Science and technology for sustainable development

SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY are two crucial components of all efforts aimed at fostering growth and socioeconomic development of nations. This is why since its creation in 1945, in accordance with its mandate, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has promoted science and technology for development in all domains of food and agriculture.

The principal agricultural technologies adopted over the past sixty years or so have been mainly in the areas of mineral fertilizer use, plant breeding and protection, livestock feeding and disease control, and mechanization. In industrialized countries the combined use of these advances has been responsible for rapid growth in the yield of food and other products from agriculture. But agroecological and socioeconomic contributions determined the way advances were put to use. To take two extreme courses of development, land scarcity and relative abundance of labour in Japan caused stress to be put on mineral fertilizers and on improved plant varieties. Labour scarcity and abundant land resources in the USA led to rapid mechanization of farming.

In early times science-based agriculture increased production of food crops in the more industrialized countries and beverage and non-food crops in the developing countries. The observation that the food needs of the then much smaller populations in the tropics and sub-tropics could be met in most seasons from traditionally-evolved agriculture led to a relative neglect of research on local staple foods such as sorghum, millet, cassava and plantains.

The impetus and resources for research on non-food and beverage crops that could be grown there derived from the real demand for the products of agro-industries located in the colonizing nations of the temperate zone. Thus science-based technologies for the production of cotton, rubber, tobacco and tea were applied in plantation-style farming systems with a measure of success that could not even be approached in the traditional food crops small-farms sector in the developing world.

Many factors contributed to exacerbate the consequences of neglect of research on staple food crops production. Among these, during the wave of nation building following World War II, were burgeoning population growth, urbanization, droughts, floods and other emergencies including some created by man. The gap in science-based agricultural technologies applied in food production widened between industrialized and developing countries, leading to surpluses in many of the former and deficits resulting in mass under-nutrition and starvation in many of the latter.

Impact of science and technology on agricultural development

Advances in scientific knowledge of biosynthesis in plants, especially the identification and use in plant breeding of dwarfing genes in wheat and rice, were embodied in the new technologies associated with high-yielding varieties. These and other new technologies which were introduced in the populous south Asian subcontinent mainly during the 1960s, came to be known as the “Green Revolution”. The technologies again were a composite affair. High yields generally were achieved by providing improved varieties, together with controlled irrigation, the application of fertilizer, herbicides and insecticides as needed.

The past contributions of science and technology to agricultural development have not been free from trouble nor have they met all needs. But in most of what are now considered developed countries, progress in industrialization and economic growth has in fact been achieved on the shoulders of agriculture. This progress was achieved over many generations, and on an agriculture base strengthened by new science and technology in implements, machines and husbandry.

The surpluses produced in recent decades by agriculture in developed market economies have helped to provide food security for mankind, but predictably these surpluses have caused a shift in emphasis in developed countries from increased production to food safety and other concerns of the consumer and the public.

If science and technology are to have greater impact on agriculture in developing countries, important policy changes are required. For most nations newly established in the 1950s and 1960s agriculture was the main economic activity of the population. Policies and strategies were adopted to speed development. Some countries sought the answer by selling valuable resources such as metals, minerals and petroleum. Others viewed their agriculture as a backward sector offering little near-term prospect of modern development. They sought to tax its income and to transfer its foreign exchange earnings so as to stimulate growth elsewhere, particularly to establish industries. Many others perceived agriculture as the basis for national growth. This growth, initially concentrated in agriculture, would then spread to other sectors of the economy.

Where priority was placed and maintained on agriculture, using the gain from this sector to support balanced industrial development, economic and material progress has resulted for much of the population and the nation. The expectations of those countries that opted for early industrialization, in the belief that it would pull rural areas into development, have remained largely unfulfilled.

The course of development sketched above is of course a simplification. It is meant to show the need for and the rewards of giving priority to science and technology in the service of agriculture for development. Throughout the developing world growth in agricultural production and productivity remains a top priority and challenge.

The challenge of a changing world

More scientists at work, advances in computing, and faster communications worldwide are spawning an age of rapid change. Differences between developed and developing countries grow smaller in a few instances and greater in many more.

Globally, there has been growing concern in recent years over food security, over the quality of the environment and over energy resources. Debt has become a drag on development instead of the aid which foreign investment promised initially. The sustainability of food and agricultural production has become a critical issue. Threats to distant markets for commodities of developing countries may further erode the terms of the trade which generates resources for development. Agricultural policies and technological advances put into effect in advanced countries continue to inhibit steady, balanced development of agriculture in much of the developing world.

