The future of global agriculture is at stake here at the United Nations meeting in Johannesburg this week. Hundreds of scientists, working with the World Bank, the Food and Agriculture Organization and all other relevant UN agencies have spent three years reviewing global agricultural policies and the environment. The results of their work come down to what governments decide in the next three days.
Their International Assessment of Agricultural Science for Technology and Development is an indictment against the dominant industrial model of agriculture. It points to a future which provides more support to community-based, small-scale and organic farming. If government delegates from around the world agree to adopt their recommendations this week, it will pave the way for a generational change in the ways governments and agencies fund, support and promote agriculture. Canada must be a leader promoting this sustainable farming future.
It will be difficult for any government to ignore the findings of the report once it is adopted. The collective credentials of the report’s authors are unassailable. The decisions made by this UN body will have global impact. That is why the lobbyists of the agribusiness sector are fighting to ensure that the Agriculture Assessment is either watered down or scuttled. The bottom line of companies like Monsanto and Cargill depends on agricultural practices that strip mine the soil of its nutrients and condemn much of the world’s farming population to debt, dislocation and poverty. Too many times in recent years, Canadians have been embarrassed as our government dragged its feet at international environmental meetings on topics ranging from climate change to ocean bottom trawling. This week in Johannesburg, Canada has an opportunity to erase its embarrassing string of performances on the international stage by adopting the report.
For forty years, agriculture policies and development programs of many countries have promoted seed varieties heavily dependant on industrial pesticides and fertilizers. The Agriculture Assessment has concluded that these policies were short sighted. Although increasing short term yields in some countries, this so-called ‘Green Revolution’ has led to the degradation of soil and water resources, driven hundreds of millions of farmers off their land, and dramatically increased inequality both within and between nations. Trade agreements like NAFTA and the WTO force farmers into unregulated competition and export dependence, with disastrous impacts on the environment, food security and poverty. High technology solutions have failed farmers. The world does not need a new genetically modified potato; it needs new model for ecological global agriculture.
The good news according to the report is that farmers already have lots of experience practicing sustainable agriculture. Thousands of sustainable farming based communities are living proof that the world can be fed with organic agriculture. The report authors argued that more research and funding needs to be directed into organic and small scale farming. Here in Canada, although organic farming is the fastest growing food sector, it receives only a tiny fraction of the hundreds of millions of dollars of subsidies granted to genetic engineering and industrial agrifuels. Governments play an important role in influencing what farmers plant and how it is grown.
Farming policies can also benefit from a greater appreciation of the great stock of indigenous and local agricultural knowledge. For too long, biotechnology companies have headed to the centres where agriculture originated in Africa, Asia and Latin America, exploited these regions biodiversity and patented their proceeds. Governments and development agencies need to accept traditional forms of knowledge as legitimate rather than rely exclusively on university-based, academic research. Listening to farmers’ voices can be the first step to solving the important ecological and social challenges we face in the coming decades.
A new model of funding agriculture is also needed. At present, farmers are only compensated for the marketable commodities they produce. We need to recognize the wide range of ecological resources of which farmers are responsible stewards. Agricultural ecosystems support habitat for a wide range of species beyond those few which are sold at harvest. Even the air Canadians breathe is affected. While industrial agriculture in Canada currently emits over 70 million tons of greenhouse gases annually, new policies could see our farms become net carbon sinks. If, as the report suggests, farmers are remunerated for the multiplicity of valuable services they provide for the environment and for their communities, farming could become sustainable ecologically and economically.
The time has come for the world to choose between the failed path of industrial agriculture and an agri-ecological future. The Earth’s soils can no longer support being a dumping ground for millions of tons of artificial fertilisers and pesticides. Farmers are disillusioned by the costly and dangerous false promises of genetic engineering. The Agriculture Assessment has provided us with a blueprint for a way forward. In Johannesburg this week, we count on Canada to support the United Nations call for a truly green revolution in agriculture.
The draft reports of the UN Agriculture Assessment are online available at www.agassessment.org.
See the OPED in LE Devoir on the IAASTD at: http://www.ledevoir.com/2008/04/08/184018.html