The IAASTD report and some of its fallout – a personal note

By Dr. Angelika Hilbeck, ETH Zurich, Institute of Integrative Biology, Zurich, Switzerland

Harvesting machines in soy bean field
Photo: Fernando Weberich/

Post-war industrialized, chemical-based agriculture and food production is coming to an end – it has to if we are to reach the millennium goals and keep the planet in a livable condition. Food (including water) and the environment are issues of global peace and justice – no more and no less.

The paradigm of industrial agriculture was maximizing profits from land by focusing on one factor only: productivity - the increase of yields literally at any costs. With the help of chemicals and cheap oil, cheap food was brought to many in the industrialized world and has brought unimaginable profits to the chemical and oil companies. This came at the expense of the health of humans and the environment, the costs of which were never factored into the economic equation in any meaningful way. The price was paid by all, including those who never profited from cheap food in the first place which for most humans constitutes fundamental injustice in itself. With today’s world population split deeply into a very affluent part in the industrialized world where many people eat themselves to death and an impoverished part where many people starve to death and live under the most appalling conditions ever, a shift in the obviously dysfunctional agricultural and food production paradigm has become paramount for global peace and justice. Exactly what went wrong and how we can improve on it was to be learned from the biggest ever review of global agricultural food production and the underlying causes for continued and growing hunger and starvation: the International Assessment of Knowledge, Science and Technology, or IAASTD for short.

The IAASTD was a multi-stakeholder process consisting of governmental and non-governmental organizations, the private sector, producers, consumers, the science community and multiple international agencies involved in the agricultural and rural development sectors. The expected outputs were critical, in-depth global and sub-global assessments of local and institutional knowledge and experiences. The participants had to create plausible scenarios for the future based on the past events and existing trends in population growth, climate change to mention just a few. ‘What if’ questions had to be developed and answered to the best of the current existing knowledge that would allow the implications of different technological options to be explored and understood. The aim was to inform processes of future planning and thinking as to what may happen as the world continues to develop over the next 30-50 years. The process lasted 3 years and involved over 400 experts and over 100 countries. The intergovernmental process ensured ownership by governments, while the Integrated Bureau allowed the full range of stakeholders to meet as a single body for constructive exchanges and consensus building. More information on the details of the process can be found on the IAASTD website[1]. Now, from the above said, it was clear right from the start that this process would be hard, very hard – tough truths would have to be faced and it was to be expected that those who profited and continue to profit from the existing situation would have to swallow some bitter pills. Well, as it turned out too bitter for some. But before I come to that I would like to highlight some key lessons as these have bearing for why exactly the pills were too bitter to swallow for one stakeholder group.

Multifunctionality of agriculture and the productivity and effectiveness of small household farms and gardens to provide food security was recognized.

The old ‘one size fits all’ approach of industrial agriculture was not sufficient to abolish poverty and hunger and caused irreversible damage to the environment everywhere it was introduced.

For poverty and hunger alleviation the paradigm shift will have to include solution packages that are tailored to the given situation and will include initially low-tech and certainly cost-free strategies.

