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Farm reform is key to battling hunger

 A new report has called for a fundamental change in world farming to remedy inequality.

It took 400 scientists more than three years and much wrangling, but the report published this week calling for radical changes in world farming in order to remedy inequalities could not have come at a more opportune time.

With dozens of developing countries finding themselves stretched and experiencing internal unrest as a result of rising food prices, and everybody from the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the UN's World Food Programme warning of worse times to come, the report by the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) proved a timely call for action.

The 2,500-page report concluded that while advances over the last half century had resulted in the world's food production increasing at a faster rate than its population, the present system of production and trade meant the benefits were spread unevenly and at an "increasingly intolerable price" paid by small-scale farmers, workers, rural communities and the environment.

"Malnutrition and food insecurity threaten millions," the report's authors wrote. "Rising populations and incomes will intensify food demand, especially for meat and milk which will compete for land with crops, as will biofuels. The unequal distribution of food and conflict over control of the world's dwindling natural resources presents a major political and social challenge to governments, likely to reach crisis status as climate change advances and world population expands from 6.7 billion to 9.2 billion by 2050."

Launching the report, IAASTD director Prof Robert Watson said recent food price hikes had been driven by increased demand, poor weather, export restrictions, more land use to produce biofuels such as corn-derived ethanol, commodity market speculation and higher energy costs.

The IAASTD report, commissioned by the UN and the World Bank, prescribed a fundamental rethink of agricultural knowledge, science and technology to develop a sustainable global food system. "Modern agriculture will have to change radically if the international community wants to cope with growing populations and climate change, while avoiding social fragmentation and irreversible deterioration of the environment," said Salvatore Arico from Unesco, the UN's educational, scientific and cultural division, in a summary of the report.

Outlining some of the challenges facing world farming in the next decades, Prof Watson said: "We need to enhance rural livelihoods where most of the poor live on one or two dollars a day.

"At the same time, we need to meet food safety standards. All of this must be done in an environmentally and socially sustainable manner." Agriculture should no longer be treated merely as a single issue of production, he said, adding that this approach had resulted in "an increasingly degraded and divided" planet.

"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."

IAASTD co-chairman Hans Herren charged that "contentious political and economic stances" were hampering attempts to address some of the imbalances outlined in the report. Specifically, he referred to OECD countries who are "deeply opposed to any changes in trade regimes or subsidy systems".

The report, which some hope will prove an agricultural equivalent to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that provided an impetus for the current climate change agenda, is backed by 60 countries. The US, Canada, Australia and Britain have so far withheld support, however, due to scepticism over the role of GM (genetic modification) technology.

The report's authors said they were not convinced that GM technology, as it is currently practised, could help in the battle against hunger. "Assessment of the technology lags behind its development, information is anecdotal and contradictory, and uncertainty about possible benefits and damage is unavoidable," the report added. The GM debate is one many scientists and development experts believe will intensify as the world searches for possible solutions to the food crisis.

At this week's BioVision conference in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, a gathering where scientists, academics and representatives from the development sector discussed the role of life sciences in tackling problems in developing countries, the GM issue reared its head in several meetings.

Roger Beachy, president of the US-based Donald Danforth Plant Science Centre and a strong advocate of GM technology, argued that "over-precaution" on the issue of GM "in the face of strong scientific evidence to the contrary" was partly to blame for the current world food crisis.

Tom Arnold, chief executive of Concern and chairman of the European Food Security Group, acknowledged GM technology may form part of future strategies to combat hunger. "You can't rule out the possibility of GM foods, in the longer term, having an increasing role to play in food security," he said. "There has to be a potential in some of this gene technology to breed shorter cycle or drought resistant plants, for example." Mr Arnold said a "much more open and genuine" discussion about the possibilities, risks and concerns was required.

Above all, he stressed, the issue of political will and leadership was crucial in the fight against hunger and malnutrition. "The combination of the energy crisis and the food crisis means we have now moved onto a new plateau. There's going to have to be a clear focus on more food security and more investment in agriculture. That demands a policy shift."

Mr Arnold, who sits on the Hunger Task Force set up last year to recommend ways in which the Irish Government can best contribute to tackle food insecurity, noted how the work of the taskforce had become even more relevant in recent months.

"We are facing an objectively different food situation in the world than we were when the taskforce was set up a year ago. The urgency of dealing with the food crisis in terms of short-term safety nets for the poor and the beginnings of much more focused attention on food security has become very relevant." He said the decision of the taskforce to focus on increasing agricultural productivity as well as improving nutrition, reflected current thinking on battling hunger.

This article was written by Mary Fitzgerald and  originally appeared in the Irish Times.

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