Opening Remarks by Mr. Achim Steiner at the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) Conference

Johannesburg, 7 April 2008


Executive Director

My colleague and friend Bob Watson

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen

Members of Civil Society and all the different interested groups that are represented here today.

It's a great privilege to join you here at this the final session of the IAASTD and to take part in the conclusion of a process that for many of you has been an intense experience over several years.

For me it is also something of a deja-vu because for four years of my life here in South Africa I was the Secretary General of the World Commission on Dams.

This too was an attempt to square the circle of a highly complex debate through a multi-stakeholder perspective. And it too faced the challenges of reconciling seemingly disparate views in order to try and realize a common path for a shared future.

Here you are going through the final stages of reviewing the Assessment's Summary for Decision Makers, the Synthesis Report and indeed validating some of the findings that have come out of this important work.

The first point I would like to make is that the very fact that we are sitting here in Johannesburg in this configuration is testimony to two things.One:that there was a need for this discussion and two:that it has been worthwhile otherwise you would not be here.

There are those who, for a variety of reasons chose not to attend-that is a statement in itself but one which, in the final analysis may prove to have been a less than intelligent decision given the significance of the subject before us and the nature of the process.

Because this has been an independent assessment-an independent attempt to try and bring scientific and empirical rigour to a terrain that is both central to every human being of this planet and to an experience and history of humanity that stretches back millennia.

It has also been a process that has attempted to reflect agriculture in all its diversity rather than boiling agriculture down to a simple set of standards, realities or guidelines.

Because when we talk about agriculture at the beginning of the twenty-first century there is no simple solution but many different realities-from the reality of the small farm household and the global multinational, to the realities of the World Bank, a Prime Minister looking at food security or the stock and commodity markets.

This is why one of the first and most valuable contributions of an independent assessment is to address the one-eyed, vested-interest driven agenda that too often characterizes policy debates and economic decision making as it relates to farming and agriculture.

In that sense it reflects the big debates in other fields such as those over mining, over dams, over water and over nuclear power.

All of these centre on the challenges and the opportunities of technology and adapting to technological progress.

However all of them must ultimately be addressed in the context of social and environmental realities if the policies and decision making are to be sound.

Let me flesh out this hypothesis further. Feeding the world in 20, 30 or 50 years from now cannot simply be about putting things in the ground; harvesting what comes up; getting produce to market and onto the consumer without losing too much on the way.

It must also be about the social and environmental variables that will accompany the further and future development of agriculture as we understand it today.

We have technologies: We know that we can put a lot more inputs into the ground, into the production chain and thus produce more on this planet.

Indeed it is one of the success stories of the 20th century that we have produced enough food on this planet to feed everyone and it is within our reach to feed a population of seven, eight, nine or more billion people too.

However there is another reality that an independent assessment must also weigh?agriculture as it is often practiced today in terms of intensification or outputs per hectare has also become a major footprint on economies, ecologies and societies in our world.

Acknowledging this leads one to the conclusion: that a more creative path for agricultural development is needed-one that demonstrates a more intelligent way of using the very natural capital that sustains agriculture in the first place.

That capital is captured in areas such as the availability of water, in soil fertility, in biodiversity and ecosystems and their nature-based services.

For too long these essential elements have been considered to be extraneous to a farmer's microeconomic reality and certainly extraneous to a lot of the agricultural intensification strategies that have been deployed over the past half century or so.

Yet we know now-an important point that this Assessment acknowledges-that an agricultural pathway which continues along the path of the past 50 to 100 years will fail to capture the importance of this natural capital and deliver the very opposite of what we need in the years to come.

Indeed it will continue to waste water at an unaffordable rate-currently 74 per cent to 80 per cent of the world's water consumption is in agriculture.

And it will continue to sacrifice those essential and economically-important elements of the natural world whose role in sustaining agriculture have been under-estimated if not ignored until recently, such as bees, bats and other pollinators.

This has nothing to do with ignorance on the part of the farmer. But to do with the collective ignorance that we as human beings have had about how our productive systems interact, depend on and ultimately thrive or decline with our ability to develop agriculture in the context of sustainability.