Within the developing world, relationships and concerns are changing as well, in some cases with ominous rapidity. For example, urbanization leads to changes in the demand for food and tends to favour products that offer ease in transport, storage, processing and preparation. Migration and transfer of wealth to cities exacerbate the differences between rural and urban standards of living. Large numbers of rural farmers cannot maintain the natural resource base on which their livelihood depends. Urbanization is among the forces leading to increasing use for agriculture of environments that are marginal for cultivation because of poor soil or unreliable rainfall.

Moreover, in many countries a limit is in sight to new land that can be brought into cultivation at reasonable cost. In future the greater part of the production of food and other agricultural materials to meet demands as a result of population growth and rising incomes of the poorer sector will have to come from more intensive agriculture and increased yields. Science and technology can provide the knowledge and tools to meet the challenge of more and better food and agricultural products. Whether and how the knowledge and tools are applied are questions that engrave yet further lines on the already very complex face of the challenge. These lines are drawn by the capacity of countries to acquire, adopt or generate needed technologies, and indeed to identify what technologies will be needed tomorrow in this fast-changing world.

Science and technology in the United Nations system

One of the main goals of the United Nations system is to promote advances in the developing countries in order to narrow the material gap that separates them from the industrialized countries. The generation of new knowledge through science and the use of that knowledge for development through technology have been recognized as essential steps in the pursuit of this goal.

In 1964 the UN created an Advisory Committee on Application of Science and Technology (ACAST) to advise the Secretary-General on this topic. ACAST recommended that a UN Conference on Science and Technology be convened. The Committee ceased to exist shortly after that Conference was held in Vienna in August 1979. The Conference adopted the Vienna Programme of Action on Science and Technology for Development. This had as its principal thrusts: strengthening the capacities of developing countries; restructuring international relations; strengthening the role of the United Nations system; and increasing the financial resources for these purposes.

A review of the implementation of the Programme of Action in August 1989, ten years after the Vienna meeting, confirmed the validity of the goals and recommended the funding of activities to reach them. The effect of increasing disparities in scientific and technological capabilities between industrialized and developing countries as a whole had contributed to a widening of the economic gap between them. The UN system should therefore devote increased attention to building national capacity for science and technology in developing countries, and donors should support this effort. (The Vienna Programme of Action has yet to receive the funding necessary for its full implementation.)

Prior to the Vienna Conference, FAO, together with UNDP and the World Bank, had already taken steps in the late 1960s to harness the forces of science and technology in the field of agriculture. In light of inadequate research on food crops important to populations in the developing world, they sponsored a Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). Established in 1971, the CGIAR has funded and overseen for two decades 13 autonomous international centres. Their task is to develop, through applied research, new and better varieties of food crop plants; improved farming practices; means to collect, keep safe and harness for use plant genetic resources; and methods of detection, treatment and prevention of major animal diseases. They also provide guidance on food policies and on how to strengthen national research systems of developing countries to allow them to participate better in the global system for agricultural research. The CGIAR has expanded recently by including in its ambit three international centres concerned with natural resources on land (agroforestry, banana and plantains) and in the water (fishery resources).

The role of FAO

Sponsorship of the CGIAR is just one of the ways in which FAO has been seeking to bring science and technology to bear on the challenges set for the Organization. FAO’s tasks, as summarized in the preamble to its constitution, consist of:

  • raising levels of nutrition and standards of living of people;
  • securing improvements in the efficiency of the production and distribution of all food and agricultural products;
  • bettering the condition of rural populations;
  • and thus contributing toward an expanding world economy and ensuring humanity’s freedom from hunger.

The constitution defines FAO’s field of action as nutrition, food and agriculture including fisheries and forestry. In this wide field, FAO is committed to collect, analyze, interpret and disseminate information. Specifically with regard to science and technology, the constitution states: “The Organization shall promote and where appropriate shall recommend national and international action with respect to:

  • scientific, technological, social and economic research relating to nutrition, food and agriculture;
  • the improvement of education and administration relating to nutrition, food and agriculture, and the spread of public knowledge of nutritional and agricultural science and practice.”

The text of the constitution continues with mention of other fields of action in which FAO should seek application of science-based technologies, viz. the conservation of natural resources; the adoption of improved methods of agricultural production; the improvement of the processing, marketing and distribution of food and agricultural products; the adoption of policies for agricultural credit and, at the international level, for agricultural commodity arrangements.

FAO has accumulated an unequalled store of information on agriculture and food in the world. Through assistance to member nations it has also acquired a wide and deep experience in the application and adaptation of modern science-based technologies in all fields of agriculture. This experience, including the use of nuclear technology for food and agricultural research and development, provides an advantage in the assessment of science-based technologies and how they might be applied for development.

