Opinion: the Rio+20 call for greater ag research - FreshFruitPortal.com

Opinion: the Rio+20 call for greater ag research

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Opinion: the Rio+20 call for greater ag research

By the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture's (IICA) agriculture, natural resources and climate change program manager David E. Williams.

The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, nicknamed Rio+20, was convened last month in Rio de Janeiro, exactly 20 years after the landmark "Earth Summit" of 1992 that was characterized by the heady optimism of environmentalists, civil society organizations and governments. This year’s conference, despite being the largest, most ambitious event ever convened by the United Nations, with 94 heads of state and nearly 50,000 participants from 188 countries in attendance, had a more somber tone.

In contrast to the event’s high profile and expectations, the Rio+20 final document, entitled "The Future We Want", disappointed many participants and was declared an outright failure by others. The document received widespread criticism for neglecting to include explicit development goals and solid commitments from governments (particularly from wealthier countries) to take decisive action and provide significant funding (particularly to poorer countries) to implement the document’s wishful recipe for sustainable development.

Agriculture received only slight mention in the "Zero Draft" of the document that was prepared in advance of the conference. Reacting to this oversight, several international organizations, including the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA), the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), and the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), among others, circulated fact sheets and technical notes emphasizing the importance of putting agriculture on the agenda. These calls to action were heard.

In the much-expanded final document, the topic of food security, nutrition and sustainable agriculture was given proper consideration, reflecting the delegates' collective recognition of the sector's crucial role in achieving sustainable development worldwide.

The Rio+20 final document makes detailed recommendations of priority areas requiring action and follow-up.  In the area of food security, nutrition and sustainable agriculture, the text emphasizes the social dimension of food production, including the often overlooked contributions of rural communities, smallholder farmers, indigenous farmers, and women farmers. It recognizes the importance of traditional sustainable agricultural practices, including traditional seed supply systems, and calls for increased international cooperation and investment for sustainable agricultural technologies and practices, particularly in developing countries.

Hard lessons

Agriculture is the activity through which natural resources - air, soil, water, biodiversity and energy - are transformed into food; and it is by far the most important interaction between human beings and the environment. Many hard lessons have been learned from the detrimental consequences of unsustainable farming practices and more attention is now focused on environmentally friendly farming systems - some modern and some ancient - that are viable, sustainable, and provide essential ecosystem services.

Scientific research combined with traditional knowledge are providing the answers that will enable farmers to reduce or eliminate the causes of soil erosion, water pollution, deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions, while increasing their capacity to adapt to climate change and continue producing the food we need to survive.

The Rio+20 document states unequivocally that "climate change is one of the greatest challenges of our time and...and all countries, particularly developing countries, are vulnerable and are already experiencing increased impacts including persistent drought and extreme weather events". The document goes on to say that "adaptation to climate change represents an immediate and urgent global priority".

The way forward

To enable farmers to sustain production capacity in the face of climate change, government decision-makers need to dramatically increase investments in agricultural research. As demonstrated by Brazil’s example, those investments will pay rich dividends in the future, not to mention averting the much higher costs of having to respond to eventual crop failures, food scarcity, and the catastrophic social consequences these would entail.

The Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA) actively promotes the adoption of sustainable agricultural practices through the dissemination of appropriate, innovative technologies, incorporating a socially inclusive and environmentally friendly rural development model that includes the management of natural resources at the ecosystem, watershed and landscape level; better conservation and use of agricultural biodiversity; and more efficient use of soil, water and energy resources.

This integrated approach also fosters farmers’ access to markets, improved value chains, and the adoption of national policies that entail closer collaboration between ministries of agriculture, environment and commerce.

David E. Williams can be reached by email - david.williams@iica.int.

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