Can agricultural research help feed the world?

By Carlos Pérez del Castillo

This year, the world’s largest agriculture research for development partnership, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), is celebrating its 40th anniversary. Carlos Pérez del Castillo, the CGIAR Consortium Board Chair, looks at the CGIAR’s history and achievements to understand the role of agricultural research in helping to feed the world.

Women farmers at one of CGIAR's research institute's fields in Niger. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

On 10th December, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkul Karman were awarded the 2011 Nobel Peace prize for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and women’s rights.

Past recipients of this renowned award include the likes of Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama and Mother Teresa. So it may sound surprising that back in 1970 it was awarded to a plant scientist named Norman Borlaug.

In the 1960’s and 70’s, the world population grew faster than ever before. The first terrible famines had struck the developing world and there were fears that the world’s agriculture could not produce sufficient food to feed the growing population.

Borlaug believed that science could feed the world. By cross breeding a Japanese and American wheat variety, he developed more resistant and productive hybrid cereal strains.  His efforts to introduce these varieties into Pakistan, India, Mexico and other developing countries led to much bigger harvests, estimated to have saved about a thousand million people from dying of hunger.

Unintentionally, Borlaug had started a revolution. Not an armed uprising, but a peaceful one: The “Green Revolution”: through agricultural research, yields from a wide variety of crops, crucial to the food production in the developing world, were made more productive, and increasingly resistant to diseases.

With Borlaug’s Peace prize, global leaders recognized the important role of agriculture and food security for prosperity and peace in the world.

Continuing the Green Revolution, 40 years on.

In 1971, following Borlaug’s footsteps, the CGIAR was born; a strategic and unique alliance of institutes working in agricultural research for sustainable development, and the donors funding this work. Originally called the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, this organization just turned 40.

Over the past four decades, the CGIAR has proven that investing in agricultural research has a cost-effective impact on the fight against hunger and malnutrition.

Take our research in cassava, for instance. This crop accounts for up to a third of the total calorie intake for people in countries such as Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In the late eighties, CGIAR’s research on how to biologically control the cassava mealy bug, a pest which was destroying harvests in sub-Saharan Africa, saved at least 20 million lives for a total cost of only US$20 million. In other words, for every dollar invested, a life was saved.

CGIAR scientists have also developed and scaled up low-cost agroforestry practices in Africa to regenerate tropical barren soils into productive land. Using local resources (native rock phosphate) and associating nitrogen-fixing trees with crops, improves soil fertility and moisture, remarkably increasing yields and incomes of smallholder farmers. More than 400,000 farmers who have adopted this innovative technique in over 20 countries, have multiplied their yields by as much as four times.

These are just a couple of the many examples of CGIAR’s impact to date. From crops, to irrigation methods, to fertilizing techniques, a 2003 study on the impact of our research showed that developing countries would produce 7-8 percent less food if it were not for our efforts, saving more than 13 million children from malnutrition.

So, why are people still hungry today?

While agricultural research has provided many solutions, from providing higher yield staple food varieties to better land and water management techniques, our world keeps changing. New challenges arise, faster and on a larger scale than ever before.

Demand for food is escalating with almost 80 million more people to feed every year. Food prices are at a historical peak, hitting the poorest the hardest and creating social unrest. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that we have to double food production by 2050 to feed all the extra mouths.

This is no easy task, given climate change, higher pressures on land, water and other natural resources are making environmentally sustainable food production harder than ever to achieve.

The world is not only in a “food crisis”, but governments battle against major economic issues. While the G20 promised to put agriculture at the top of this year’s agenda, the November summit in Cannes was mostly preoccupied with the euro zone’s financial turmoil.

Our current crisis will not go away without a strong continued commitment to investing in agriculture and agricultural research. Hunger will not go away without a political and societal will to make affordable food for all. The majority of food producers in the South are smallholder farmers who are also the most food insecure. They need to become more productive and more resilient to frequent climate shocks.

Agricultural research focusing on the needs of smallholder farmers has a vital role to play in the coming years. The CGIAR and its partners now, more than ever, have to find solutions for better and sustainable agriculture to reach food security.

The future of our agricultural research

Borlaug once said “Food is the moral right of all who are born into this world”. We have recently welcomed the 7th billion human on earth but sadly 1 billion are still going to bed hungry each day.

At the CGIAR we stand ready to continue the work initiated by Borlaug and countless other pioneers to boost food production, while maintaining our environmental heritage for future generations.

A strategic reform of our system will ensure that our research is better coordinated, more efficient, and focused on delivering results.

But agricultural research cannot feed the world on its own. All agriculture stakeholders need to work in partnership: local governments, civil society, the private sector and the farmers.

Working collaboratively with global partners, the CGIAR has established 15 international research programs (CGIAR Research Programs) that put smallholder farmers and the environment at the center of the research. We focus on delivering innovations, better practices and knowledge to millions while prioritizing climate change and gender.

That is how we see agricultural research making a more food secure world. And a more peaceful world. In the spirit of the 1970 Nobel Peace prize, that was given to Norman Borlaug.

To read more about CGIAR’s work, see: Bridging the Gap in Climate Change Strategies: CGIAR Announces the Launch of the Adaptation and Mitigation Knowledge NetworkClimate Conversations – Small seed packets, big policies tackle Horn of Africa droughtPigeonpea genome cracked on behalf of poor farmers, and Creating a Global Partnership to Tackle Desertification: An Interview with William Dar.

Holiday offer: To purchase a copy of State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet at a 50 percent discountplease click HERE and enter code SW1150. And to watch the one minute book trailer, click HERE.

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