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Researchers checking rice shoots
at a pest management project in Indonesia
A broad international assessment of the risks and opportunities of using agricultural science to reduce hunger and improve rural livelihoods in the developing world was launched this week by the World Bank.

The assessment, which will take the form of a ‘consultative process’, aims to exchange ideas between consumers, farmers, scientists, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), governments, and the private sector. It will be modelled on similar assessments of climate change and ozone that have sought to provide guidance to policy-makers on pressing issues.

Its goal, according to the bank “is to produce an international assessment on agricultural science that would give decision-makers the tools and information they need to answer the tough questions surrounding the issue.”

The consultative process was announced in Johannesburg on Thursday (29 August) during the World Summit on Sustainable Development. It will be co-chaired by Robert Watson, chief scientist at the bank, and former head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The four other co-chairs will be: Claudia Martinez Zuleta, former Colombian deputy minister of environment; Rita Sharma, the joint secretary and land resources commissioner of India’s agriculture ministry; Louise Fresco, assistant director general of the Food and Agriculture Organisation; and Seyfu Ketema, executive secretary of the Association for Strengthening Agricultural Research in Eastern and Central Africa.

The consultative process is being widely seen as an attempt to defuse the growing and widespread controversy over the use of genetically modified (GM) crops in developing countries, highlighted for example by Zambia's recent decision to refuse US food aid on the grounds that it contained GM varieties of maize.

However Watson is stressing the assessment will be looking at a range of techniques that are likely to make up farming in the future, including organic farming, traditional farming and farming using different types of biotechnology. “We want to assess the scientific, economic, environmental and social aspects of all techniques," he said in an interview with the Financial Times.

Describing the agriculture initiative, which was proposed earlier this year (see Study probes IPCC-style body on food security), Watson said that the issue had recently become as controversial as climate change. “Our intention is to ask the big questions about the future of agriculture."

In a statement, Ian Johnson, the World Bank’s vice-president for sustainable development, pointed out that nearly 800 million people go to bed hungry every night, and that “over the next 50 years, food production will have to double to meet growing demands”.

Achieving this, he added, would involve both productivity and environmental management challenges. “As we move forward, the application of science to agriculture needs to be fully assessed in terms of its contribution to enabling farmers to be more productive,” said Johnson, who is also chair of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).

“But equally, the environmental and social risks, as well as ethical issues, need to be discussed in an open and transparent manner. By discussing and examining the issues with everyone from farmers and consumers to NGOs and governments, we can contribute to the informed dialogue among them.”

Watson said in a statement that his experience in chairing international assessments on climate change, biodiversity and ozone had led him to conclude that it was possible to ensure that a professional assessment in which all voices were heard could be achieved.

“Such agreements only work when they are inclusive and transparent. We must not shy away from the difficult challenge of discussing with a wide range of partners what exactly are the tradeoffs in using agricultural science to meet growing food needs.”

The consultative process, which is expected to last for two to three years, will seek input from interested parties through a number of ways, including meetings in various parts of the world, video conferences, and an interactive website at

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