Sustainable agriculture is feasible (28 October 1996)



Although agricultural subsidies are being phased down in Europe and North America, they continue to create distortions in the trade in agricultural products, largely to the detriment of development countries. These and other non-tariff barriers serve to deny developing countries their natural comparative advantage as producers of sugar, cotton and other agricultural products, the export earnings of which they will need to meet the costs of growing imports of food grain.

Crawford Memorial Lecture, delivered in Washington DC by Maurice Strong

I count it as a signal honour to have been invited to deliver this Crawford Memorial Lecture. First, because I had the privilege of knowing Sir John Crawford and of benefitting immensely in the earlier stages of my own career from his wise counsel and guidance and many acts of friendship. And secondly, because I was present at the creation of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research and am especially pleased to be able to join you in this way in marking its 25th anniversary. In doing so, I want to pay a special tribute to Sir John Crawford whose leadership during the early formative years of the CGIAR established the foundations and set the direction for the remarkable contribution it has made to the world community. His name is not a household word though few people in any age have done more to relieve the suffering and improve the lives of millions of people.

I must admit to you that my great pleasure in accepting this invitation was accompanied by a very real sense of trepidation. For the lecture platform is not my natural habitat and I am neither an expert nor a policy maker in the field of agriculture. So the views I will share with you are those of a layman and practitioner who has been involved over the years in a range of development and environment related activities closely related to the work and mission of the CGIAR.

Anniversaries are a time to look back, not in the spirit of nostalgia, but in reflection on what has been done and what we can learn from it. Certainly CGIAR's accomplishments in its first twenty-five years have more than exceeded the expectations of those who founded it. I know of no better example of the important role of private foundations than the vision and pioneering work of the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations which led to the establishment of CGIAR. It has proven to be a prescient and invaluable investment for them and for the world community.

New varieties of food grains

When in the late 1960s I was the new head of Canada's External Aid Program I recall being approached by the two Foundations to see if Canada might take a lead in mobilizing the support by government Development Assistant Programs for the research and development of new varieties of food grains, particularly rice at that time, which needed to be expanded beyond the capacity of the two sponsoring Foundations to continue as their sole source of support. I am pleased to say that Canada responded enthusiastically together with USAID and then Sweden's SIDA, followed soon by others. Results continued to be highly encouraging and led to growing recognition of its promising potential for meeting the rapidly increasing food needs of developing countries, leading to a discussion at the Rockefeller Foundation's Conference Centre in Bellagio in 1970 and 1971. Leading the discussion was Robert MacNamara, then the new President of the World Bank who was quick to appreciate the seminal importance of this work and the need for a broader, more reliable and structured framework for supporting it, both financially and technically. Out of this came the proposal for establishing the CGIAR under the leadership of the World Bank. The first formal meeting of the CGIAR was held at the Bank on May 19, 1991. There is no need to remind this audience of the many events that have marked the rapid development of the CGIAR system since then to a network of 16 international agricultural research centres supported by 52 public and private sector donors. At the core of this system are some 1000 highly skilled and experienced scientists from many disciplines and nationalities who can draw upon an even wider range of experts and specialists as required.

While CGIAR did not inaugurate the Green Revolution, it played an indispensable role in extending and sustaining it and in ensuring that the lessons learned and the experience gained from it are widely disseminated and applied. The CGIAR became the custodian of the Green Revolution as one of the most important and influential technological developments of our times, or indeed of any time. The fact that it was primarily responsible for approximate doubling of the yields of rice, wheat and maize between the 1960s and the 1990s is evidence of its success in increasing food production and avoiding the massive food shortages that have been so much predicted and feared in the 1950s and 1960s. But success always has its costs and the Green Revolution is no exception.

Critics point to the environmental and health impacts from the massive increase in the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers which the Green Revolution entailed, to the vulnerabilities which may arise through the spread of monocultures in which indigenous plant stocks are replaced by new, genetically engineered varieties. There has been concern, too, that the Green Revolution favoured the large and more wealthy farmers who could afford to take advantage of it and exacerbated the plight of the small holders, the landless and farm labourers. While there is clearly some validity in these concerns, they do not outweigh the benefits that have been achieved in sparing millions of people from the plight of hunger and malnutrition and relieving major food-deficit nations, notably India, from their dependence on imports of food grains.

