[permaculture] Interview with Robert Watson (IAASTD Director) Africa: 'Increase Agricultural Productivity While Reducing the Environmental Footprint'

Wesley Roe and Santa Barbara Permaculture Network lakinroe at silcom.com
Wed Apr 16 13:48:56 EDT 2008

Africa: 'Increase Agricultural Productivity While Reducing the 
Environmental Footprint'

Inter Press Service (Johannesburg)

15 April 2008
Posted to the web 15 April 2008


Over the past few years, Robert Watson has had what must qualify as 
one of the world's tougher assignments: heading an initiative to help 
agriculture cope with the substantial challenges it faces presently, 
and the even bigger hurdles ahead.

The three-year International Assessment of Agricultural Science and 
Technology for Development (IAASTD) www.agassessment.org
:"has sought to evaluate agricultural knowledge across the spectrum, 
with the help of governments, civil society, the private sector, and 
hundreds of experts.

Watson initiated the project while chief scientist at the World Bank; 
he currently serves as director of the IAASTD -- also as chief 
scientist at the British environment and agriculture department.

The findings of the assessment are being formally presented Tuesday, 
this after they were reviewed at an intergovernmental plenary held in 
Johannesburg, South Africa, from Apr. 7-12. IPS environment 
correspondent Stephen Leahy chatted to Watson at this meeting about 
the landmark IAASTD.

What is the significance of the IAASTD findings for global food security?

The significance of the IAASTD is that for the first time governments 
from the developed and developing countries, civil society, 
scientific authors from natural and social sciences all worked 
together to address the critical issue of how to get affordable and 
nutritious food in way that is environmentally and socially sustainable.

The IAASTD clearly states that business as usual in agriculture is 
not an option. Why is this the case?

The IAASTD builds on the findings from two previous assessments. The 
Millennium Ecosystem Assessment found that 15 of the planet's 24 
natural ecosystems are in trouble or in decline, in large measure due 
to degradation of land and water -- mainly because of agriculture. 
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that 
agriculture is a major contributor to human-induced climate change, 
and climate change will have a major impact on agricultural productivity.

If we only focus on boosting food production it will only come at the 
expense of further environmental degradation.

What do IAASTD findings say about the current food prices, which are 
at record highs?

There are many factors involved in food prices -- climate variability 
resulting in declines in harvests in some areas, higher energy costs, 
biofuel production and speculation on the futures market. Now is the 
time to ask: how can we increase food production, keep food 
affordable and ensure farmers can make a decent living? The IAASTD is 
our best attempt to answer that important question.

You led the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change initiative and 
Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. How is the IAASTD different to these 

It was absolutely critical to bring together an understanding of the 
natural sciences with an understanding of institutions, human 
behaviour and policies. Most previous assessments have failed to 
grasp the importance of social sciences. While they might capture the 
economic perspective they don't capture the other non-economic, 
social science knowledge.

It is not enough to look at the science and technology of how to grow 
more food without looking at its impacts on natural ecosystems and on 
social systems.

Does IAASTD call for the end of large-scale monocultures?

If monocultures can be modified so they are environmentally and 
socially sustainable, then they're OK. You can't undermine 
agriculture's natural resource basis -- the soil, water, biodiversity 
and so on -- because eventually it will collapse.

Why was there so little debate about climate change during the 
intergovernmental plenary?

Climate change is well recognised now as a serious environmental, 
development, human health and security problem. It is no longer a 
controversial issue. The challenge for us now is how to maintain and 
increase agricultural productivity while reducing the environmental 
footprint, emissions of greenhouse gases and fossil fuel use in the 
agricultural sector. At the same time we have to adapt agriculture to 
the changing climate. The IAASTD findings point the way in terms of 
the kinds of knowledge, science and technology we need to change 
agricultural practices to cope with this reality.

You've called the IAASTD a "unique social experiment". What do you 
mean by that?

All key sectors of society were involved: governments, civil society, 
industry, farmers, academics, and major international organisations 
like the World Bank and FAO (United Nations Food and Agriculture 
Organisation). If everyone is affected by the issues of food, 
environmental and social sustainability, then everyone should be at 
the table to bring their knowledge and experience to help solve our 
common problem.

Given the diversity of viewpoints, it was an incredibly difficult and 
complex process. However I strongly believe this process is the way 
for the future and can be applied in any context, be it local, 
regional, national or international.

I can't think of a single important issue today that doesn't involve 
multiple sectors.

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