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Ethical limits and challenges in the intensification of agriculture

Intensification of agriculture has been essential for centuries in meeting the increasing demand of a growing world population for food. It has accelerated over the past few decades, partly as a result of developments in biotechnologies. There are, however, ethical limits and challenges to be faced, some of which were discussed by the Panel at this second session for further elaboration later. Two issues must be examined: whether and how intensification can ensure access for all to sufficient and adequate food; and how to avoid the harmful ecological consequences of intensification. It is essential to involve all relevant stakeholders in decisions about intensification, and to find ways to ensure that the interests of future generations are taken into account as well.

The Declaration adopted by the World Food Summit in 1996 stated that while food supplies have increased substantially, constraints on access to food and the continuing incapacity of household and national incomes to purchase food, instability in supply and demand, and natural and human-induced disasters, are preventing basic food needs from being fulfilled.

Intensification, while a necessary condition to produce more food, does not by itself ensure access for all to sufficient and adequate food. Whether intensification can ensure such access depends in part on where and how intensification takes place. While in earlier times agriculture was largely the province of smallholders, it is now becoming an increasingly large-scale business in many parts of the world.

It might be better to broaden the concept of sustainable development to cover ethically sound development that embraces social and ecological sustainability. Intensification should be pursued in ways that are socially responsible and that respect the interests of future generations.

There is urgent need for a global view of ethically sound development that takes into account the geographical location of primary needs. From a global perspective, it cannot be claimed that ethically sound development has been achieved when close to 800 million people continue to be severely malnourished. In the developed countries, children are born with a high probability of growing up and living a full life to age 75 or more. In developing counties, the birth rates are higher but a considerable number of these children face serious risks of bad health and early death, as well as shorter life expectancy. Ethically sound development would provide them with a better life and, as a consequence, lead to a reduction in population pressure.

Ethically sound developments, with greater attention to intensification for those who are presently marginal or weak, will also facilitate ecologically sound development. Greater and more equal distribution of wealth would undoubtedly reduce the rapid progression of uncontrolled population growth and reduce the risk that future generations will be harmed by an overexploited and polluted world. While the population in the developed countries is almost static (at present rates it will take more than 550 years to double) the increase in developing countries outside of China is dramatic (the population will double in just 35 years at present trends). Efforts to reduce and eliminate poverty would be greatly facilitated if educational and economic opportunities were provided for women. Not only would this improve gender equality and equity, but investment and aid would also give greater results and population growth would be slowed.

At the very least, measures for intensification must not lead to further impoverishment and food insecurity, which is what results when the land of smallholders and persons with unstable tenure is taken from them and given over to capital-intensive farming. In the realm of fisheries, the use of capital-intensive trawlers must be regulated so as not to deplete the fishing stocks near coastal areas – a practice that destroys the livelihood of traditional artisanal fishing populations. Technological progress must of course be encouraged even when there are known risks, but progress should be complemented by measures that minimize the negative consequences; those affected should be compensated through adequate alternatives.

The main priority at the present stage is not a global increase in food production, but broader access to food by those without it, either because they cannot afford to procure the necessary food or because they cannot produce it themselves. Intensification that could potentially increase the income of farmers who are marginal and poor at the present time would serve that purpose and should be encouraged. A majority of hungry people are either poor farmers or landless people living in rural areas, who are dependent on agricultural production. Properly empowered, many small farmers could succeed in making their plant varieties and animal breeds more competitive. They might be able to rise above the poverty threshold through intensification facilitated with appropriate credit and biotechnologies developed for their particular purposes. The conditions for ensuring sustainable intensification include access for all to education, improvement of general literacy and enhancement of the ability to make use of knowledge, including modern biotechnologies when appropriate; this requires deliberate action targeted for this purpose. As is recognized in international human rights conventions and legal instruments, everyone should benefit from the advances in science and technology. Such advances can be managed so as to ensure sustainability and food for all as a necessary priority and if knowledge and access to science and technology are broadly shared.

The Panel finds it highly regrettable that, over the past 15 years, aid to agriculture and rural development has declined by nearly half. The responsibility for this decline must be shared between donors and recipient governments. The attention of some governments has not been sufficiently drawn to the particular need for productive agricultural development and appropriate marketing possibilities for those living in rural areas in a context of food insecurity. In addition, many developed countries have not fulfilled their commitments of contributing 0.7 percent of gross national product for development assistance, and have not provided sufficient assistance to the agricultural sector.

Ecologically sustainable intensification will require greater productivity, but it must not create greater dependency on non-renewable resources. There is a serious risk that, without more effective management of land and water resources and of forest and fishery resources, we may be nearing carrying capacity at local, regional and even at world level, sometimes as a result of capital-intensive exploitation that undermines the livelihood of local populations.

Under its Terms of Reference, the Panel has been requested to pursue ethical reflection in the context of food security, sustainable use of natural resources, the safeguarding of biodiversity and a balanced mix of traditional and modern technologies to increase food security and sustainable agriculture. There are indications that a double track should be pursued in further agricultural developments, possibly by making a distinction between two different types of farmers – the farmer-producer and the farmer-curator. The farmer-producer focuses on mass production, particularly for a rapidly growing urban population, by means of an increasingly capital-intensive production; it is in this context that most of the intensification takes place and where smallholders are replaced by commercial enterprises or larger farms. Many of these larger entities pursue monoculture; most modern biotechnologies are developed with them in mind. Some of the recent forms of intensification of agriculture produce ecologically harmful effects or can cause dangers to human health, three examples of which can be cited. Probably the most vivid example is the bovine spongiform encephalopathy epidemic caused by feeding livestock with products derived from their own species. Second, the accelerating use of aquaculture has disrupted segments of the ecosystem. Finally, in the decade following the “green revolution” in Asia, large-scale insect pest outbreaks destabilized food production and were brought under control only later.

In many cases, smaller-scale farmers play the role of farmer-curators, who pursue more traditional farming practices in ways that assist in maintaining biodiversity, local knowledge and technologies; they sustain the traditional cultures of the societies in which they live. There may be a need for both types of farmers, but the farmer-curator possibly needs financial and other support to avoid or escape from poverty. This factor may justify further considerations concerning the varied roles of agriculture and place the issue of agricultural subsidies in a new light. While there may be little justification for subsidies to farmer-producers in a globalizing world, there may be good reason to support the farmer-curator, on whom we may have to depend for biodiversity, cultural harmony and respect for future generations.

Under all circumstances it will be important to use appropriate biotechnologies, whether modern or traditional, and to ensure that they are environmentally friendly. The ecologically sustainable intensification of agriculture will require attaining a goal of greater productivity without creating greater dependency on non-renewable resources and while maintaining respect for the global biosphere. Poverty in developing countries often forces people to use their available assets in an unsustainable way or at low levels of agricultural intensity. An additional problem is that the developed countries increasingly establish rules that require food production in their territories to conform to environmental sustainability requirements; yet some corporations headquartered in these countries but operating in developing countries, engage in or encourage environmentally degrading technologies or monoculture production patterns that endanger biodiversity.

In all efforts at agricultural intensification, ecological sustainability must be taken into account. The increasing scarcity of water, for example, is of critical concern. In the future, more food must be produced using less water.

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