Ominous implications


The success of the Green Revolution in increasing production of basic food grains has exacted another cost which has ominous implications for the future. I speak of the complacency that has replaced the alarmist predictions of food shortages and massive starvation which drove early support for the Green Revolution and the work of CGIAR. This complacency has undoubtedly played a part in the lower priority that many developing country governments, and development assistance agencies, have accorded to agriculture during the past two decades. This complacency seems likely also to have been a factor in declining support for CGIAR in the early 1990s. This, together with a certain amount of the kind of creeping institutional sclerosis that affects most successful organizations, produced a crisis of confidence which called into question the future of CGIAR. Thanks largely to the vigorous and enlightened leadership of the World Bank's Ismail Serageldin, now Chairman of CGIAR, a rapid and decisive response from the CGIAR membership has revitalized CGIAR and put it on a promising track for the future in which the world community will have an even greater need for its services.

As you know, Lester Brown of WorldWatch has long been warning against complacency and pointing to the growing vulnerabilities in the world's food supply system. FAO has called for massive new efforts to improve food security at both national and household levels based on a "new" green revolution, drawing on the social-economic lessons of the Green Revolution as well as its advances in agricultural science. The CGIAR, as part of its renewal program, has called for a "doubly green revolution", green for productivity and green for natural resource mangement. The World Bank is revisiting its own policies on agriculture and, under President Jim Wolfensohn, is giving it renewed priority.

If there ever was a case for complacency, it has surely been overtaken by the sobering evidence of the challenge we face in doubling world food production by the year 2025. It will be a formidable task, but even more daunting will be the challenge of ensuring that poor people in food-deficit areas receive the quality and quantities of food they will require for their basic sustenance.

Match food availability with needs


The knowledge and the technologies developed primarily as a result of the Green Revolution will, I believe, make it possible to produce the food the world will need in the foreseeable future on a globally aggregated basis, subject to the major qualification that we do not at this point know how food production may be affected by climate change, something I will come back to shortly. The other issue is how to match food availability with food needs, particularly on the part of the poor. Even in times of food scarcity those with the resources to purchase food can usually obtain it. Conversely, even in times of food abundance those without the means are often hungry and malnourished. Poverty, more than lack of availability, is what denies many the access to the food they need.

On the supply side, it seems probable that the genetic technologies and intensive fanning methods developed during the Green Revolution, and the rapid development of biotechnologies can produce further significant increases in production. But these prospects are clouded by some major uncertainties and vulnerabilities. Let me mention some of them. These include:

The degree to which climate change may disrupt weather and rainfall patterns. Climatologists tell us that even without the effects of greater greenhouse gas emissions, it would be logical to expect some deviation from the relatively benign period of climate we have enjoyed in the past century or so. And if human induced climate change is in fact underway, it is likely to be accompanied by a good deal more climatic turbulence than what we have come to regard as normal -greater extremes of both heat and cold, drought and flood, as well as severe storms. Such extremes can wreak havoc with food production. The great famine of 1984-86 in Sub-Saharan Africa was preceded by 17 years of below average rainfall.

Recent advances in biotechnology which promise even greater increases in yields may also radically change patterns of production away from traditional land-based practices to more intensive industrial type production systems. This will affect initially the higher-value crops, including some of those on which developing countries depend for their export earnings. You will, I am sure, be aware of the case of vanilla in which a genetically engineered product produced industrially has largely taken over the market from natural vanilla which was an important source of income for Madagascar and some other countries of that region. I participated in a presentation recently at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology which pointed to the immense potential of these biotechnological techniques to increase production and stabilize the quality of a wide range of agricultural products. Welcome as this would be in terms of ensuring supply, it would clearly shift the locus of production to those with the capital, technology and specialized management expertise to use these techniques. This could lead to a new generation of comparative disadvantage and dependency for many developing countries. At the same time it could open up some new opportunities for them to participate in the benefits of this potential new
agricultural revolution.

Greater costs

The environmental, health and social costs that have accompanied the increases in production achieved by the Green Revolution are likely to impose greater costs and constraints on future production increases. A recent study by the World Resources Institute cites evidence of the ill effects of the rapid growth in the use of chemical pesticides which have become the main means of controlling pests. Global sales of pesticides rose by some 11.2% annually between 1960 and 1992 and reached 29 billion dollars by 1995. The report points to the economic, social and health costs exacted by the massive increases in pesticide use and the evidence that much of this is proving to be ineffectual and self-defeating as pests develop resistance to the chemicals used and new pests emerge. Developing countries are particularly vulnerable to these effects. The WRI report indicates that half of pesticide poisonings of people and 80% of pesticide-related deaths occur in developing countries which account for only some 15 to 20% of world pesticide use. Also becoming more evident are the health risks that arise from the accumulation of pesticide residues in the environment and food products.