The impressive productivity of well managed household gardens and traditional multi-cropping systems that on a per area basis in total over a year often yield more than a single crop monoculture of a modern high yielding variety (often the only cash crop of the year in temperate regions) has been largely ignored or dismissed. But more importantly, we collectively overlooked the vital role of these small household farms and gardens for securing the livelihoods of rural resource-poor communities and dismissed the rich knowledge it takes to grow them well. The multiple functions these types of agriculture serve to the local communities include providing fresh vegetables, fruit and staple foods, in addition to medicine, fodder, burning and building material. Replace this with a single high-yield crop and all other functions have to be bought externally – provided that the single crop brings in enough cash to do so. In some years it may but in many others it does not, stripping the affected people of everything they have. Monoculture is risky and requires a system of safety nets in place in case of failure and established, reliable marketing routes. Where these don’t exist, it is outright dangerous to go down this path. Today’s realties of peasant farmers are the sad proof of that. Food security takes priority in subsistence systems that are highly vulnerable to hunger and starvation as they operate without any safety net for the involved people. Multifunctional, small scale and decentralized agricultural food production systems can be much more effective in delivering what is needed in these cases than an agricultural strategy that aims to maximize productivity/profits from one monoculture cash crop. This is where uneasiness began among those who believe that one size – industrialized monoculture production – would fit all. Under this ‘old’ model, a technology developed and working in the industrialized world is transferred to developing countries, perhaps with some modifications. But handing out pesticides and fertilizer did not do the job. In fact, in many cases it made matters worse because the proper safety equipment for handling pesticides for instance were not brought along, let alone the training and education it required. Handing out seeds often did not work either because most of the higher yielding varieties require additional external inputs such as fertilizers, pesticides and machinery and knowledge how to grow them. It worked where the receiving community was educated and had the necessary means to buy and control these inputs but it drove the gaps between those that have and the have-not’s even wider. New ‘modern’ solutions options have to be custom-tailored and leveraged at the level of knowledge and understanding of the recipient community that must take it from there and be empowered to develop it to their needs – free of charge. Hence, as no profits are to made from them, low-tech solutions have never received the level of support they should have, let alone research funding to optimize them or extrapolate their production principles to larger farming systems (Kiers et al. 2008).

The controversy finally erupted then over yet another new technology developed in the industrialized world and meant to be transferred to the developing world that tipped the participating chemical-biotech industry over the edge of what they could still take: biotechnology or, more precisely, gene technology. While gene technology was admittedly a singular technology issue among the great breadth of issues tackled in the Report, it is where many of the other related issues crystallized and directly collided with the interests of the involved corporations. Consequently, some months before the final plenary in April 2008 in Johannesburg, the chemical-biotech industry announced that they leave the process in protest mainly over the Synthesis Report on Biotechnology. I was part of the original 5-person writing team of that Synthesis Report and will give here my take on what made the industries to take this step. The lined-up media articles launched to portray the industry’s pull-out include the personal account of one of the original co-authors of the Synthesis Report on Biotechnology, Deborah Keith from Syngenta, in the New Scientist (2008), the editors of Nature Biotechnology (Editor 1 2008) and Nature (Editor 2 2008), and the press releases by the industry lobbying group that announced the move, CropLife International (2008a,b), revealed the underlying reasons when reading them closely. And it shows how difficult it will be to let go strong-held and profitable believes even though it is established that they rather are myths.

