
It is time to fundamentally rethink the role of agricultural
knowledge, science and technology in achieving
equitable development and
sustainability. The focus must turn
to the needs of small farms in diverse
ecosystems and to areas with the
greatest needs. This means improving rural livelihoods, empowering
marginalized stakeholders, sustaining natural resources, enhancing
multiple benefits provided by ecosystems, considering diverse forms of
knowledge, and providing fair market access for farm products.
2. What are the pros and cons of bioenergy?
Bioenergy is heat, electricity,
or transport fuel produced from plant or animal materials. Millions of
people still depend on traditional bioenergy like wood or charcoal for
cooking and heating, which can be
unsustainable and pose health
In many developed countries, the rising costs of
fossil fuels, as well as concerns
about energy security and
climate change, are generating new
interest in other forms of
bioenergy. For example, new liquid
biofuels are made from crops or from agricultural and forestry residues.
However, energy is needed to grow, transport and process bioenergy
crops, causing considerable debate about their net benefit in terms of
greenhouse gas reduction. Another
major concern is that using crop land to produce fuel could raise food
prices, drive small-scale farmers off their land and prolong hunger in
Electricity and heat can also be
obtained from plant residues and animal wastes, either by burning them
directly or by first producing biogas then burning it. These renewable
energy sources usually produce less
greenhouse gas emissions than other
fuels. They can be effective, for instance in places not connected to
the electric grid.
Decision-makers should compare all forms of
bioenergy to other
sustainable energy options and
carefully weigh full social, environmental and economic costs against
realistically achievable benefits. Decisions in this context are heavily
influenced by local conditions.
3. Can biotechnology help meet the growing demand for food?
are already widely used in agriculture
Biotechnologies are techniques
that use living organisms to make or modify a product. Some
conventional biotechnologies are well-accepted, such as
fermentation for bread or alcohol
production. Another example is plant and animal breeding to create
varieties with better characteristics or increased yields.
change the genetic code of living organisms using a technique called
genetic modification. These technologies have been widely adopted in
industrial applications such as
Other applications remain contentious, such as the use of
(GM) crops created by inserting
genes from other organisms. Some GM crops can bring yield gains in some
places and declines in others. Because new techniques are rapidly being
developed, longer-term assessments of environmental and health risks and
benefits tend to lag behind discoveries. This increases speculation and
The possibility of patenting genetic modifications
can attract investment in agricultural research. But it also tends to
concentrate ownership of resources, drive up costs, inhibit independent
research, and undermine local farming practices such as seed-saving that
are especially important in developing countries. It could also mean new
liabilities, for example if a
genetically modified plant spreads
to nearby farms.
Many problems could be solved if
biotechnologies would focus on
local priorities identified through transparent processes involving the
full spectrum of stakeholders.
4. How is climate change threatening agriculture?
Agriculture has contributed to
climate change in many ways, for
instance through the conversion of forests to farmland and the release
of greenhouse gases. Conversely,
climate change now threatens to irreversibly damage natural resources on
which agriculture depends.
The effects of global warming are already visible in much of the
world. In some areas, moderate warming can slightly increase crop
yields. But overall, negative impacts will increasingly dominate. Floods
and droughts become more frequent and severe, which is likely to
seriously affect farm productivity and the livelihoods of rural
communities, and increase the risk of conflicts over land and water.
Also, climate change encourages the
spread of pests and
invasive species and may increase
the geographical range of some diseases.
Some land use management approaches can help mitigate global warming.
These include planting trees, restoring degraded land, conserving
natural habitats, and improving soil and fertility management. Policy
options include financial incentives to grow trees, reduce
deforestation and develop renewable
energy sources. Agriculture and other rural activities must be
integrated in future international policy agreements on
climate change. However, since some
changes in the climate are now inevitable, adaptation measures are also
5. How is food production affecting health?
Although food production has increased in recent decades, many people
remain undernourished, a problem accounting for 15% of
global disease. Many population groups still face protein,
micronutrient and vitamin
deficiency. Meanwhile, obesity and
are increasing across the world because of people eating too much of the
wrong foods. Agricultural research and policies should be devised to
increase dietary diversity, improve food quality, and promote better
food processing, preservation and distribution.
Global trade and growing consumer awareness have increased the need
for proactive food safety systems. Health concerns include the presence
of pesticide residues,
antibiotics, and additives in the
food system, as well as risks related to large-scale livestock farming.
Worldwide, agriculture accounts for at least 170 000 work-related
deaths each year. Accidents with equipment like tractors and harvesters
cause many of these deaths. Other important health hazards for
agriculture workers include noise, transmissible animal diseases, and
exposure to toxic substances such as
Agriculture can contribute to the emergence and spread of infectious
diseases. Therefore, robust surveillance, detection and response
programs are critical across the
6. How can agriculture make better use of natural resources?
resources need to be used sustainably
© Millennium Assessment
Historically, agricultural development was geared towards increasing
productivity and exploiting natural resources, but ignored complex
interactions between agricultural activities, local
ecosystems, and society.
