[i]Agriculture and Development: A summary of the International Assessment on Agricultural Science and Technology for Development
What challenge does agriculture face today?
For decades, agricultural science has focused on boosting production through the development of new technologies. It has achieved enormous yield gains as well as lower costs for large-scale farming. But this success has come at a high environmental cost. Furthermore, it has not solved the social and economic problems of the poor in developing countries, which have generally benefited the least from this boost in production.
Today’s world is a place of uneven development, unsustainable use of natural resources, worsening impact of climate change, and continued poverty and malnutrition. Poor food quality and diets are partly responsible for the increase of chronic diseases like obesity and heart disease. Agriculture is closely linked to these concerns, including the loss of biodiversity, global warming and water availability.
It is time to fundamentally rethink the role of agricultural knowledge, science and technology in achieving equitable development and sustainability. The focus must turn to the needs of small farms in diverse ecosystems and to areas with the greatest needs. This means improving rural livelihoods, empowering marginalized stakeholders, sustaining natural resources, enhancing multiple benefits provided by ecosystems, considering diverse forms of knowledge, and providing fair market access for farm products.
How is Food Production Affecting Health?
Although food production has increased in recent decades, many people remain undernourished, a problem accounting for 15% of global disease. Many population groups still face protein, micronutrient and vitamin deficiency. Meanwhile, obesity and chronic diseases are increasing across the world because of people eating too much of the wrong foods. Agricultural research and policies should be devised to increase dietary diversity, improve food quality, and promote better food processing, preservation and distribution.
Global trade and growing consumer awareness have increased the need for proactive food safety systems. Health concerns include the presence of pesticide residues, heavy metals, hormones, antibiotics, and additives in the food system, as well as risks related to large-scale livestock farming.
Worldwide, agriculture accounts for at least 170 000 work-related deaths each year. Accidents with equipment like tractors and harvesters cause many of these deaths. Other important health hazards for agriculture workers include noise, transmissible animal diseases, and exposure to toxic substances such as pesticides. Agriculture can contribute to the emergence and spread of infectious diseases. Therefore, robust surveillance, detection and response programs are critical across the food chain.
Can traditional knowledge contribute to agriculture?
Many effective innovations are generated locally, based on the knowledge and expertise of indigenous and local communities rather than on formal scientific research. Traditional farmers embody ways of life beneficial to the conservation of biodiversity and to sustainable rural development.
Local and traditional knowledge has been successfully built into several areas of agriculture, for example in the domestication of wild trees, in plant breeding, and in soil and water management. Scientists should work more closely with local communities and traditional practices should have a higher profile in science education. Efforts should be made to archive and evaluate the knowledge of local people and to protect it under fairer international intellectual property legislation.
How is climate change threatening agriculture?
Agriculture has contributed to climate change in many ways, for instance through the conversion of forests to farmland and the release of greenhouse gases. Conversely, climate change now threatens to irreversibly damage natural resources on which agriculture depends. The effects of global warming are already visible in much of the world. In some areas, moderate warming can slightly increase crop yields. But overall, negative impacts will increasingly dominate. Floods and droughts become more frequent and severe, which is likely to seriously affect farm productivity and the livelihoods of rural communities, and increase the risk of conflicts over land and water. Also, climate change encourages the spread of pests and invasive species and may increase the geographical range of some diseases.
Some land use management approaches can help mitigate global warming. These include planting trees, restoring degraded land, conserving natural habitats, and improving soil and fertility management. Policy options include financial incentives to grow trees, reduce deforestation and develop renewable energy sources. Agriculture and other rural activities must be integrated in future international policy agreements on climate change. However, since some changes in the climate are now inevitable, adaptation measures are also imperative.
Conclusion: what are the options for actions?
Fighting poverty and improving rural livelihoods
Small-scale farmers would benefit from greater access to knowledge, technology, and credit, and, critically, from more political power and better infrastructure. They need laws that secure access to land and natural resources as well as fair intellectual property rights.
Enhancing food security
Ensuring food security is not merely a matter of producing enough to eat: food must also be available to those who need it. Possible policy actions that can enhance access to food include reducing transaction costs for small-scale producers, strengthening local markets and improving food safety and quality. Global systems are needed to watch out for sudden price changes and extreme weather events that could lead to food shortages and price-induced hunger.
Using natural resources in a sustainable way
Agricultural sustainability means maintaining productivity while protecting the natural resource base. Possible actions include: improving low impact practices such as organic agriculture and providing incentives for the sustainable management of water, livestock, forests, and fisheries. Science and technology should focus on ensuring that agriculture not only provides food but also fulfills environmental, social and economic functions such as mitigating climate change and preserving biodiversity. Policy-makers could end subsidies encouraging unsustainable practices and provide incentives for sustainable natural resource management.
Improving human health
Human health can be improved through efforts to diversify diets and enhance their nutritional value, through advances in technologies for processing, preserving and distributing food, and through better health policies and systems. Food safety can be increased by investing in infrastructure, public health and veterinary capacity, and by developing legal frameworks for controlling biological and chemical hazards. Work-related health risks can be reduced by enforcing health and safety regulations. The spread of infectious diseases like bird flu can be limited through better coordination across the food chain.
Helping achieve equity in agriculture
Achieving greater equity in agriculture requires investment to bring technology and education to rural areas. Fair access to land and water is crucial. Stakeholders should be allowed to influence decisions about use and management of natural resources, access to land, credit and markets, intellectual property rights, trade priorities, and protection of the rural environment. Above all, farmers need to be rewarded for their labor with just and fair prices for their products.