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International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), 2008


Key Information

Key Information

The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) is a major World Bank and UN funded study that has been endorsed by 58 governments, including the UK. Its findings are that small-scale sustainable agriculture is the way forward if we are going to provide food for the Earth's growing population in a time of climate chaos. It is dismissive of GM, observing that it has not led to increases in yields; that patenting of GM crops tends to increase the wealth of big companies at the expense of small farmers, and that funding for biotechnology reduces the money that is available for researching other technologies that would probably be more beneficial.


A new era of agriculture?

Demo - banner reads Sustainable Peasants Agriculture Cools Down the EarthThe International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), originally initiated as a joint project between the World Bank and the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), addresses the problems of hunger and climate change. It is not only an indisputably authoritative document, it also provides a damning report on agricultural practices of the last half century, and a powerful case for radically shifting priorities away from big business and towards small farmers and the environment.

It was worked on by, in its own words "hundreds of experts"1 from around the world, who have researched and peer-reviewed it thoroughly, and its findings were fully endorsed by 58 governments including the UK2. Although it initially received funding from the GM industry, support for the report was withdrawn when it became clear that its findings would not be good PR for them.3

The report was celebrated by participating NGOs with a press release that went under the title "A new era of agriculture begins today", and that claimed "The report reflects a growing consensus among the global scientific community and most governments that the old paradigm of industrial, energy-intensive and toxic agriculture is a concept of the past. The key message of the report is that small-scale farmers and agro-ecological methods provide the way forward to avert the current food crisis and meet the needs of local communities."4 It is still important to recognise that the report has its limitations: for instance the Executive Summary lays strong emphasis for instance on Public Private Partnerships5 and other policies that are unlikely to deliver on their stated goals of reducing hunger and poverty, improving rural livelihoods and human health and providing equitable, socially, economically and environmentally sustainable development.6 The document was, reportedly, watered down following complaints by the US, Canada, the UK and Australia that it was "unbalanced"7. Of these governments, only the UK eventually agreed to sign. The US expresses its reservations in Annex A to the Executive summary, and this gives us some indication of areas where there may have been conflict and compromise: unsurprisingly it objects to the critique of trade liberalisation and intellectual property rights, and it is possible to surmise that this might explain the cautious wording the report uses to discuss these issues.

On the other hand if its recommendations were implemented, it would require a dramatic change in agricultural and economic policy. It recognises, for example:

Key Findings

  • that problems with hunger cannot be solved by simply producing more food: it states "Around 2000 the world was producing enough food to feed everyone, with a global average of calories produced at around 2800 kilo calories per person per day. At the same time, an estimated 850 million people were hungry."8

  • that we can't techno-fix our way out of the problems of hunger and climate change. It states: "If the playing field is uneven, the rules of the game are unfair, and marginalised interests and voices are not represented, then technological magic bullets cannot shift the balance towards equity."9

  • that agriculture is about more than food and has massive impacts on the environment,10

  • that the emphasis on producing crops for export has reduced food security in many countries in the global south11

  • that liberal economic policies intensify poverty (although see above [link]). It states "In the poorest countries the small-scale sector is a net loser under most trade liberalisation scenarios."12

  • that the concentration of wealth in the agricultural sector, between a few massive companies has greatly disadvantaged small farmers13

  • that industrialised agriculture is environmentally destructive, dependent on fossil fuels, and exclusive of anyone unable to afford the chemicals it requires14

  • that there are alternatives to the current model, that these alternatives work, and are more just and more sustainable. It states, "increased attention needs to be directed towards new and successful existing approaches to maintain and restore soil fertility and to maintain sustainable production through practices such as low-input resource -conserving technologies based on integrated management systems and an understanding of agro-ecology and soil science ( e.g., agroforestry, conservation agriculture, organic agriculture and permaculture). These technologies minimise the need for high levels of inputs and are socially appropriate approaches to small-scale agriculture."15


This was another section that the US (and in this case China) were critical of, arguing that the whole passage lacks balance.17

  • GM does not lead to significant yield increases
  • Intellectual property laws surrounding GMO tend to concentrate ownership in agriculture to the detriment of poor farmers. In particular laws which prevent seed-saving reduce food security.
  • The funding for biotechnology takes away funding and scientists from other areas of agricultural research

In other words, what the IAASTD has produced, is, for the most part, a well backed-up, rigorously scientific version of what most of us have been saying for years. It will be interesting to see whether the 58 governments who endorsed it will then go on to put its policy recommendations into practice.


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1: IAASTD, Executive summary, pvii

2: IAASTD, Executive summary, p12

3: GM Freeze Calls on IAASTD to Press on Despite Biotech Industry Taking Their Ball Home 18 January 2008, available at http://www.gmfreeze.org/page.asp?id=334&iType=, last viewed 20.04.09

4: 'A new era of agriculture begins today', NGO Press Release, April 2008, http://www.agassessment-watch.org/, last viewed 10.05.09

5: IAASTD, Executive summary, p7

6: IAASTD, Executive summary, pvii

7: 'Agriculture at a crossroads', http://www.agassessment-watch.org/, last viewed 16.04.09

8: IAASTD, 'Food Security in a Volatile World', p1

9: IAASTD, 'Business as Usual is not an Option: the Role of Institutions p1

10: IAASTD,'Towards Multifunctional agriculture for Social, Environmental and Economic Sustainability', p1

11: IAASTD, 'Food Security in a Volatile World' p1

12: IAASTD, 'Business as Usual is not an Option: the Role of Institutions p2

13: IAASTD, 'Food Security in a Volatile World' p3

14: IAASTD, 'Towards Multifunctional agriculture for Social, Environmental and Economic Sustainability', p1

15: IAASTD, 'Towards Multifunctional agriculture for Social, Environmental and Economic Sustainability', p1

16: IAASTD, Executive summary p8

17: IAASTD, Executive Summary p12