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An international study of global agriculture has concluded that significant investment in agricultural research is needed for the world to feed its growing population in an economically and environmentally sustainable way.

The three-year study, the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), involved more than 400 experts representing a range of stakeholders around the globe. It was released this week (15 April) after approval from 60 governments.

It says more research should be carried out into dryland agriculture, fisheries, orphan crops, and the impact of climate change on farming practices. It also asks for enhanced basic science, and technological and institutional changes "to address water and land problems".

But the report cautions against excessive optimism surrounding the ability of transgenic crops to solve the world's food problems, saying that not enough is known about their potential health and environmental risks.

And it argues that more must be done to focus on the technological needs of small-scale farmers, ensuring that intellectual property regimes do not prevent the integration of technology into farming practices.

The study was sponsored by a number of major international organisations, including the UN, the World Bank, the UN Food and Agricultural Organization and UNESCO.

It was coordinated by Robert Watson, a former chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and involved representatives of governments and members of civil society, such as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), food producers and consumer groups.

"Business as usual will not be sufficient to feed the world's population over the next half century," Watson said at a press conference in London, United Kingdom, yesterday (15 April).

He cited the wide range of problems associated with modern agricultural practices, ranging from the loss of biodiversity to the challenge of climate change.

Watson said that while food production per capita has increased and prices have decreased in the last 50 years, "800 million people go to bed hungry every night, and our achievements have come at the cost of a loss of environmental sustainability".

He argued that agriculture should no longer be seen as purely a productive industry, saying that the social, economic and environmental context of food production should also be considered.

Rajeswari Raina of the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi, lead author of the South Asian section of the report, said that while the report's "key message" was the need for more funding for research, science and technology (S&T) were only part of a wide range of social processes — such as access to technology and credit for farmers — required to sustainably increase food production.

The IAASTD report has been widely welcomed by environmental, consumer and development NGOs, particularly regarding its warnings on the environmental damage caused by conventional farming, support for small-scale farmers and lack of enthusiasm for transgenic crops.

A statement issued by an international coalition of such groups argues that the report "reflects a growing consensus among the global scientific community and most governments that the old paradigm of industrial, energy-intensive and toxic agriculture is a concept of the past".

However there has been a sceptical response from parts of both the food production industry and the agricultural research community. Many feel that the report fails to give S&T activities sufficient prominence, even in developing environmentally sustainable forms of agriculture.

Last autumn, for example, several agribusiness companies withdrew from participation in the writing of the report, complaining of excessive bias in its conclusions.

Australia, Canada and the United States have declined to give their approval to the final report. The United Kingdom is still deliberating whether to endorse its conclusions.

Link to report summary [891kB]