Similarly, the use of chemical fertilizers so indispensable to the major increases in production that have occurred through the Green Revolution are a growing source of contamination of soils, water and the food chain.

Much of the world, particularly developing countries in which population growth is concentrated, is approaching the limits of the availability of new cropland, while existing cropland is being degraded or lost to urban expansion.  China's notable achievements in feeding more than 20% of the world's people from less than 7% of its land area is a particularly important case in point. Although it has continued to bring new land into production, it nevertheless experienced a net loss of some 3.87 million hectares of cropland in the 1987-92 period and prospects are that losses will soon overtake the entire potential for expansion.

China also provides an example of the effects of continuing urbanization with plans to build nearly 600 new cities by 2010 as existing cities continue to grow. While Africa and Latin America have significant potential for expansion of cropland areas, much of it consists of land that is marginal. Meanwhile, the cropland being lost to urban expansion is generally of a higher quality, particularly ominous is the beginning of a decline in irrigated lands globally after a long period of expansion.

Major shifts in rainfall and weather patterns

Quite apart from the prospect that climate change could effect major shifts in rainfall and weather patterns, availability of useable water supplies is subject to significant reduction through overdrawing and contamination of ground water resources and river systems, large-scale wastage of water through mis-management often encouraged by misguided policies. Water is one of the most ancient sources of conflict amongst people and these conflicts are likely to become more numerous and more acute in the period ahead.

Degradation of existing productive lands through soil erosion, salination and contamination is permanently undermining their productivity. Estimates quoted in a WorldWatch Report  indicate that erosion affects more than a third of China's croplands, that salination has reduced yields of 7 million hectares and another 7 million hectares have been polluted by industrial waste. The same report estimates that soil erosion now affects some two-thirds of Russia's arable land, nearly 94% of Iran's, some 60% of Pakistan's and 25% of India's.

And that salination has forced large areas out of production. Loss and degradation of cropland is not confined to developing countries. In California, more than 125,000 acres of cropland were lost to urban or non-farm uses between 1984 and 19924 and the productivity of the Great Plains area of mid-west US and Canada is being undermined by soil erosion, loss of organic matter, salination, and acidification. As this region produces a high proportion of the food supplies on which the food-deficit areas of the world depend, a decline in productivity would have important implications for availability of supplies to developing countries.

Irrigation is one of the oldest methods of increasing agricultural productivity. It has also played a key role in the almost tripling of world grain production from 1950 to 1990. Now however, this expansion is levelling off while irrigated off lands are being degraded or lost.

Degradation of existing lands

Limits to expansion of cropland areas and loss and degradation of existing lands is particularly ominous in the face of continued growth in both the world population and its economy. This is brought into stark relief by the knowledge that the area devoted to production of food grains shrunk by some 30% on a per capita basis between 1950 and 1981 and is now reduced to 0.12% hectares per capita, and is continuing to fall.

Croplands taken out of production in the United States and Europe provide a significant reserve capacity but, however useful this would be in the short term, its long term impact would not be substantial.

Another area of vulnerability is the increase in the use of meat as it becomes affordable to an increasing proportion of the world's population, particularly in rapidly developing countries. Some two of every five tons of grain produced in the world is fed to livestock, poultry or fish. Two kilograms of grain are required to produce a kilo of chicken or fish and the conversion ratio is up to 7 kilos of grain for a kilo of meat for grain-fed cattle.

Even this very inadequate summary of some of the constraints and vulnerabilities we confront in meeting the world's future food needs underscore the complexity of this challenge and its relationship with the broad range of factors that are shaping the future of our technological civilization.

Transtition to sustainable agriculture

The transition to a sustainable agricultural and food production system is an essential pre-condition to a secure and sustainable future for the human community as a whole. We must awaken from our recent complacency and give highest priority to making our agricultural and food production system truly sustainable. There are many good examples which demonstrate that this is possible. Let me cite briefly a few cases from the recent report of the World Resources Institute on "New Partnerships for Sustainable Agriculture":

 


A recent meeting sponsored by the World Engineering Partnership for Sustainable Development and the World Bank focussed on the close interaction between rural and urban life and pointed up some highly promising examples of how the organic wastes generated in urban areas can be utilized to increase agricultural productivity on a sustainable basis in rural areas. This, too, offers a promising prospect for the future work of CGIAR.