In these media reports, the industry states that the Report failed to ‘adequately reflect the role of modern science and technology, in particular our own industry’s technologies’ (e.g. Minigh 2008; but also Keith 2008) going on to claiming that ‘the scientific facts, were not maintained and highlighted’, the ‘stringent testing and regulatory frameworks’ not properly acknowledged, and ‘claims not supported by the evidence’ (Keith 2008). That is, for one, not true and everybody can see that for her- and himself once the Report is published in fall of 2008. But, secondly, even if ‘evidence’ and ‘facts’ had been missing, the industries had more than 3 years time to bring them forward. ‘Scientific facts’ are easy to correct and could have easily been added. However, I cannot recall a single discussion verbally or in writing with Deborah Keith, Syngenta, who overall preferred not to engage in any discussion with us at all and also did not deliver the promised drafts (Heinemann 2008). We learned of her thinking the first time from the article she wrote in the New Scientist in March 2008 (Keith 2008). In reality, the evidence is all in the Report. The process, the review editors and Bob Watson himself would not allow for statements that couldn’t be supported by evidence. And any possibly missed additional paper is not going to make any difference in the overall outcome or conclusions of the experts which we had the task to capture in the Synthesis Report (Heinemann 2008). There just isn’t any meaningful key evidence missing. The Synthesis Report on Biotechnology is in fact very balanced, excruciatingly balanced probably for some. The problem is a different one. As the editor of Nature Biotechnology, by no means a skeptic of neither genetic engineering nor of their probably best paying clients, the chemical-biotech corporations, had to admit, the factual statement that 90% of the GM crops are grown just in 4 countries is true (Editor 2008). These numbers are entirely based on industry’s own data. If you add two other ones (China and India), you have 98%. This 6-4-2 formula is in fact the problem. 6 countries, 4 crops, 2 traits and if one were to even take it a step further it really is about 1 crop (soybeans) and 1 trait (herbicide resistance) that makes almost 2 thirds of all GE crops commercially grown in essentially 3 countries, Argentina, Brazil and the US. And that has been the case ever since the beginning of crop genetic engineering going seriously commercial roughly 20 years ago. That is not the kind of sobering factual treatment of the issue that one is used to in a field that ever since its inception is living on a lot of promises. Just read any of the annual reports on global GM crop adoption published by another industry lobby organization the ISAAA and do the reality check. If taken seriously on these decades-old promises, the 6-4-2 formula may simply translate into: ‘You didn’t deliver’. This lack of echoeing the usual promises and appraisals of potentials in the Report (Kiers et al. 2008) lays at the heart of the complaints one finds in the posted documents by the industry and their lobbyists. The real lamenting is about ‘negative attitudes … compounded with dislike of international capitalism’ (Editor 2008) – now, those are true missing science facts – or ‘blatant disregard for …. technology’s potential’ or ‘an approach that might just have quite a bit to offer to agriculture in the next 50 years’ (Editor 2008), and bringing on as ‘proof’ of this ‘potential’ the ‘announcement of collaboration’ of CropLife members with an African Technology Foundation and CIMMYT (International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center) to provide technology to develop drought-resistant maize’ in March of this year, 2008 (CropLife in Nature 2008)! I personally witnessed a similar project, with Syngenta Foundation, Kenya Agricultrual Research Institute and CIMMYT involved, aiming to bring forward stem-borer resistant Bt-maize in East Africa[2]. Ten years later, we are still waiting. But then what exactly is the industrial vision of ‘the potentials’ looming on the horizon with regard to alleviation of extreme poverty, hunger and malnutrition? From their published documents emerges one vision only and that is ‘achieving a productivity revolution’ (CropLife in Nature 2008), ‘boost crop yields’, ‘increasing agricultural productivity is an important component in addressing food insecurity’. In only one press release by CropLife International productivity and yield increase is mentioned at least 6 times. A spokesman of CropLife was cited in Nature (Editor 2 2008) to have stated that ‘biotechnology is key to reducing poverty and hunger…’. Where is the evidence that proves that claim? Productivity increase is what has happened in the past 6 decades. That we could and can do! At a dear expense though regarding the health of the environment and of humans but we certainly did increase productivity a lot. Did it help to abolish poverty, hunger and malnutrition? No. Then, what is the rationale to walk down the sole path of productivity increase again? Feeding the growing global population? We have more than enough food to feed everybody today – yet, we choose not to feed the global population! What is the scientific and political evidence that should convince us that we will do so in the coming decades? Poverty and population growth is closely related – the most effective population growth control is prosperity. But even if productivity increase is the appropriate measure locally, where are the scientific facts proving that this could not be achieved by other means, without chemicals and biotech? Further yet, what is the industrial vision of how to deliver the solution options regarding productivity increase? CropLife CEO Howard Minigh (2008) brings it to the point by stating ‘With all the benefits farmers have enjoyed in developed countries …., it would seem only logical to consider transferring these proven technologies to resource-poor farmers.” This ‘logic’ is complemented by Nature Biotechnology’s editor (2008) lamenting in his editorial that ‘nonprofit organizations have little reason to be knowledgeable about … top-down biotech solutions’ and further speculates they might even be ‘ideologically opposed’ to top-down biotech solutions. ‘Top-down’ is how we almost always delivered the technological solution options designed for industrial agriculture in the developed countries to developing countries over the past 5 or more decades. There have been uncountable North-South ‘technology transfer’ projects. Again, the question, did it help to abolish poverty, hunger and malnutrition? No. Then again, the question, why should we continue to do something we know does not work well enough? The editor concludes his revealing editorial by stating that I and my colleagues who wrote the Synthesis Report on Biotechnology, after the industry person ducked out, are ‘hardly a group representative of the broad church of scientific thinking on GM crops.’ Now, the last thing this world needs in its struggle to abolish poverty, hunger and malnutrition is a technology gone religion! It did need a rigorous and (self) critical evaluation of the current state of affairs and new visions for how to go forward. And it does need ownership of the mistakes we made that had us end up in the sorry state we are currently in, despite our successful efforts to boost yields and increase productivity which everybody acknowledges. It was the task of this Report to cut through all of the advertisement, promises and potentials and get down to the facts on the ground and evaluate the realities and develop different approaches for the future. And that is what the over 400 experts delivered. No more and no less.

