DEVELOPMENT: Farmers and Scientists as Partners Against Hunger

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By Ernest Corea

Disturbing forecasts of continuing food price increases and the potential for debilitating hunger afflicting the world's poor served as the backdrop to World Bank President Robert Zoellick's exhortations on July 6 at the 40th anniversary celebration of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).

Zoellick who has said that high, uncertain and volatile food prices are the single greatest threat facing the developing world, urged members of the CGIAR and the consortium of 15 international agricultural research centres it supports to confront five specific challenges:
-- Stand up for science to resist protectionism and opposition to research, in whatever guise these appear.
-- Ensure that developing countries allocate more of their own national budgets to agriculture.
-- Place greater focus on post-harvest research in developing countries that lose billions of dollars to pests and disease both before and after harvests.
-- Increase funding for the CGIAR from $670 million in 2010 to reach $1 billion by 2013.
-- Commit to predictable multi-year funding because long-term research cannot be done in a year-by-year process.

Agricultural research, Zoellick said, is the best ally for those who labour in fields and forests; research and agricultural production are part of "the best anti-poverty program we have."


CGIAR investment in agricultural research represents only 4-5 percent of total investment in this field. So why was it necessary for the head of the world's most influential development-oriented institution to spend time and effort commending the work of the CGIAR and advocating enhanced support for its efforts?

The significance of the CGIAR and the usefulness of the research it supports lies in the fact that no other agricultural research organization devotes itself entirely to the creation of research-based technologies as global public goods freely available to national scientists for adaptation and use in farmers fields. CGIAR funding for public goods agricultural research over the past 40 years has been – and remains – in the form of grants, not loans.

Moreover, the CGIAR maintains a comprehensive collection of over 650,000 samples of crop, forage and agroforestry genetic resources, placed under the authority of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).


Despite these advantages, the CGIAR and its research centres have not been free of criticism and questioning. These have come from within the CGIAR itself, from developing country scientists and policymakers, civil society institutions in both North and South, and the academic community.

Indeed, a Director General at one of the international research centres commented with a sense of desperation that the CGIAR is "the group with no friends."

That was probably a cry from the heart in response to a precipitous drop in funding. But, wrote a group of CGIAR seniors: "Behind the financial factor, however, there were a number of other uncertainties that reached into the vision, programs, governance, and approach of the CGIAR System….."

The CGIAR is not the first and won't be the last organization to have its weaknesses out on display. These occurred from time to time and were corrected, primarily through the wise counsel and strong leadership of its chairs, all of them Vice Presidents of the World Bank. The change process continues.

At another level, leadership was provided by a CGIAR Director. (A few years after his return to his home country where he holds a senior position in the national research agency, the position was retired.)

The changes and course corrections were obviously effective, because an independent assessment concluded in 2008 that "CGIAR research has produced high returns since its inception, with overall benefits far exceeding costs.

"Estimates of the benefits from CGIAR research since 1989 range from nearly US$14 billion to more than $120 billion. Even under the most conservative assumptions, they far outweigh total research expenditures of $7.1 billion since 1960 (expressed in 1990 dollars)."

With that level of success behind it, is the CGIAR now ready for the major tasks that lie ahead?


There are more mouths to feed today than ever before, and there will be even more in coming years. The world's population stood at 3.7 billion 40 years ago and is expected to reach 7 billion around the end of October this year.

That number is projected to reach 8 billion by 2025, with many developing countries doubling their populations. The big number projected remains 9.1 billion in 2050. If hunger remains pervasive today what are the chances that it would have been eliminated by then?

The most recent UN report on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) is less than optimistic on this question. The goal of reducing poverty (the first of the MDGs) by the target date of 2015 can be achieved, it says, but not hunger.

FAO, meanwhile, points out that the number of undernourished people in the world remains unacceptably high at 925 million, or 13.6 percent of the estimated world population of 6.8 billion in 2010. Nearly all of the undernourished are in developing countries.

The publication Hunger Notes says that the extent of world hunger today is due mainly to three factors: neglect of agriculture relevant to very poor people by governments and international agencies; the current worldwide economic crisis, and the significant increase of food prices in the last several years.


The Agricultural Outlook 2011-2020 jointly published by FAO and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) offers the bleak forecast that "over the coming decade real prices for cereals could average as much as 20 percent higher and those for meats as much as 30 percent higher, compared to 2001-10."

