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Agriculture & Development

1. What challenges does agriculture face today?

    The Executive Summary of the IAASTD Synthesis Report states:

    A wheat field

    A wheat field
    © Lars Sundström

    This Synthesis Report captures the complexity and diversity of agriculture and AKST [Agricultural Knowledge Science and Technology] across world regions. It is built upon the global and five sub-global reports that provide evidence for the integrated analysis of the main concerns necessary to achieve development and sustainability goals. It is organized in two parts that address the primary animating question: how can AKST be used to reduce hunger and poverty, improve rural livelihoods, and facilitate equitable environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable development? The eight cross-cutting themes include: bioenergy, biotechnology, climate change, human health, NRM [Natural Resource Management], trade and markets, traditional and local knowledge and community-based innovation, and women in agriculture and is organized in two substantive parts. In the first part we identify the current conditions, challenges and options for action that shape AKST, while in the second part we focus on the eight cross-cutting themes.

    The International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) responds to the widespread realization that despite significant scientific and technological achievements in our ability to increase agricultural productivity, we have been less attentive to some of the unintended social and environmental consequences of our achievements. We are now in a good position to reflect on these consequences and to outline various policy options to meet the challenges ahead, perhaps best characterized as the need for food and livelihood security under increasingly constrained environmental conditions from within and outside the realm of agriculture and globalized economic systems.

    This widespread realization is linked directly to the goals of the IAASTD: how Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology (AKST) can be used to reduce hunger and poverty, to improve rural livelihoods and to facilitate equitable environmentally, socially and economically sustainable development. Under the rubric of IAASTD, we recognize the importance of AKST to the multifunctionality of agriculture and the intersection with other local to global concerns, including loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services, climate change and water availability.

    The IAASTD is unique in the history of agricultural science assessments, in that it assesses both formal science and technology (S&T) and local and traditional knowledge, addresses not only production and productivity but the multifunctionality of agriculture, and recognizes that multiple perspectives exist on the role and nature of AKST. For many years, agricultural science focused on delivering component technologies to increase farm-level productivity where the market and institutional arrangements put in place by the state were the primary drivers of the adoption of new technologies. The general model has been to continuously innovate, reduce farm gate prices and externalize costs. This model drove the phenomenal achievements of AKST in industrial countries after World War II and the spread of the Green Revolution beginning in the 1960s. But, given the new challenges we confront today, there is increasing recognition within formal S&T organizations that the current AKST model requires revision. Business as usual is no longer an option. This leads to rethinking the role of AKST in achieving development and sustainability goals; one that seeks more intensive engagement across diverse worldviews and possibly contradictory approaches in ways that can inform and suggest strategies for actions enabling to the multiple functions of agriculture.

    In order to address the diverse needs and interests that shape human life, we need a shared approach to sustainability with local and cross-national collaboration. We cannot escape our predicament by simply continuing to rely on the aggregation of individual choices, to achieve sustainable and equitable collective outcomes. Incentives are needed to influence the choices individuals make. Issues such as poverty and climate change also require collective agreements on concerted action and governance across scales that go beyond an appeal to individual benefit. At the global, regional, national and local levels, decision makers must be acutely conscious of the fact that there are diverse challenges, multiple theoretical frameworks and development models and a wide range of options to meet development and sustainability goals. Our perception of the challenges and the choices we make at this juncture in history will determine how we protect our planet and secure our future.

    Development and sustainability goals should be placed in the context of (i) current social and economic inequities and political uncertainties about war and conflicts; (ii) uncertainties about the ability to sustainably produce and access sufficient food; (iii) uncertainties about the future of world food prices; (iv) changes in the economics of fossil based energy use; (v) the emergence of new competitors for natural resources; (vi) increasing chronic diseases that are partially a consequence of poor nutrition and poor food quality as well as food safety; and (vii) changing environmental conditions and the growing awareness of human responsibility for the maintenance of global ecosystem services (provisioning, regulating, cultural and supporting).

    Today there is a world of asymmetric development, unsustainable natural resource use, and continued rural and urban poverty. Generally the adverse consequences of global changes have the most significant effects on the poorest and most vulnerable, who historically have had limited entitlements and opportunities for growth.

    The pace of formal technology generation and adoption has been highly uneven. Actors within North America and Europe (NAE) and emerging economies who have captured significant economies of scale through formal AKST will continue to dominate agricultural exports and extended value chains. There is an urgent need to diversify and strengthen AKST recognizing differences in agroecologies and social and cultural conditions. The need to retool AKST, to reduce poverty and provide improved livelihoods options for the rural poor, especially landless and peasant communities, urban informal and migrant workers, is a major challenge.

    There is an overarching concern in all regions regarding poverty alleviation and the livelihoods options available to poor people who are faced with intra- and inter-regional inequalities. There is recognition that the mounting crisis in food security is of a different complexity and potentially different magnitude than the one of the 1960s. The ability and willingness of different actors, including those in the state, civil society and private sector, to address fundamental questions of relationships among production, social and environmental systems is affected by contentious political and economic stances.

    The acknowledgement of current challenges and the acceptance of options available for action require a long-term commitment from decision makers that is responsive to the specific needs of a wide range of stakeholders. A recognition that knowledge systems and human ingenuity in science, technology, practice and policy is needed to meet the challenges, opportunities and uncertainties ahead. This recognition will require a shift to nonhierarchical development models.

    The main challenge of AKST is to increase the productivity of agriculture in a sustainable manner. AKST must address the needs of small-scale farms in diverse ecosystems and to create realistic opportunities for their development where the potential for improved area productivity is low and where climate change may have its most adverse consequences. The main challenges for AKST posed by multifunctional agricultural systems include:

    • How to improve social welfare and personal livelihoods in the rural sector and enhance multiplier effects of agriculture?
    • How to empower marginalized stakeholders to sustain the diversity of agriculture and food systems, including their cultural dimensions?
    • How to maintain and enhance environmental and cultural services while increasing sustainable productivity and diversity of food, fiber and biofuel production?
    • How to manage effectively the collaborative generation of knowledge among increasingly heterogeneous contributors and the flow of information among diverse public and private AKST organizational arrangements?
    • How to link the outputs from marginalized, rain fed lands into local, national and global markets?

    Source & ©: IAASTD  Executive Summary of the Synthesis Report (April 2008), p. 4-6

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