So in looking at the Assessment process and also at the state and the stage that you have now reached, the first thing that I would like to underline is that the inclusive aspects and independence of this process should be celebrated.

Clearly each independent element will see another independent element trying to exert their influence and trying to bring their reality to the forefront: But does that necessarily do harm to the product?

I would suggest no. Indeed if the Summary for Policymakers can reflect the diversity of realities, the diversity of perspectives and summarize the contradictory conclusions it makes the report more, not less, useful.

Agricultural policy making has, over the last 100 years been primarily the domain of agriculturalists in the broadest sense of the word.

Yet some of the current and most controversial debates today about the future of agriculture are being brought to the table by constituencies that have not been in that inner circle.

And in that sense I think the Assessment is not so much just a pioneering effort. It is also a reflection of the reality in terms how society as a whole wishes to discuss the future of agriculture and also food security today.

So despite disagreements, I would urge everyone to guard against turning this document into one of the lowest common denominator-this will not help governments, societies or agriculture move forward and engage with the broad range of issues that should and must be addressed as a matter of urgency.

Ladies and gentlemen, we meet at a time when every newspaper, radio and TV station is currently preoccupied with escalating food prices and some of the lowest food stocks and reserves seen on the planet for decades.

There is an irony here: We have spent the last 20 years bitterly complaining about the low production and producer prices paid for agricultural commodities.

Suddenly the world market seems to be addressing these shortcomings and yet everyone turns around and says this is a disaster.

This is the situation in which we find ourselves today where world markets, national agricultural policies and speculators are creating a momentum around food prices and produce prices, outside the immediate reality of especially small-scale farmers.

Again the debates, certainly as carried out in the media, are following the path of the lowest common denominator and in their simplicity are leaving consumers, farmers and the public at large bewildered and confused.

We need to elevate the debate and the response to reflect the realities of the twenty-first century.

The fact of the matter is that producing maize, vegetables and the basic staple foods that we need to feed populations across the planet is something that has evolved in the last 50 years from a simplistic dual paradigm.

One has been to maximize production, and the other to reduce costs as much as possible.

We may or may not face a crisis in agriculture now. However if these dual variables continue to be the driving paradigm of agriculture into the future, I have no hesitation in sitting here today and predicting that agriculture will certainly face a major crisis over the next 20 to 30 years.

Why? From the simple point of view that on all three counts-economic, social and environmental-the status quo is not a sustainable production or indeed food security strategy for either the developed or the developing world.

That is why trying to understand what it costs to produce a tonne of rice or a tonne of maize is inherently a discussion about both the long-term sustainability of agricultural production and about how society wishes to consume.

Let me elaborate. I recently met Jim Leape, the head of WWF at a conference and he mentioned some very interesting statistics.

Don't quote me precisely on the figures, but it takes something like 1.2 litres of water to fill a bottle of Coca Cola but also 250 litres of water to produce the sugar that goes into the bottle.

These statistics echo to other debates such as meat-as society becomes more affluent, we are producing and eating more meat and in doing so influencing the current and future pathways that agriculture is taking.

That is why this Assessment cannot be narrowly but must be broadly based, because it is not just about the farmer it is also about the consumer.

In addressing the challenge of food security and in making feeding the world a truly viable proposition, we need to close the loop on these issues of sustainable production but also sustainable consumption.

Ladies and gentlemen, before addressing you this morning I had discussions about how the process behind the Assessment has addressed the question of transgenic or genetically modified organisms.

The issue of the further intensification of inputs into agriculture was also raised.

I take a keen interest in both these areas and the state-of-the-art research going into herbicide and pesticide resistant crops that may hold the promise of reducing 90 per cent of the application quantities currently required in conventional, industrialized agriculture-fascinating science and product development is certainly taking place.

This work is fundamentally important from an input point of view and from the cost point of view for the farmer. For UNEP it is also important from the point of view of the ecological impact of agriculture.

However, I equally take a keen interest in the organic movement and its approaches towards a sustainable agricultural vision.

These are two approaches with different sets of choices-the shame is that in the context of this very intense debate some companies have chosen to take a back seat or even to take the view of stepping off the bus.

Nevertheless the Assessment is trying to address these questions because society is looking for answers-not answers that perfectly balance opposing views: that would be paralysis.

