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What is the meaning of "sustain-able agriculture," and what farming method can best pro-duce food to feed the world?
This was one of the burning questions debated recently at the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development (UNCSD).
No one clear answer could be given, as the merits and demerits of different methods of agricultural production is one of the most hotly contested issues in the world today.
But the UNCSD did host a healthy debate as representatives of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), farmer organizations and the multinational food industry shared their views in front of government delegations in a unique "multi-stakeholder" session at the UN headquarters in New York.
Best prepared were scientists and leaders of NGOs who came with data showing the present chemical-based agriculture is suffering from serious problems, that biotechnology solutions cause more problems than they solve, and that ecological methods are best but have never been given the chance to be proven so.
Professor Miguel Altieri, a renowned Chilean scientist based in the University of California, said that conventional chemical-based agriculture was facing a host of problems, such as increasing losses due to pest attacks (in the US), genetic erosion, and yield declines as the soil structure is undermined by chemicals. While initially there were increases of production in modern agriculture, now negative ecological impacts had undermined productivity.
At the same time, Altieri warned of ecological risks from biotechnology, including the crossing of genetically modified genes to weeds and other plants.
Altieri said there were already 5 million hectares of farms being recuperated through ecological methods by 2.5 million farming families across the world. "These are lighthouses in an expanding farmer-to-farmer network, which can be models that can spread if we have the right policy."
Peter Rossett, an agricultural scientist and director of the Institute for Food and Development Policy, said that increasing food output did not necessarily end hunger, as the main problem is rural poverty, which is mostly caused by inequality in access to and ownership of land.
He advocated that more land be allocated to small and poor farmers, citing data to show that small farms have far higher productivity (per acre) than large farms.
Rossett said that today Cuba produces more food than before, owing to a second land reform, the switch to organic farming and the increased use of local inputs.
"This shows the way out of a food crisis without aid but instead through a revolution led by small farms and based on organic farming. It is a remarkable success story that shows that small farms can be productive and that chemicals and biotech are not needed, we can feed the world through small farms and alternative ecological technologies.
Mae-Wan Ho from the Open University in the United Kingdom warned that genetically modified (GM) crops are not sustainable due to a host of problems such as the evolution of weeds resistant to pesticides, poor economic returns and inconsistent performance.
She said a major problem was the inherent instability in the structure of GM crops. "There is no molecular genetic data anywhere showing the stability of lines in GM crops."
Meanwhile, more and more hazards of using genetic engineering are being revealed; for example, a recent court case revealed that scientists at the US Food and Drug Administration had warned of new risks associated with genetically engineered food.
Ho said that over 300 scientists had signed an open letter calling for a moratorium on the use of genetically modified organisms owing to the potential hazards they may pose to human health and the environment.
Representatives of some farmers' groups also spoke up against biotechnology. The National Family Farm Coalition of the United States said that a farmer using GM seeds in 1999 would have to incur an extra US$42 in cost per acre, while having less yield. "We would also have to worry about being sued by other farmers whose farms are contaminated by genetic transfer from GM farms."
However, some other farmers' organizations called for a more open mind, saying that while organic farming may be part of the solution, they should not be prevented from also trying biotech methods.
An Indian scientist based in the United States, C.S. Prakash, presented a letter from 2,000 scientists whom he said believed that biotechnology is good for agriculture as it could cut pesticide use, increase productivity and grow more nutritious crops.
The representative from the multinational seed and food industries promoted the usefulness of biotechnology. As they were clearly on the defensive, they agreed that organic farming was one option, but that this was not enough.
The debate at the UN's premier forum on environment and development is an indicator of the differences of view on one of the most important issues facing the world.
Hopefully, it will lead us closer to a solution that will be environmentally sound, assist small farms, be fair to the poor, and at the same time be productive enough to feed the world with good, wholesome and safe food.