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Rio+20 COMMENTARY: The impotence of science

In his blog Urs Niggli reports about the developments at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.

It’s winter at Copacabana beach. Our delegation is housed in a small apartment house, with the street number 2516, on the glamourous Avenida Atlantica: separated from the beach by a never ending stream of traffic that runs day and night. The temperature is a comfortable 24 degrees. The humidity is high.

Rio de Janeiro hosts the World Summit, Rio+20, of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (www.uncsd2012.org). We are collectively reflecting on the 20 years that have passed since the first Rio conference. And it’s also about the themes that will change our society, with financial and economic crises again at the top of the agenda. The same topics are naturally of special interest for IFOAM delegates, the international umbrella organization for organic agriculture: the alarming loss of biodiversity; the effects of climate change on food security and economic development for small farmers; and the ever present output orientation of agriculture that is socially and environmentally unsustainable

Rio brings back memories of the climate summit in Copenhagen in December 2009, when IFOAM and FiBL showcased the potential of organic agriculture at a major international event for teh first time. That winter there meant queuing for hours in temperatures of minus 20 degrees, snowdrifts and chaos. Copenhagen was on the brink of collapse under the onslaught of 45,000 delegates, while the security of more than 100 heads of state could not be guaranteed. It’s good that winter in Rio is milder and the people have a sunny disposition.

The number of delegates registered for Rio +20 is 19,000. It’s expected that many more than that will come and chaos is predicted. Rio means a daily battle with traffic. Buses and taxis become equally stuck. The conference venues are up to 40 km away from each other, which can mean 2 ½ hours in a bus. The Brazilians are relaxed about it: first I have to slow myself down.

The two delegates from Young Organics-Pavlos from Greece and Grace from Kenya—are always at the front. Pavlos is always conducting interviews with his iPad, whether with the most prominent delegates such as Achim Steiner: the UNEP director, or with small self caterers from the favelas. He blogs impatiently that “The Future we want is Organic!” (youngorganics.wordpress.com/category/rio20/). He is right, but we seniors are naturally more diplomatic. Even agro-ecology is faced with a difficult position in Rio. It’s not a good point in time for too much ecology. Supposedly the money’s not there and the agro-industrial lobby is having an impact with its strong campaign to promote further intensification of agriculture.

In 2008, the EU group from IFOAM developed the revolutionary scenario of an ecologically functioning intensification of agriculture (www.tporganics.eu). That means that farmers invest their energy into fertile soil; an intact and diverse landscape; and multifunctional and species rich farming systems, which in turn improves their livelihoods. But the term ecological intensification was weakened in the course of the global discussions, and was co-opted to mean that agriculture should become intensified and should try to cause less damage as it does so. Then the discussion suddenly changed to talk about sustainable intensification. Everybody has different understandings of the term ‘sustainability,’ so the tiger had definitely lost its teeth.

Since Monday this week, the scientists are meeting at the Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio de Janeiro - PUC-Rio (www.puc-rio.br/index.html). I want to be a student here! The lecture theatres, cafeterias and workplaces are in the middle of luxuriant tropical vegetation: between towering bamboo and giant palms.

The Forum on Science, Technology & Innovation for Sustainable Development (see www.icsu.org/rio20/science-and-technology-forum) met for five days (until this Friday). David Steuerman from the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in Montreal told of a sobering result. We have catastrophically failed! The loss of biological diversity is still accelerating. No government has claimed success. The powerlessness of science is tangible during the whole conference. The analysis is consistently grim, they all agree. Every presentation begins or ends with the now famous phrase: “business as usual is no longer an option”. This sentence was already included in the conclusions of the World Agriculture Report (see www.agassessment.org) in 2008. The radical changes that everybody agrees are absolutely necessary remain nebulous or contradictory. I will come back to some highlights of the conference in my next blog.

A good starting model for ecological farming? The ‘Organics’ are known for having a solution to everything! IFOAM was given the opportunity to host a 90 minute side event. The title of the event was ‘Food Security and Sustainable Agriculture: The Post Rio Agenda for Science and Knowledge Transfer for Sustainable Poverty Alleviation”. As part of the event, André Leu, the IFOAM president from Australia, Hans Herren from Biovision and winner of the FAO food prize, and Urs Niggli from FiBL all presented fascinating and promising research in ecological agriculture. The innovation is overwhelming, whether it’s in soil fertility research, organic fertilization and composting, in organic plant protection, in natural animal medicine or husbandry. The only restrictions are the lack of funding to seek such solutions: not the ideas and not the chances of success. Sue Edwards from the Institute for Sustainable Development in Ethiopia showed the example from the Tigray province in which knowledge intensive ecological techniques could immediately be made available to thousands of smallholder families. The only requirement is that more money should be invested in the public agricultural advisory services. Bishwadeep Ghose from India who, works as a “knowledge officer” under contract from the Dutch Development Agency (HIVOS), repeated the same tune. His main task is to implement, in the whole region, robust, species rich agricultural systems able to successfully adapt to changing climate. Away from monocultures: towards multifunctional landscapes.

Maria Fernanda Fonseca, who has worked for many years at the Brazilian Research Institute PESAGRO, disagrees with the idea that organic agriculture is only for export to Europe, Japan or the US. She presented four Brazilian initiatives, which were founded on the principles of self-responsibility and organic products for the local market. The model of a Participatory Guarantee System (PGS) that was developed in Brazil is strongly based on the principle that is widespread in science: namely peer review. Why shouldn’t farmers be able to judge whether their neighbour is farming ecologically or not? Why does it need an inspector who usually comes from Europe of the US? The four Brazilian Initiatives have almost 10000 members and are growing fast. More information about PGS can be found under www.ifoam.org/about_ifoam/standards/pgs.html.

Sébastien Treyer from the Institut de développement durable et des relations internationales (IDDRI) in Paris presented the latest reforms in international agricultural research (GCARD, gcardblog.wordpress.com), which had the CGIAR centers in focus. The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (www.cgiar.org) is a collation of the most important research centers in the South, which are occupied with improvement of the food situation. Agro-ecological research efforts are valued under the framework of these reforms. Sébastien Treyer sees a wealth of possibilities for dialogue with organic research.

Rio +20 is still young. Hopes of change are intact, and people are cautiously optimistic. The shock of the climate summit in Copenhagen is fresh in their memories.

Tomorrow I will report in my blog on an event on the transfer of farmers’ knowledge into the scientific community and on the IFOAM/FiBL initiative for a strengthening of research in organic agriculture.

Urs Niggli, June 15, 2012, 15:39

Further information


Urs Niggli, Director FiBL Switzerland