Some are calling it a project that will transform global agriculture as we know it. Others are calling it a utopian dream. One thing is for sure, however: When the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAAST) releases the final draft of its report on April 15, sparks will still be flying.
Instigated in 2005 by the United Nations and the World Bank, among others, the IAAST was supposed to be an IPCC for agriculture. (Indeed, the project’s leader, Robert Watson, was former chair of the IPCC.) Its goals were impressive:
How can we reduce hunger and poverty, improve rural livelihoods, and facilitate equitable, environmentally, socially and economically sustainable development through the generation, access to, and use of agricultural knowledge, science, and technology?
With such lofty aims, the participants necessarily included not only farmers and policy makers, but also academics, industry scientists, social justice NGOs, environmental advocacy groups (Greenpeace, to name one), and agribusiness representatives. As you might imagine, this motley crew had plenty to fight about, and in October, Syngenta and Monsanto walked out of the talks.
The result is that the final product will be heavy on vision but light on mandates. (Many say the process got too bogged down in contentious issues such as GM and trade liberalization. Others — mostly the scientists and industry reps — said it suffered from being overly PC, i.e., everyone’s opinion is not equally valid.)
Still, the vision is noteworthy for what it represents: a coming sea change in the way we think about modern agriculture. From the IAAST press release: “The report will suggest that modern agriculture will have to change radically if the world is to avoid social breakdown and environmental collapse.”
Some of the goals that will be elaborated in the April 15 document:
- Focus on “agroecological” strategies to address environmental issues.
- Create opportunities for poor farmers and rural laborers.
- Do more to involve women to advance toward sustainability and development goals.
- Integrate formal, traditional, and community-based knowledge.
- Create space for diverse voices and include social scientists in policy.
If these sound generic, well, they are. Critics say that the IAAST is little more than a collection of opinions rather than targeted analyses. Surely this criticism has some merit. But if a bit of vagueness is the price of giving historically disenfranchised groups — indigenous peoples and women farmers, particularly — a seat at the table, then I say the particulars can wait.