For some time, FAO’s in-house coordination and consultation focused on agricultural research. An interdepartmental working group, bringing together staff with diverse professional backgrounds and responsibilities, was formed in order to monitor scientific developments and to help define their relevance and use in the work of the Organization. In 1980, renamed the Inter-Departmental Working Group on Science and Technology for Development, the scope of this in-house body was expanded and made more explicit. It would deal with research development, technology assessment, and research utilization in food, agriculture, nutrition, forestry and fisheries. It would coordinate FAO’s policies, programmes and activities when these cut across departmental responsibilities. It would respond to demands for assistance expected as a result of the recommendations arising out of the Vienna Programme of Action.

In 1984, FAO created a Research and Technology Development Division. This new division was given organization-wide responsibility to ensure that science-based research was promoted and that its results and use in new or improved technologies found effective entry and follow-up in all of FAO’s technical programmes. Particular emphasis was given to helping developing countries improve their capacity to undertake agricultural research.

Following the 1987 report “Our Common Future” by the Brundtland Commission and rising concern in both developing and industrialized countries, FAO took steps to promote the concept and provide the contents of sustainable agricultural and rural development within the Organization. A steering committee and an executive post were created at a high level, and the Interdepartmental Working Group on Environment and Development was mandated to ensure attention to relevant concerns in all aspects of the work of FAO.

Overall, projects undertaken with FAO assistance to promote agricultural science and technology in member countries span a wide range nationally, regionally and globally. They include science and technology proper, training and education, food and nutrition policies and strategies, animal production and health, land and water development, forestry, fisheries, plant production and protection, farm management and production, post-harvest technology, food and agricultural industries, environment and energy. New initiatives, building on the latest scientific progress, are essential if FAO is to meet its commitment to member countries.

Need for sustainable development

The past contribution of science and technology to agricultural development has not been trouble free nor has it met all needs. Agricultural output must increase, particularly in the developing world. Science and technology will underpin the advance. At the same time, an emerging global concern about the degradation of the environment makes it clear that progress will be acceptable only in the context of a more sustainable agriculture that does not damage the natural productive base of the planet.

Natural resources

Mankind has inherited a tremendous range of natural resources, notably some 300 million years of species and ecosystem development, and soil and groundwater accumulations that have taken millennia to build up. Yet a mere 200 years have brought us to a preoccupation with problems that threaten the sustainability of production of food and other products of agriculture, fisheries and forestry. There will be a need to ensure that agricultural production targets are compatible with the supporting capacity of the land, and that surplus production does not distort international markets and the ability of developing countries to participate in these markets.

Production through agriculture

In developing countries, the gap is wide between what can potentially be and what is actually produced. There are many reasons for this yield gap. Among technical constraints in crop production, problems related to climate and water account for about one-third of the overall yield gap in developing regions, and problems related to pests, weeds and diseases for another third. The last third is accounted for by non-technical constraints.

In livestock production, the gap in the yield of milk, meat, hides and animal traction is primarily related to problems that cause low productivity. Among the major causes in developing countries are deficiencies in the quantity and quality of feed, the widespread occurrence of major diseases, and often the difficult environment in which livestock is raised.

A similar situation prevails in production from aquaculture. Other sectors of fisheries face problems that are related more to depletion of stocks, poor utilization of the catch, especially the unintended by-catch, and post-catch handling. Depletion is also a main current problem for products of the forest, particularly in the tropical regions. The existence and condition of forests and trees also strongly influences production and productivity in agriculture, wildlife and the variety and abundance of uncultivated plants.

Science and its use in technology continue to increase our knowledge of the problems faced by developing countries in pursuing development of their agriculture. Solutions have been found and applied. But development is a dynamic process. As understanding of the problems has grown, the focus of research to solve them has shifted.

Data collection and processing, already much improved, will have to see further improvement and linkage to information exchange in order to direct and monitor progress in research and in technology development and application. Where research done on needed technology is not or applied, the human and physical infrastructure must be created or strengthened e.g. to make more efficient use of inputs such as improved varieties and livestock breeds, pesticides and fertilizers – as appropriate with respect for traditional practices – in order to raise the productivity of the natural resources for agriculture.

Past research has tended to favour exportable cash crops, wheat and rice, and, in general, production on agroecologically more favourable land areas. One recognized need is now additionally and urgently to address the problems of poor farmers and of more marginal areas. Other needs are to ensure consideration of the impact of research on social equity and in particular on the status and needs of women in agriculture.

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