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Conference - Towards sustainable agriculture for developing countries: options from life sciences and biotechnologies
Last update: 29/01/2003 Element graphique
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Background info: Sustainable agriculture and developing countries

Context for action

Agricultural production in developing countries must increase as the number of mouths to feed continues to rise. This has to be achieved largely on existing agricultural land, using methods that do not deplete the Earth’s resources or cause lasting environmental damage. The prospects of future generations will be irreversibly harmed if sustainable ways of using the land are not properly harnessed.

These issues were addressed at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. It was there that the principles of sustainable development were laid down in a plan of action called Agenda 21. The adoption of sustainable agricultural methods is important to the whole process of sustainable development. Agenda 21 points out that:

“Major adjustments are needed in agricultural, environmental and macro-economic policy, at both national and international levels, in developed as well as developing countries, to create the conditions for sustainable agriculture and rural development. The major objective of sustainable agriculture and rural development is to increase food production in a sustainable way and enhance food security.

The recent ‘Rio +10’ conference, held in Johannesburg in September 2002, reinforced the world’s commitment to the principles of sustainable development. Among many key summit outcomes was a greater understanding of what is meant by sustainable development, particularly in terms of the inter-relationship between poverty, the environment and use of natural resources.

Commission Policy Drive

Europe is a major player in life sciences and biotechnologies. In its drive to assist in the development of new technologies, the Commission has not forgotten the need to share advances with the developing world in a fair and responsible way. Its major policy statement, “Life Sciences and Biotechnology: a Strategy for Europe” [(COM(2002) 27 final], clearly emphasises the need to put European capacities at the disposal of developing countries. Advances in these areas will help developing countries balance increases in yields with sustainable use of natural resources and economic efficiency. The Communication stresses the need for potential applications to be researched and assessed thoroughly. This should cover environmental safety issues and local need as it relates to reducing poverty, increasing food security and boosting nutritional quality.

The European strategy thus creates an opportunity for the research agenda and the EU’s Development Policy to establish synergy. The Commission’s development policy clearly identifies as its main objective the reduction and, eventually, the eradication of poverty. This objective entails support for sustainable economic, social and environmental development, promotion of the gradual integration of the developing countries into the world economy and a determination to combat inequality. Sustainable rural development and food security are important components of the Community’s anti-poverty strategies. As the livelihood of the rural population hinges on sustainable agriculture, poverty will not be eradicated without the substantial modernisation of agricultural production in developing countries.

Feeding without destroying

According to FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation) statistics, there are about 800 million undernourished people in the world. Many more endure unreliable supplies of food due to natural, economic or political problems. Unsustainable agricultural practices will only add to these difficulties. Appropriate use of the life sciences and biotechnologies can contribute to sustainable increases in agricultural production, by providing improved management practices, better yields, pest and disease resistance, and increases in abiotic stress tolerance for crops, livestock and fish. Appropriate selection of such technologies will reduce the need to use agro-chemicals, protecting the environment, as well as farmers, from their detrimental effects. The life sciences and biotechnologies can also contribute to the conservation of genetic diversity. For example, projects are running that assess how ecosystems are exploited and put under strain by man’s use of natural resources. The data gained can then be used to bring about more sensible usage of ecosystems that decreases the risk of losing key species.

Establishment of a responsible dialogue

The European Group on Life Sciences was established in April 2000 by the Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin to meet his need for high-level advice on life sciences and technologies. One of the group's tasks is to keep Commissioner Busquin informed about the current situation in this field and on imminent or foreseeable developments. Another duty is to contribute to the organisation and animation of a Life Sciences Discussion Platform, enabling scientists to engage in debate with the various 'stakeholders' interested in the beneficial application and dissemination of the new knowledge.
This year they have decided to organise an informative and pluralistic debate on the role of life sciences in a context of economic and social urgency, focused on the needs of developing countries. The conference is conceived as a discussion forum with the civil society. A limited number of scientific case studies will be presented, each clearly placed in its social and economic context. The presentations will be in layman's terms. Theories and ideologies will be avoided, with the emphasis on practical solutions to real problems. These keynote lectures will have the role of ensuring reliable introductory overviews of the topics, addressing a broad public, with the scope of providing a basis for initiating public debate.

More Information

To find out more about research activities relating to sustainable agriculture in developing countries, see this site’s project examples.