"What can be done concretely to use agriculture to address
some of the fundamental issues of today's world?"
The outrage and outpouring of sympathy after the September
11 attacks underscore the deep sense of unease that many
people feel about the world in which they live. It seems that
literally everything is out of control: from terrorism to
tornadoes, from climate change to AIDS to BSE. In the poorest
countries, people are engulfed by profound change: in Asia,
forests are lost to highways and cities, and rice paddies are
converted to factories to produce microchips. African
livestock die from disease in massive numbers. In rural Latin
America, tractors are rapidly replacing manual labour, pushing
rural women and men into the masses of urban unemployed.
Agriculture in a
In a world shaken by terrorism and war, does it make sense
to talk about agriculture, poverty and hunger? It does, for
and poverty increase the risk of social unrest, and most of
the hungry live in rural areas or have recently migrated to
current sense of unease about rapid modernization is
especially prominent in the area of food and agriculture.
need and - more importantly - the potential to act
collectively and responsibly exist in agriculture.
Agriculture is, in many ways, a victim of its own success.
Scientific advances have revolutionized farming and led to
huge increases in productivity. The world as a whole has
become richer and better fed. International trade has boomed
and food prices have remained low. Everywhere, farmers are
producing for the world market. Diets in most parts of the
world have diversified.
But progress has been uneven. Some 800 million people
remain chronically hungry, most of them in rural areas where
agricultural development is limited by low rainfall, poor
soils, insufficient infrastructure and inadequate
institutions. These are truly the world's vulnerable areas,
where those seeking to foment social unrest and rejection of
modernity may find fertile ground.
Agricultural progress has often been uneven because we have
addressed short-term production problems more than long term
ecological and economic sustainability. Agriculture is blamed
by consumers for producing unsafe and tasteless food, infected
with BSE or salmonella, and by environmentalists for poisoning
surface waters, draining lakes and destroying forests.
Globalization has had major direct and indirect effects:
concentration of ownership in the seed and agrochemical
industries, the genetic uniformization of production, and the
disappearance of local varieties and local foods.
The sad paradox is that the reduced importance of
agriculture as a percentage of GNP has created the false
illusion that the sector is irrelevant, if not outright
destructive, and that a return to traditional ways would be an
improvement over the present. This anti-modern view culminates
in blind rejection of biotechnology and totally obscures the
potential of technology to adapt to new ecological and social
Agriculture in a new era
on plant genetic resources approved... An
International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food
and Agriculture was approved by the FAO Conference on 3
November 2001. The convention will ensure better use of
plant genetic diversity to meet the challenge of
eradicating world hunger. See Spotlight:
Treaty on agrobiodiversity...
Yet, the time may be ripe for a renewal of political will
to mobilize the agricultural sector for a more stable and just
world. Eight years of negotiations on a treaty on sharing the
benefits of plant genetic resources were successfully
concluded in November 2001 (see box at right). Agreements have
also been reached on reducing the risks of trade and
application of hazardous agro-chemicals, on monitoring animal
diseases, and on the importance of food safety. FAO is
exploring a code of good agricultural practices that may
alleviate fears and increase consumer confidence.
A sense of interconnectedness is growing. But needed also
is a greater sense of global ownership of the problems of
agriculture and food production, and a recognition of joint
responsibility in eradicating hunger and poverty. Perhaps
development assistance will increase if it fits as a tool to
facilitate a worldwide political coalition.
So what is the way forward, for agriculture and food
security? What can be done concretely to use agriculture to
address some of the fundamental issues of today's world?
First, we must recognize that agriculture is part of the
solution and not just a problem. Agricultural development is a
key to social stability and equity in many parts of the world.
It can help to alleviate the subtle and unspoken fears of
modernization and the pace of change if innovation is handled
transparently and justly. Agriculture also plays a role in
mitigating the effects of climate change. There is no shortage
of scientific tools to make sustainable intensification a
reality, if they are applied responsibly.
At the same time, agriculture in the 21st century must be
prepared to face new challenges, many of them related to
globalization and modernization. Among them:
supranational regulations - the WTO, the Convention on
Biological Diversity, the Kyoto protocol on climate change,
regulations on intellectual property rights, regional
organisations such as the European Union and NAFTA. Many of
these regulations have not been initiated in the
agricultural sector and agriculture will have to adapt.
society will be crucial in reshaping the agricultural
sector. A careful balance will have to be sought between
science-driven innovation and consumer concerns, including
ethics. Food safety will become the measure of agriculture's
will place increasing demands on agriculture, not least
in the protection of the environmental values such as
biodiversity and other added values at farm or society
level. Agriculture will be about more than just producing
calories or dry matter per hectare. Protecting incomes and
rural livelihoods will be equally important in the South and
will be designed for precision agriculture in the widest
sense of the word, taking into account the conditions of
specific production systems. While the scientific frontier
now appears to lie in the realm of biotechnology, only
research into site-specific management of land and water
will allow farmers to bridge the yield gap.
animal sector will grow considerably. Zoonotic and other
animal diseases, many of them with immediate transboundary
effects, are growing concerns, with major trade
concentration in the international industrial inputs and
processing sectors seems inevitable, yet the dynamics of the
medium scale and local industries may be crucial to a
healthy commercial development.
than looking at agriculture in isolation, future
research, development and policy will need to take account
of the entire chain from the physical environment and
production to consumption and health.
The ultimate challenge lies in two organizing principles.
First, to guarantee and facilitate access of poor
countries and poor people to markets, to technology and to
knowledge (above all, Africa must not miss out again on
technological advances, as it did with the Green Revolution).
Second, to maintain and enhance diversity and options -
diversity of products and production technology allows
consumers and producers to make informed choices rather than
having a blueprint approach pushed down their throats. In all
this, openness about production processes and their scientific
underpinnings is essential.