But a framework that focuses the debate and allows informed choices about kind of agriculture governments, societies and farming communities want.

That, ladies and gentlemen, means in my mind that this report should not be a kind of 'universal declaration' of agriculture in the twenty-first century because there is no universal consensus.

There will be within one society and between societies-between north and south, east and west and large and small scale farmers-different interests that are real and justified and that need to be part of the policy and decision making process we have to go through.

For some in the traditional agricultural policy making community it is uncomfortable to have other voices at the table-voices that have traditionally been out on the street, somewhere in the Non Governmental Organization world or in some local interest groups.

I believe firmly that the way forward is to have them in the room, at the table and being partners for thinking through what each one of us knows is not in disagreement.

That is our common challenge of how to feed the world in a way that does not draw down the very natural capital that sustains agriculture and does not increase the inequities that ultimately will tear societies apart if they are not addressed.

And let us remember, in some of the most unequal societies agriculture is still central to the poorest of the poorest. Thus this is not some remote or academic debate, it is in fact at the heart of trying to address development.

Ladies and gentlemen, let me end by referring to another phenomenon that I learned when I spent my four years here in South Africa.

When Nelson Mandela left imprisonment on Robben Island, the world looked at South Africa.

It thought 'how on earth will this society ever craft a way forward given the history, the pain, the scars, the contradictions and above all the sense that a society with such a divided past would struggle to build a common future'.

Under the leadership of Nelson Mandela this nation set out to craft step-by step a bridge from yesterday to tomorrow.

It was not perfect, it was full of agony and full of confrontation at times but the principal they used was a very simple one and one I would urge you to use as you go through the next few days with this report-it was one of focusing on sufficient consensus.

So let us, like the post-Apartheid South Africa, first agree on what we agree on and go forward to address the things that we disagree about.

Let us not put them under the table or cancel them out of the report but instead spell them out.

For this report is not a party manifesto or a unitary vision for agriculture. This report is an intelligent reflection of the state of debate, understanding and knowledge about agriculture in a global context with its sub-regional assessments.

Looking for sufficient consensus is usually an eye opener because it reveals that on many, if not most of the issues we actually have a shared sense of reality.

Firstly let me appeal to you to do draw some inspiration from the country we are in, from the history that it has gone through and its courage in walking a common path that, in historical terms was as challenging as anything one could contemplate.

Secondly let us acknowledge that few in this room, and most if not all outside this room, would deny that at the beginning of the twenty-first century we need to understand agriculture from a sustainability perspective-social, environmental and economic sustainability.

Based on the evidence now before us, there can be few who would argue that more of the same will allow us to continue producing the kinds of commodities in 20-30 years from now that we need on this planet.

And thirdly we are living in far more privileged times than those living 20 or 30 years ago who were faced with challenge of a world population exploding in historical terms and wondering how on Earth we would feed five, six or seven billion mouths.

Privileged: because we now have more knowledge, science, technology and the empirical experience of farmers and scientists who have worked with one another and through such institutions as the Consultative Group of International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).

That privileged position allows us to reflect on the fact that at the beginning of 2008 we have enough food but we also have problems in the way we are producing that food.

It also informs us that we have knowledge and the scientific and technological choices available to change this.

Above all this report is not the full stop on this discussion but hopefully it has put a magnifying glass on the true variables which we need to address if we are going to move forward with the Assessment's original challenges.

For UNEP this is not a report that we will simply say is our policy perspective?the freedom of an independent process, producing a report like this is also the freedom to arrive at independent conclusions and recommendations.

However, I am happy to take this report back into my governance process and bring it to the attention of the government representatives in my Governing Council and Global Ministerial Environment Forum.

In doing so, this will hopefully catalyze the world's environment ministers into addressing some of the questions and the answers that have been put forward here in Johannesburg.

That will be my response on behalf of UNEP. I would hope that this will be the response of every institution associated with this assessment and the response of those who in a sense are receivers or clients or consumers of this report.

Finally and not withstanding some of the intense processes and discussions surrounding this work, UNEP is pleased and is proud to have been associated with this unique and absolutely vital Assessment.

Thank you very much.


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