Empowerment of farmers

In all of these cases the common elements are an emphasis on empowerment and participation of farmers and communities, institutional collaboration and the application of agri-ecological principles which combine traditional with modern scientific knowledge.

These and other good examples indicate that sustainable agriculture is feasible at the local and community level when people and institutions cooperate. But for these experiences to become the norm rather than the exception, they need to be supported by a conducive national policy environment and international development agencies. While there has been an encouraging move in this direction, particularly with the World Bank's new emphasis on sustainable agriculture, the policies of most countries are still geared more to increasing production than to ensuring its sustainability.

Land ownership is an important constraint on the stewardship of land in many countries, particularly Latin America. One of the most effective means of providing incentives to small farmers for sustainable management of their lands is to enable them to own it.

What does all this mean to the CGIAR and the research centres it supports? Let me offer a few observations:

CGIAR and its network of agricultural research institute has become one of the most unique and important assets of the world community by focussing primarily on technologies and techniques that will increase food production. It must now turn more of its attention to dealing with the risks and vulnerabilities which I have cited above if it is to lead the transition to a sustainable agricultural economy. Already an increasing amount of the work of the centres is devoted to these issues, but I submit that this portion must increase.

CGIAR's centres should concentrate more of their attention on creating a positive synthesis between the modern scientific techniques they have been pioneering and traditional knowledge and practices. This means integrating their work more fully with the institution, the scientists and the farmers in the communities in which they are located and to which their work pertains.
I would like to see CGIAR pay special attention to helping developing countries anticipate the effects on their own agricultural and economic prospects from new developments in biotechnology and to assist them in participating in and benefitting from these developments. This I see as one of the most important contributions that CGIAR can make to the world community in the period ahead.
CGIAR should focus more and more of its efforts on helping small farmers, and especially the poorest of them, to access the knowledge and the resources required to increase their own productivity in accordance with sustainable development principles. While it is possible to envisage that the world's aggregate food needs could be met by large, industrialized agricultural enterprises, the social and human consequences of this would be clearly devastating.

High-value crops


I would also like to see the formidable research and development capabilities of the CGIAR institutes utilized to a greater extent to help developing countries to improve their competitive advantage in growing high-value crops that can produce the export earnings they will require to meet their needs for food imports.

To lead the transition to sustainable agriculture, CGIAR and its institutes will need to integrate the environmental and social dimensions of their work with their scientific research and development to a much greater extent than has yet been done. This has important implications for future staffing and programming. In essence, agriculture is primarily an energy conversion system. Modern agriculture is highly intensive and inefficient in its use of energy. Increasing the energy efficiency of agriculture and reducing its use of fossil fuels is an area I would particularly recommend to CGIAR for its future work. Indeed, it should consider establishing a new centre, or program, for this purpose. Given that poverty is the principal source of hunger and malnutrition for the poor, CGIAR should focus more of its efforts on helping to develop sustainable livelihoods for the rural poor, most of which will have their basis, directly or indirectly, in agriculture.

My work with the late Bradford Morse in the United Nations Office for Emergency Operations in Africa in 1984-86 gave me personal experience of the human tragedy of famine and some sobering insights into its causes and consequences. This brought home to Ine vividly the reality that while droughts are inevitable, famine is not. It is the product of human mis-management, ecological breakdown, neglect, inequity and poverty. Poverty, sometimes combined with greed, results in overgrazing of lands which produces degradation and loss of productivity, in some cases reducing them to deserts. Cutting down of trees to open up new land for cultivation and provide firewood, produces soil erosion and disrupts watersheds. Misguided government policies and inadequate budgets deny rural peoples access to the transportation and infrastructure to move their products to markets and bring in supplies from outside.

The transport connection


I well recall a situation in the western Sudan in which people were literally starving in one valley whereas there were food surpluses in the adjoining valley with which there was no serviceable transport connection. While individual farmers usually have their own grain storage, these were sufficient only to meet short term needs and not the extended periods of drought they had experienced. Yet the government and community level food storage was virtually non existent. At that time, as you will recall, the world community responded generously and shipped in massive amounts of food and other supplies. But this was at a time when governments of the grain surplus countries had large supplies on hand and
contributions from these met domestic as well as international purposes.

