Share this

Some 12 years ago, IATP contributed to a chapter of the first International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD). About 400 authors contributed to a global report and five regionally specific reports produced with the help of two rounds of peer reviews of drafts. The project produced six summaries of policy options for policy makers, which were debated, line by line, by governmental representatives, before more than 50 governments signed on to the summaries (the United States, Canada and Australia issued diplomatic “reservations”). The controversy over the summaries overshadowed the content of the assessments, which critically reviewed thousands of mostly peer-reviewed articles and books.

At the end of September, the IAASTD+10 project published a book to which IATP has contributed a short essay on agricultural trade and market policy. Hans Herren, one of the IAASTD and IAASTD+10 leaders, wrote, “The late introduction of the ‘K’ for knowledge, which never made it into the acronym of the IAASTD, became a harbinger of one of the report’s missed opportunities,” namely, an assessment of the contribution of traditional agricultural knowledge to development and food security. Several of the 40 short essays in the book partly remedy that missed opportunity. The IAASTD reports and the IAASTD+10 comprise an alternative to the kind of research that is not informing U.S. agricultural and food policy.

In 2019, IATP characterized U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Sonny Perdue’s reorganization and deletion of USDA research as a “quiet dismantling.” The reorganization discontinued research opposed by conservative policymakers, e.g., research showing the economic multiplier effects of federal food assistance. Secretary Perdue gave employees at the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA) one month to decide on whether to move from Washington, D.C. to the Kansas City area. More than two years after Secretary Perdue promised to replace departed employees, ERS and NIFA remain half staffed and new ERS research has ground to a halt.

Agricultural research and the transmission of that research through extension agencies is not a luxury even for governments with COVID-19 ravaged budgets. The title of the IAASTD+10 book, “Transformation of our food systems: The making of a paradigm shift,” emphasizes the imperative for change. This stands in sharp contrast to USDA’s at least $16 billion in 2020 subsidies to the largest U.S. food producers with no plans for a paradigm shift in the fragile U.S. supply chains that were too long, specialized and globalized to withstand the COVID-19 economic shocks. The U.S. food supply system partly recovered, for large commercial farmers and agribusiness firms, with the help of those subsidies. Secretary Perdue is content to allow smaller scale farmers facing both COVID-19 and climate change related shocks to be forced out of farming.

Transforming food systems to be more resilient to disruptions, particularly in developing countries without the huge fiscal support dispensed by rich country governments, is the goal of the IAASTD+10 project. Indeed, the intense debate about food system design and resiliency in developing countries has not been a priority for U.S. policymakers. Massive ad hoc disaster relief payments have quelled their need for that debate, at least until after the U.S. presidential and congressional elections.

Many of the IAASTD+10 essays concern United Nations sponsored projects that could contribute to a transformation of food systems away from their current dependency on fossil fuel-derived inputs and long supply chains. For example, the 2019 intergovernmental Committee on Food Security report on climate resilient agroecological methods of production, for which IATP staff member Shiney Varghese served on the Steering Committee of the High-Level Panel of Experts, was the subject of one article. However, United Nations agencies are under constant policy and budgetary attacks. Pat Mooney reviewed the attempt by transnational agribusiness to take over United Nations agriculture and food system policy and program, most proximately at the United Nations Food Summit, scheduled for September 2021 and lead by corporations represented in the World Economic Forum.

Some topics in the IAASTD+10 book were hardly on the horizon in 2010, for example, the “digitalization” of agricultural technologies (e.g., the conversion of plant and animal DNA into computer code for “rebooting” in yeast vats to produce food substances) or international farming enterprises that displace millions of small-scale farmers from their land.

Other topics, such as the agricultural trade policy that has not evolved to enable sustainable agriculture and food systems, were lamentably well entrenched in 2010. I wrote about the failure of the World Trade Organization to revise its 1995 definitions of agricultural subsidies and the WTO’s inability to prevent U.S. agricultural dumping, the unfair business practice of exporting goods at below the cost of production. Dumped grains and oilseeds not only undermine developing country farmers, but leave U.S. farmers, and indirectly, their rural communities, dependent on taxpayer subsidies to continue farming.

Similarly persistent is the loss of crop and agricultural animal biodiversity resulting from technologies that enable industrial scale mono-cropping and confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Rob Wallace writes about CAFO vulnerability to releasing infectious diseases that cross over from agricultural animals into humans.

In sum, the IAASTD+10 book outlines the wealth of agricultural knowledge, science and technology (AKST) that is available to transform food systems if we are willing to apply that wealth in policy and programs. However, if we persist in confining the generation and application of AKST to increasing production to distribute along supply chains comprised not of healthy food sustainably produced, but of long and complex “value chains,” we will reap the reward of more “business as usual” — greater vulnerability to climate change and pandemic shocks.

To read Dr. Steve's chapter on trade and market policy, please see here.  

To download a PDF copy of the full book, please visit "Transformation of our food systems — the making of a paradigm shift."

Filed under