Stay tuned for the release of the report of the Un Agriculture Assessment Tuesday morning.  The culmination of 6 years of research, involving 60 countries, 400 scientists and dozens of civil society organizations.  In the meantime, the African Energy News reports that regarding biofuels, it can no longer be "business as usual."

UN biofuel warning, call for return to traditional farming

Date: Sun 13 April 2008 Category: Biofuels

Despite being highly productive, modern agricultural practices have exhausted land and water resources, squelched diversity and left poor people vulnerable to high food prices, according to a United Nations scientific report.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) says that the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) report is the result of three years of cooperation between nearly 400 scientists, the governments of developed and developing countries, and representatives of civil society and the private sector.

The report recommends that agricultural science place greater emphasis on safeguarding natural resources and on ‘agro-ecological’ practices, including the use of natural fertilizers, traditional seeds and intensified natural practices, and reducing the distance between production and the consumer.

The report states, “Business as usual is no longer an option” as global grain stores are today at their lowest level on record and prices of staple foods such as rice, maize and wheat are expected to continue to rise because of increased use of crops such as maize and soybeans for biofuels.

The need for action is urgent, the report says, because many poor people are now reliant on the global food market, where soybean and wheat prices have increased by 87% and 130% in the last year.

The report comes at the time when food riots are becoming a regular global events, and the organisations such as the World Bank, The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Food Programme have issued warnings about rising food costs as crops are diverted to biofuel production.

"Agriculture is not just about putting things in the ground and then harvesting them... it is increasingly about the social and environmental variables that will in large part determine the future capacity of agriculture to provide for eight or nine billion people in a manner that is sustainable," said UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner during his opening address at the conference.

"If our modern agricultural systems continue to focus only on maximising production at the lowest cost, agriculture will face a major crisis in 20 to 30 years time. There is a collective ignorance about how agriculture interacts with natural systems and this must change," warns Steiner.

Another study by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) warned that food riots had taken place in Egypt, Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Madagascar, the Philippines and Haiti in the past month.

Meanwhile, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has stated that he wants the issue of high food prices and the link to biofuel production to be on the agenda of the G8 summit in Japan in July.

The European Environment Agency (EEA) Scientific Committee last week recommended the suspension of the "overambitious" EU target of 10% biofuel use in transport by 2010, and called for a new, comprehensive scientific study on the environmental risks and benefits.

In the view of the EEA committee, the land required to meet the EU target exceeds the amount of available arable land for bioenergy production without harming the environment, even if a considerable contribution of second-generation fuels is assumed.

Countries attending the India-African Forum Summit in New Delhi last week have called on the western world to rethink diverting huge food stocks for biofuel, creating shortages and driving up prices in poorer countries.

United Nations World Food Programme Executive Director Josette Sheeran recently warned the European Parliament that soaring energy and grain prices, as well as the effects of climate change and demand for biofuels were affecting the World Food Programme's ability to deliver food aid to developing countries.

Speaking from the annual spring meeting of the IMF and the World Bank in Washington, South African Finance Minister Trevor Manuel called for calm yesterday as food riots spread around the world.

Manuel branded the behaviour of some richer countries who subsidise farmers to produce cereals for biofuel rather than for food as “criminal”. He suggested that poor South Africans should be encouraged to protect themselves by resuming the subsistence agriculture that was a part of the country’s heritage.

The IAASTD report warns that Africa is particularly at risk from climate change and is likely in the coming years to suffer the negative consequences of limited water resources. Already nearly half of its renewable water resources are below the minimum level necessary for development.

The report was presented for approval to the plenary session of the IAASTD intergovernmental panel in Johannesburg last week, where host country South Africa was criticised for failing to send representatives to the event.

While the Department of Agriculture explained that the invitation had come too late, some local delegates believe that they may have been one of various countries to snub the event over lack of support for genetically modified crops (GMOs).

Last year various biotechnology companies and industry association Crop Life International withdrew from the assessment process on the grounds that the report was sceptical of the benefits and particularly cautious about the potential risks of genetically modified crops.

The report will be officially launched simultaneously in several cities, including Washington D.C., London and Nairobi on 15 April 2008.