Today the situation is radically different. Surplus stocks of grain have fallen in 1996 to a level as low as the equivalent of 48 days of consumption, the lowest on record, and prices of wheat have doubled. Per capita grain production has fallen 15% since 1984 after increasing by 40% since 1950, and available croplands for grain production are rapidly diminishing.<sup>6</sup> Food aid was cut in half to some 7.6 million tonnes between 1993 and 1996 and in December 1995 the European Union imposed an export tax of $32 a ton on wheat, a form of reverse protectionism which could be an ominous portend for the future. Some 120 countries now rely on imports to meet their food grain needs, the principal sources of which are North America, Europe and Australia. Many of these, particularly the chronically food-deficit countries of Sub-Saharan Africa, have little prospect of being able to pay for the grain they must import, particularly if the current trend towards higher prices continues.

While some argue that this is a temporary phenomenon, it illustrates the vulnerabilities and uncertainties to which I have referred. The per capita catch of seafood has fallen some 7% since 1989 after doubling during the period 1950 to 1989. Already this has led to conflict, including the tense confrontation two years ago between Canada and the European Union.

Disposing of surpluses


Food aid as a means of disposing of surpluses has diminished greatly and cannot be seen as a reliable source of food for those in need in the future. The only safe assumption on which food-deficit countries can plan is that they will have to pay for their food imports. At the level of people the same will be true. They will either have to grow or pay for their food. This underscores the need for a massive effort to alleviate poverty which, I am pleased to say, President Jim Wolfensohn has made a central priority for the World Bank. The process of revitalizing and reorienting CGIAR and its agricultural research centres which Ismail Serageldin had initiated promises to prepare this unique system of institutions for an expanded role in shaping the world's agricultural future and its transition to a sustainable system of food supply. This will require much greater levels of financial support, which will not be easy to come by under current conditions. The CGIAR has a strong case for a larger share of development assistance budgets as its research and development programs have clearly demonstrated that they produce returns that cannot be replicated in any other field of development. At the same time, CGIAR must be enterprising and innovative in developing other sources of funds, including perhaps seeking a portion of the added value it creates for its clients.

Finally, let me say that while none-of use can feel confident in predicting the future, all of us must prepare for it. Despite the daunting nature of the challenge while confronts us in meeting the world's food needs in the 21st century, I remain an optimist. But to succeed we must accelerate the transition to sustainable agriculture. It will require a degree of common purpose and cooperation amongst nations, institutions, and people beyond anything we have yet achieved. Modern technology has provided us with the means of doing this.

The main barriers will be human attitudes, political will and institutional inertia. These will not be easy to overcome. But history tells us that necessity drives change. And we must believe that the growing awareness of the necessity for the change to sustainable agriculture will provide the will and impetus to effect this change. CGIAR and the World Bank will be at the centre of this process. And it is reassuring at this critical juncture to have in Ismail Serageldin at CGIAR and Jim Wolfensohn at the World Bank the kind of leadership that this requires.

Although agricultural subsidies are being phased down in Europe and North America, they continue to create distortions in the trade in agricultural products, largely to the detriment of development countries. These and other non-tariff barriers serve to deny developing countries their natural comparative advantage as producers of sugar, cotton and other agricultural products, the export earnings of which they will need to meet the costs of growing imports of food grain.

As a non-expert I will not take sides in the argument as to whether the foreseeable future will be one of growing food scarcity or continuing abundance. I tend to be persuaded by the evidence that it will be feasible on a globally aggregated basis to produce all of the food required to satisfy the needs and the appetites of a growing world population. I am also impressed by the many uncertainties and vulnerabilities that we face in doing this as well as the prospects of escalating environmental and social costs. What seems certain is that in order to meet these needs and to make the transition to sustainable agriculture on which our longer term future depends, will require a radical overhaul of government policies and a degree of cooperation amongst nations, institutions and peoples on a scale without precedent in human experience. This means moving agriculture back into the centre of the international and national agendas and it means confronting this challenge with new policy and management regimes that are systemic in nature, that recognize and are able to deal with the complex, inter-acting relationships in the physical, economic and social domains which will be the only viable pathway to a sustainable agricultural future.

I would not pretend to prescribe these specifics of the solutions that must emerge from this process, but if I read the evidence correctly, it certainly points to this as the general direction in which we must move.

