Page last updated at 16:46 GMT, Tuesday, 15 April 2008 17:46 UK

Global food system 'must change'

By Mark Kinver
Science and nature reporter, BBC News

Women working in a field (Image: Agra)
Small-scale farmers are not benefitting from recent advances, the report says

The global agriculture system will have to change radically if the world is to avoid future environmental and social problems, a report has warned.

The study, commissioned by the UN and World Bank, concluded that while recent advances had increased food production, the benefits were spread unevenly.

It said that 850 million people were still not getting enough food to eat.

The authors added that food prices would remain volatile as a result of rising populations and biofuel growth.

The findings were published by the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), an intergovernmental body that involved more than 400 scientists and 30 governments.

"We tried to assess the implications of agricultural knowledge, science and technology both past, present and future on a series of very critical issues," explained IAASTD director Robert Watson.

"These issues are hunger and poverty; rural livelihoods; nutrition and human health.

"The key point is how do we address these issues in a way that is environmentally, socially and economically sustainable?"

'Need for reform'

Speaking at the launch of the final report in London, Professor Watson said advances over the past 50 years had seen total food production grow faster than the human population had increased.

"The price of food, in real terms, has also gone down. Even today, many food commodities are comparable to the early 1990s; so what's the problem?

Fruit (Image: BBC)
Agriculture is far more than just production of food, and that is what we have to recognise
Professor Robert Watson,
IAASTD director
"Well, we still have over 800 million people going to bed hungry every night. There have been some successes but if we look at it on a region-by-region basis, there have been uneven results."

He added that the study identified other consequences: "We have lost some of our environmental sustainability.

"There have been adverse effects in some parts of the world on soils, water, biodiversity; our agricultural systems have contributed to human-induced climate change and, in turn, human-induced climate change threatens agricultural productivity."

IAASTD co-chairman Dr Hans Herren said "contentious political and economic stances" were affecting attempts to address some of the imbalances.

"Specifically, this refers to the many OECD member countries who are deeply opposed to any changes in trade regimes or subsidy systems," he stated.

"Without reforms, many poorer countries will have a very hard time."

Food for thought

The authors projected that the global demand for food was set to double in the next 25-50 years, primarily in developing nations.

As a result, they said that it was necessary for the agricultural sector to grow, but in a way that did not result in social hardship or environmental degradation.

As well as looking at the global picture, the IAASTD also examined the situation in different regions:

  • Central/West Asia and North Africa: unique agricultural biodiversity is beginning to disappear. Likely to suffer the consequences of limited water supplies and climate change
  • East/South Asia and the Pacific: development in the region is increasing pollution levels. Climate change is likely to trigger large-scale migration
  • Latin America and the Caribbean: increased yield from agriculture has not led to a significant decrease in poverty. Food imports have created dependence and disruption to local production
  • Sub-Saharan Africa: agriculture accounts for about 32% of the region's GDP, yet 80% of arable land is experiencing water scarcity
  • North America and Europe: private sector funding has affected the direction of agricultural research and has increased the influence of transnational companies

The study found that access to food was taken for granted in many nations, and farmers and farm workers were poorly rewarded for acting as stewards of almost one-third of the Earth's land.

It recommended a fundamental rethink of agricultural knowledge, science and technology, in order to achieve a sustainable global food system.

The experts said that efforts should focus on the needs of small-scale farmers in diverse ecosystems, and areas with the greatest needs.

Measures would include giving farmers better access to knowledge, technology and credit. It would also require investment to bring the necessary information and infrastructure to rural areas.

'Valuing services'

Professor Watson outlined some of the challenges facing the sector over the coming 50 years: "We need to enhance rural livelihoods where most of the poor live on one or two dollars a day.

"We also need to stimulate economic growth because half of the countries in Africa have a significant percentage of their GDP in the agricultural sector.

Drought-hit soil (Image: AP)
About 80% of arable land in Sub-Saharan Africa is short of water

"At the same time, we need to meet food safety standards and make sure that we do not have pesticide residues, unacceptable levels of hormones or heavy metals.

"All of this must be done in an environmentally and socially sustainable manner."

He warned that agriculture could no longer be approached as a single issue.

"We need to consider the environmental issues of biodiversity and water; the economic issues of marketing and trade, and the social concerns of gender and culture.

"How do we pay farmers to not only produce food, but to value the environmental services?

"Agriculture is far more than just production of food, and that is what we have to recognise."

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