It is obvious that the chemical-biotech industries simply want to ‘continue business as usual’ with perhaps a few adjustments here and there but certainly no paradigm shift away from chemicals and industrial monoculture production. Why should they? The products they have on the ground, like herbicide-resistant soybeans, feed directly into that ‘old’ industrial chemical(-biotech) model of agriculture, in fact, it cements it by simplifying industrial production even more which is wrecking havoc to the agro-environment in Argentina for example. That vision indeed did not find consensus among the hundreds of experts and Bob Watson stated explicitly that ‘business as usual is not an option anymore.” (IAASTD press release 2008). Following the internal industry logic, it was consistent with their philosophy to walk out of the process because as CropLife CEO Howard Minigh – who at least is honest – put it: ‘…it would be counterproductive for us to endorse the current draft’. It indeed would be. And while it is to be deplored that a stakeholder group could not live up to the expectation, it did make it clear that the process was effective and could not be bent to accommodate a singular interest. So, to that end, the Report might have even gained credibility in those circles of affected people and their representative organizations that had little to no expectation that this Report would deliver much useful for them given the funding agencies that have failed them so often before. It certainly proved not to be the ‘blow to the credibility of an important scientific assessment’ as another editor had speculated (Editor Nature 2008). If anything, it was a blow to the industry’s credibility. When genetic engineering becomes part of a solution to overcome the old model and helps establish a new one – that is when it will have to offer something and will likely be embraced by many who are skeptical today. But by all accounts and from all the word out there, we seem to be ages away from that. It would require foremost a completely new mindset in the leadership of these industries, and their like-minded circles of public sector scientists for that matter, and much more genuine appreciation for peasant farmer’s knowledge and their realities on the ground.

Finally and most satisfyingly, the draft report was accepted in Johannesburg in April this year by 54 countries without discussion regarding the Synthesis Report on Biotechnology and its underlying chapters. That was the best confirmation of our hard work and greatest reassurance that we did capture the spirit and thinking of the majority of the involved experts. At least 4 more countries have signed on to date. The Report is finalized and due to appear shortly and should become mandatory reading for everybody involved in shaping our agricultural future. It is by historic chance only that the release of the Report comes at a time where the global food crisis mounts – again not due to lack of food and productivity but ‘international capitalism’ - and hunger revolts occur in many parts of the world underlining very powerfully the timeliness of this Report. The IAASTD Report is scientifically and socially the most progressive, comprehensive and consensual report on agricultural knowledge, science and technology ever put together by such a global joint effort and gives the best guidance available to date for where to go from here. It is now up to all of us to make the best of it and implement it as fast as possible.

Cited references

CropLife International. 2008. Science and Technology are key to growing more food. Press release, 15. April 2008.

Editor 1. 2008. Off the rails. Nature Biotechnology, Vol 26: 247.

Editor 2. 2008. Deserting the hungry? Nature 451: 223-224.

Heinemann, J. 2008. Off the rails or on the mark? Correspondence, Nature Biotechnology 26: 499-500.

IAASTD press release 2008. Intergovernmental report aims to set new agenda for global food production. 31 March 2008.

Keith, D. 2008. Why I had to walk out of farming talks. New Scientist, April

Kiers, E.T., R.R.B. Leakey, A-M Izac, J.A. Heinemann, E. Rosenthal, D. Nathan, J. Jiggins. Agriculture at a crossroads. Science 320: 320-321.

Minigh, H. 2008. CropLife still committed to assessment’s original aims. Nature, Vol 452: 685.