"While higher prices are generally good news for farmers, the impact on the poor in developing countries who spend a high proportion of their income on food can be devastating," says OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría.

The UN's annual World Economic and Social Survey, taking a more sweeping approach to global food issues, estimated that overall food production will need to increase by almost 100 percent if the population of 2050 is to be adequately and nutritiously fed. This would require annual investments of $2 trillion to help small-scale farming and to reduce environmental degradation.

Agricultural development is not only about food. Agriculture is a powerful catalyst of development, overall. Unproductive agriculture harms the entire economy. When agriculture flourishes, by contrast, the agricultural dollar ripples through the nation's economy.

Food, however, is an agricultural product that keeps men and women alive. The Bible says that "man shall not live by bread alone” but without bread – or rice, or tortillas, or naan, or dosa, or injera – s/he does not live at all.

That's why the first of the Millennium Development Goals set 2015 as the year by which the world should "halve the proportion of people who suffer from hunger." But hunger persists.


So where does research fit into this situation? Research? Surely, that's for white coated eccentrics staring through microscopes at their own little secrets while the real work goes on in farmers' fields. Research, in fact, enriches what goes on in farmers' fields.

It is a simple mathematical fact that when there are more mouths to feed there must be more food with which to feed them. Simply put, this means that productivity must yet again be enhanced.

However, with about a quarter of the world's land already taken over by agriculture, with the world's natural resources continuously under assault, with agriculture sometimes expanding into marginal and fragile land, and with the implications for agriculture inherent in climate change, the task of increasing productivity appears to be more complex, complicated, and challenging than before.

Research, by increasing the world's knowledge of agriculture, lies at the heart of science-based technologies for sustainable agricultural development that can help farmers and their partners to feed and nourish the human family.

"Without agricultural technology," the late Carl Sagan observed, "the earth could only support tens of millions of people, instead of billions.” For this reason, he added, "almost everyone on earth, 99 percent of us, owe the very fact that we're alive and haven't starved to death to the existence of agricultural technology."

That's where research fits in.


In the years ahead, agricultural research will face formidable challenges posed by what has been described above, aggravated by the continuing impact of climate change on agriculture, and perhaps constrained by the diminution of grants funds available for agricultural research because of competing demands from other sectors.

Today's and tomorrow's agricultural scientists could face problems much greater than those faced, for example, in pre-CGIAR days when research-based agricultural technologies created an upsurge of productivity in food crops and saved millions from starvation or death. (That upsurge has been described as the "green revolution.")

In grappling with the current and future crop of problems and overcoming them, some lessons can be drawn from past experience, both within the CGIAR and beyond. In this connection, India's experience is compelling.

India's scientists benefited from political backing at the highest levels. The research effort, making full use of international resources, but involving national scientists, benefited greatly from the level and extent of that support.

The agricultural transformation program was sharply focused. Five crops were chosen for improvement - rice, wheat, maize, sorghum, and pearl millet. These were selected in consultation with farmers, consumers and the small-scale retail sector.

Targets were set for the production and distribution of agricultural inputs and floor prices were announced before sowing commenced. The private sector and external partners, including ODA agencies, were mobilized.


Above all, however, India's farmers were fully engaged. India's farmers, when committed to a cause, are a powerful force as the British colonial administration learned. In the fight against hunger, farmers were no less militant, complementing the pioneering work of scientists.

C. Subramaniam, the Minister of Agriculture at the time, widely remembered as the "father of modern agriculture” in India, put it best. He said: "Indian scientists responded to the challenges in a magnificent way. More than that, the farmers were prepared to take risks, they were prepared to use new varieties. That is how the green revolution became a reality."

Looking ahead, too, an integrated farmer-scientist partnership remains crucial. As past CGIAR Chair Ismail Serageldin said during its 25th anniversary celebration:
"Farmers were the first scientists. They carried out the first experiments, asked themselves numerous questions and, through their answers, served as creative providers. So, however high we set our sights, we should never forget that in the distilled experience of farm men, women, and children resides wisdom that has to be integrated within the new science.

"If we fail to do so, we will have to ask ourselves as T. S. Eliot did: Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? And where is the knowledge we have lost in information?"

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