 

1. New Partnerships for Sustainable Agriculture by World Resources Institute

 


A recent meeting sponsored by the World Engineering Partnership for Sustainable Development and the World Bank focussed on the close interaction between rural and urban life and pointed up some highly promising examples of how the organic wastes generated in urban areas can be utilized to increase agricultural productivity on a sustainable basis in rural areas. This, too, offers a promising prospect for the future work of CGIAR.

Empowerment of farmers

In all of these cases the common elements are an emphasis on empowerment and participation of farmers and communities, institutional collaboration and the application of agri-ecological principles which combine traditional with modern scientific knowledge.

These and other good examples indicate that sustainable agriculture is feasible at the local and community level when people and institutions cooperate. But for these experiences to become the norm rather than the exception, they need to be supported by a conducive national policy environment and international development agencies. While there has been an encouraging move in this direction, particularly with the World Bank's new emphasis on sustainable agriculture, the policies of most countries are still geared more to increasing production than to ensuring its sustainability.

Land ownership is an important constraint on the stewardship of land in many countries, particularly Latin America. One of the most effective means of providing incentives to small farmers for sustainable management of their lands is to enable them to own it.

What does all this mean to the CGIAR and the research centres it supports? Let me offer a few observations:

CGIAR and its network of agricultural research institute has become one of the most unique and important assets of the world community by focussing primarily on technologies and techniques that will increase food production. It must now turn more of its attention to dealing with the risks and vulnerabilities which I have cited above if it is to lead the transition to a sustainable agricultural economy. Already an increasing amount of the work of the centres is devoted to these issues, but I submit that this portion must increase.

CGIAR's centres should concentrate more of their attention on creating a positive synthesis between the modern scientific techniques they have been pioneering and traditional knowledge and practices. This means integrating their work more fully with the institution, the scientists and the farmers in the communities in which they are located and to which their work pertains.
I would like to see CGIAR pay special attention to helping developing countries anticipate the effects on their own agricultural and economic prospects from new developments in biotechnology and to assist them in participating in and benefitting from these developments. This I see as one of the most important contributions that CGIAR can make to the world community in the period ahead.
CGIAR should focus more and more of its efforts on helping small farmers, and especially the poorest of them, to access the knowledge and the resources required to increase their own productivity in accordance with sustainable development principles. While it is possible to envisage that the world's aggregate food needs could be met by large, industrialized agricultural enterprises, the social and human consequences of this would be clearly devastating.

High-value crops


I would also like to see the formidable research and development capabilities of the CGIAR institutes utilized to a greater extent to help developing countries to improve their competitive advantage in growing high-value crops that can produce the export earnings they will require to meet their needs for food imports.

To lead the transition to sustainable agriculture, CGIAR and its institutes will need to integrate the environmental and social dimensions of their work with their scientific research and development to a much greater extent than has yet been done. This has important implications for future staffing and programming. In essence, agriculture is primarily an energy conversion system. Modern agriculture is highly intensive and inefficient in its use of energy. Increasing the energy efficiency of agriculture and reducing its use of fossil fuels is an area I would particularly recommend to CGIAR for its future work. Indeed, it should consider establishing a new centre, or program, for this purpose. Given that poverty is the principal source of hunger and malnutrition for the poor, CGIAR should focus more of its efforts on helping to develop sustainable livelihoods for the rural poor, most of which will have their basis, directly or indirectly, in agriculture.

My work with the late Bradford Morse in the United Nations Office for Emergency Operations in Africa in 1984-86 gave me personal experience of the human tragedy of famine and some sobering insights into its causes and consequences. This brought home to Ine vividly the reality that while droughts are inevitable, famine is not. It is the product of human mis-management, ecological breakdown, neglect, inequity and poverty. Poverty, sometimes combined with greed, results in overgrazing of lands which produces degradation and loss of productivity, in some cases reducing them to deserts. Cutting down of trees to open up new land for cultivation and provide firewood, produces soil erosion and disrupts watersheds. Misguided government policies and inadequate budgets deny rural peoples access to the transportation and infrastructure to move their products to markets and bring in supplies from outside.

The transport connection


I well recall a situation in the western Sudan in which people were literally starving in one valley whereas there were food surpluses in the adjoining valley with which there was no serviceable transport connection. While individual farmers usually have their own grain storage, these were sufficient only to meet short term needs and not the extended periods of drought they had experienced. Yet the government and community level food storage was virtually non existent. At that time, as you will recall, the world community responded generously and shipped in massive amounts of food and other supplies. But this was at a time when governments of the grain surplus countries had large supplies on hand and
contributions from these met domestic as well as international purposes.

