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for a responsible, fair & sustainable food system

Joint Open Letter to Royal Society re: Crop Production Study

Immediate release (24 Sep 2008)

Professor David Baulcombe
Chair, Working Group
The Royal Society
6-9 Carlton House Terrace
London SW1Y 5AG

24 September 2008

Dear Prof. Baulcombe,

re: Biological approaches to enhance food crop production

An Open Letter

We are writing to express our serious concerns about the value of the study on Biological Approaches to Enhance Food Crop Production announced by the Royal Society on 3rd July 2008 and to suggest a fundamental change of approach.

First, there are major overlaps between this study and the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), the reports of which were published in April 2008. We see no reason to justify this duplication of scientific assessment carried out by the IAASTD which extended over 4 years.

As you will know, the IAASTD reports were compiled by a multidisciplinary team of scientists, including specialists from biosciences and social sciences, from all parts of the world. It was based on peer reviewed publications. The drafts of the final reports were in turn peer reviewed to ensure that they accurately reflected the findings of other researchers.

All countries represented in the final plenary accepted the full set of reports. The executive summary of the synthesis report and global summary for decision makers were reviewed line by line at the plenary in Johannesburg in April and were approved by 58 countries including the UK. The majority of signatories were governments from the Global South. Even countries that did not fully approve the final reports (USA, Australia and Canada) accepted the majority of the findings of the Assessment. Disagreements were mainly around the impact of free trade (a non scientific area) and the IAASTD’s assessment of the lack of impact of biotechnology, and transgenic crops in particular, on averting hunger (an area of policy which encompasses scientific, social, economic, political and cultural factors).

The IAASTD reports recognise the complexities of the problems facing world agriculture in delivering wholesome safe and affordable food without causing irreparable or long term harm to local communities and the environment in a world facing significant climatic change over the next half century. They emphasise the multifunctionality of agriculture in providing more than food, fibre, raw materials and biomass, for instance ecosystem services and functions, landscapes and cultures. They also acknowledge the key role that the local knowledge of farmers, particularly women, and other small-scale food producers should play in the future in developing technologies and knowledge systems appropriate to their needs. The failures of past technological innovations and trade to benefit poor people and their negative impact on the environment is acknowledged.
These outcomes were summarized in 22 Key Findings and 8 themes ranging from bioenergy to women in agriculture.

Secondly, whilst the Royal Society study duplicates some of the work of the IAASTD, it excludes many vital areas. Our concerns about the study can be summarized as follows:

  1. It appears to concentrate on increasing individual plant productivity through altering genetic traits, rather than enhancing the sustainability and productivity of farming systems and the agroecosystems within which they operate through increasing the use of locally-controlled technologies that improve the multifunctionality of agriculture.
  2. The emphasis on biological sciences and proprietary technologies without comparison with other technological approaches, for instance water harvesting, will limit its value.
  3. There is no recognition of the need to include farmers, especially women, from the global south in the process nor any indication of how the contribution of their knowledge, skills and technologies will be assessed and taken into account.
  4. There is no overt invitation for contributions about and analysis of the underlying causes of “the global food crisis” including those provided by trade, economic, energy, infrastructure and other politically-influenced policies on the supply of food and current research priorities and development structures and practices.
  5. It explicitly excludes biofuels from the study at a time when many analysts have implicated the growth of biofuel crops in the recent food and feed price rises. It also excludes other important areas of production and their positive and negative impacts on agroecosystems, resilience and sustainability including fibre crops, dairy, other livestock, fisheries and aquaculture.

The IAASTD reports show clearly that “business as usual” is not an option given the challenges agriculture now faces. We are very concerned that the underlying assumptions of the Royal Society, and the decoupling of biological aspects of food production from the full range of other factors that make up food production systems, imply a process and approach that are very much business as usual.]

In our view the Royal Society study will have very limited value unless its terms of reference are significantly changed. A far more valuable contribution would be for the Royal Society to take the IAASTD findings as a starting point and assess how UK policies, research priorities, and development programmes need to change to ensure that these 22 key findings are implemented/addressed such that the main beneficiaries are poor people and the environment.

We would be pleased to discuss our concerns about the study with you should you wish. We, like the Royal Society, are keen that the use of knowledge, science and technology in agriculture is directed towards environmentally and socially sustainable solutions which mean no one goes hungry, there is increased social equity and the misuse and degradation of the environment can be reversed. Such solutions must be developed alongside social, economic and political changes if there is any chance that they will succeed. A study that does not address these issues will lack relevance and rapidly become out-dated.

Yours sincerely,
Andrew Scott
Policy and Programmes Director, Practical Action

On behalf of:
Action Aid UK
Christian Aid
Friends of the Earth International
GM Freeze
Greenpeace UK
Pesticides Action Network international
Third World Network