These interactions must be considered to enable
sustainable use of resources like
water, soil, biodiversity and
fossil fuels. Much of the
agricultural knowledge, science and technology needed to resolve today’s
challenges are available and well understood, but putting them into
practice requires creative efforts from all stakeholders.
Existing agricultural science and technology can tackle some of the
underlying causes of declining productivity. But further developments
based on a multidisciplinary approach are needed, starting with more
monitoring of how natural resources are used. Other options for action
include more research into how to use natural resources responsibly and
efforts to foster public awareness of their importance.
7. Why haven’t small farmers benefited more from global trade?
market in Pisar, Peru
© Eva Schuster
Small farmers and rural communities in developing countries have often
not benefited from opportunities that agricultural trade can offer.
Opening farm markets prematurely to international competition can
further weaken the agricultural sector of a developing country, causing
more poverty, hunger and harm to the environment in the long-term.
Trade reforms could make relations more
equitable. Developing countries
would benefit of key changes such as removing trade barriers on products
for which they have a competitive advantage; lowering tariffs on imports
of processed commodities; and improving their access to export markets.
The capacity of developing countries to analyze and negotiate trade
agreements needs to be strengthened to allow better and more transparent
decisions concerning the agricultural sector.
The environmental footprint of agriculture could be reduced by
adapting market and trade policies, for instance by removing detrimental
subsidies, changing taxation
policies, and improving property laws.
8. Can traditional knowldedge contribute to agriculture?
Many effective innovations are generated locally, based on the
knowledge and expertise of indigenous and local communities rather than
on formal scientific research. Traditional farmers embody ways of life
beneficial to the conservation of
biodiversity and to
Local and traditional knowledge has been successfully built into
several areas of agriculture, for example in the domestication of wild
trees, in plant breeding, and in soil and water management. Scientists
should work more closely with local communities and traditional
practices should have a higher profile in science education. Efforts
should be made to archive and evaluate the knowledge of local people and
to protect it under fairer international intellectual property
9. What is the role of women in agriculture and development?
Current trends in globalization and rising environmental and
sustainability concerns are
redefining the relationship of women to agriculture and development.
The proportion of women involved in agricultural activities ranges
from 20% to 70%, a number that is climbing in many developing countries,
especially where agriculture is geared towards export.
Although some progress has been made, women continue to struggle with
low income, limited access to education, credit and land, job
insecurity, and deteriorating work conditions. Growing competition has
fueled demand for cheap, flexible labor, and conflicts over access to
natural resources have added to the pressure. Poor rural households are
increasingly threatened by natural disaster, environmental change and
health and safety risks – this at a time of diminishing government
10. What are the options for action?
© Alicia Jo McMahan
Small-scale farmers would benefit from greater access to knowledge,
technology, and credit, and, critically, from more political power and
better infrastructure. They need laws that secure access to land and
natural resources as well as fair intellectual property rights.
Ensuring food security is not merely a matter of producing enough to
eat: food must also be available to those who need it. Possible policy
actions that can enhance access to food include reducing transaction
costs for small-scale producers, strengthening local markets and
improving food safety and quality. Global systems are needed to watch
out for sudden price changes and extreme weather events that could lead
to food shortages and price-induced hunger.
Agricultural sustainability means
maintaining productivity while protecting the natural resource base.
Possible actions include: improving low impact practices such as
organic agriculture and providing incentives for the
sustainable management of water,
livestock, forests, and fisheries. Science and technology should focus
on ensuring that agriculture not only provides food but also fulfills
environmental, social and economic functions such as mitigating
climate change and preserving
biodiversity. Policy-makers could
end subsidies encouraging
unsustainable practices and provide
incentives for sustainable natural resource management.
Human health can be improved through efforts to diversify diets and
enhance their nutritional value, through advances in technologies for
processing, preserving and distributing food, and through better health
policies and systems.
Food safety can be increased by investing in infrastructure, public
health and veterinary capacity, and by developing legal frameworks for
controlling biological and chemical hazards. Work-related health risks
can be reduced by enforcing health and safety regulations. The spread of
infectious diseases like bird flu can be limited through better
coordination across the food chain.
Achieving greater equity in
agriculture requires investment to bring technology and education to
rural areas. Fair access to land and water is crucial. Stakeholders
should be allowed to influence decisions about use and management of
natural resources, access to land, credit and markets, intellectual
property rights, trade priorities, and protection of the rural
environment. Above all, farmers need to be rewarded for their labor with
just and fair prices for their products.