Today the situation is radically different. Surplus stocks of grain have fallen in 1996 to a level as low as the equivalent of 48 days of consumption, the lowest on record, and prices of wheat have doubled. Per capita grain production has fallen 15% since 1984 after increasing by 40% since 1950, and available croplands for grain production are rapidly diminishing.<sup>6</sup> Food aid was cut in half to some 7.6 million tonnes between 1993 and 1996 and in December 1995 the European Union imposed an export tax of $32 a ton on wheat, a form of reverse protectionism which could be an ominous portend for the future. Some 120 countries now rely on imports to meet their food grain needs, the principal sources of which are North America, Europe and Australia. Many of these, particularly the chronically food-deficit countries of Sub-Saharan Africa, have little prospect of being able to pay for the grain they must import, particularly if the current trend towards higher prices continues.

While some argue that this is a temporary phenomenon, it illustrates the vulnerabilities and uncertainties to which I have referred. The per capita catch of seafood has fallen some 7% since 1989 after doubling during the period 1950 to 1989. Already this has led to conflict, including the tense confrontation two years ago between Canada and the European Union.

Disposing of surpluses


Food aid as a means of disposing of surpluses has diminished greatly and cannot be seen as a reliable source of food for those in need in the future. The only safe assumption on which food-deficit countries can plan is that they will have to pay for their food imports. At the level of people the same will be true. They will either have to grow or pay for their food. This underscores the need for a massive effort to alleviate poverty which, I am pleased to say, President Jim Wolfensohn has made a central priority for the World Bank. The process of revitalizing and reorienting CGIAR and its agricultural research centres which Ismail Serageldin had initiated promises to prepare this unique system of institutions for an expanded role in shaping the world's agricultural future and its transition to a sustainable system of food supply. This will require much greater levels of financial support, which will not be easy to come by under current conditions. The CGIAR has a strong case for a larger share of development assistance budgets as its research and development programs have clearly demonstrated that they produce returns that cannot be replicated in any other field of development. At the same time, CGIAR must be enterprising and innovative in developing other sources of funds, including perhaps seeking a portion of the added value it creates for its clients.

Finally, let me say that while none-of use can feel confident in predicting the future, all of us must prepare for it. Despite the daunting nature of the challenge while confronts us in meeting the world's food needs in the 21st century, I remain an optimist. But to succeed we must accelerate the transition to sustainable agriculture. It will require a degree of common purpose and cooperation amongst nations, institutions, and people beyond anything we have yet achieved. Modern technology has provided us with the means of doing this.

The main barriers will be human attitudes, political will and institutional inertia. These will not be easy to overcome. But history tells us that necessity drives change. And we must believe that the growing awareness of the necessity for the change to sustainable agriculture will provide the will and impetus to effect this change. CGIAR and the World Bank will be at the centre of this process. And it is reassuring at this critical juncture to have in Ismail Serageldin at CGIAR and Jim Wolfensohn at the World Bank the kind of leadership that this requires.

Although agricultural subsidies are being phased down in Europe and North America, they continue to create distortions in the trade in agricultural products, largely to the detriment of development countries. These and other non-tariff barriers serve to deny developing countries their natural comparative advantage as producers of sugar, cotton and other agricultural products, the export earnings of which they will need to meet the costs of growing imports of food grain.

As a non-expert I will not take sides in the argument as to whether the foreseeable future will be one of growing food scarcity or continuing abundance. I tend to be persuaded by the evidence that it will be feasible on a globally aggregated basis to produce all of the food required to satisfy the needs and the appetites of a growing world population. I am also impressed by the many uncertainties and vulnerabilities that we face in doing this as well as the prospects of escalating environmental and social costs. What seems certain is that in order to meet these needs and to make the transition to sustainable agriculture on which our longer term future depends, will require a radical overhaul of government policies and a degree of cooperation amongst nations, institutions and peoples on a scale without precedent in human experience. This means moving agriculture back into the centre of the international and national agendas and it means confronting this challenge with new policy and management regimes that are systemic in nature, that recognize and are able to deal with the complex, inter-acting relationships in the physical, economic and social domains which will be the only viable pathway to a sustainable agricultural future.

I would not pretend to prescribe these specifics of the solutions that must emerge from this process, but if I read the evidence correctly, it certainly points to this as the general direction in which we must move.