Farmers First: Linking Agricultural Research To Results In The Field
October 10, 2013
In the lead up to Opportunity Collaboration, a four-day problem-solving, strategic retreat for nonprofit leaders, for-profit social entrepreneurs, grant-makers and impact investors engaged in economic justice enterprises, the Skoll World Forum is spotlighting a wide range of delegates and speakers working on innovative solutions to tough societal challenges around the world. Opportunity Collaboration will take place in Ixtapa, Mexico from October 13-18.
“… development agencies can fulfill their public trust by creating a science of delivery that will compile global delivery knowledge and mobilize it for practice.” – Jim Kim, President of the World Bank
Two decades ago, one billion people – about one in every five people on the planet – lived their lives in a state of chronic hunger and malnutrition. Twenty years later — after innumerable policy initiatives and summits, and during a time of unprecedented world economic growth and scientific innovation – about 870 million still go hungry every day. Not only has progress against hunger been frustratingly slow, it appears to be slowing down: almost all of the reduction in the number of hungry occurred prior to 2008.
Add to this the growing food demands of an expanding world population, the diversion of food for biofuels, and the combined challenges of water stress, land limits, climate change and stagnating crop yields, and we can see that the challenge will be even greater in the decades ahead.
The irony is that most of the world’s hungry are themselves farmers. Agriculture is their primary means of employment, but they are not able to grow enough to even feed their families. It’s clear that those dedicated to the cause of development and the alleviation of rural poverty have one over-riding imperative: increasing agricultural productivity sustainably.
Next year we will celebrate the centennial of the birth of the father of the Green Revolution, Dr. Norman Borlaug, a man credited for saving the world from mass starvation. Were he alive today, he would be the first to remind us that technological innovation was at the heart of that effort and only a continued commitment to innovation in new crop technologies, production and delivery systems will power a second Green Revolution in the 21st century. His call to action, “take it to the farmer”, has never been more relevant!
We have a multitude of research institutions – including national agricultural research systems, academia and the private sector — working on development. In 2008, global public and private investment in agricultural R&D stood at $31.7 billion and $18.2 billion, respectively. The CGIAR, the world’s leading agricultural research institution, has 15 research centers and 16 research programs supported by $860 million of funding in 2012.
But for research from these sources to improve food security, their findings need to get into farmer’s hands. We need to connect research in the lab to results in the field by pursuing advances in what World Bank President Jim Kim refers to as the “science of delivery”—delivering the latest agricultural technology and methods to those who need it most, the world’s poor farmers.
We know what needs to be done. For example, two CGIAR research centers, CIMMYT and IITA, are leading the Drought Tolerant Maize for Africa (DTMA) project, which seeks to develop improved seed varieties that can produce a decent harvest in the event of a drought. DTMA works with public and private seed producers, seed certification agencies and farmers to transfer the technology to the field. Over two million smallholder farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa have benefited from the seeds produced from the DTMA project, which have allowed them to enjoy an improvement in yield of 20-30% in times of drought.
Since the 1990s, agricultural growth has increasingly come from greater productivity powered by investments in agricultural research, as opposed to using more inputs like land and water. It’s estimated that doubling investment in public agricultural research in Sub-Saharan Africa would increase growth in agricultural output by 0.5-1.1% and allow 282 million people to escape poverty. However, a lack of formal dissemination can prevent technology from reaching end users. At the same time, poor countries often do not possess the financial, human or operating resources to support significant research activities—public spend on agricultural research in Africa is 0.7% of agricultural GDP compared to 2.5% of agricultural GDP in developed countries. Increased investments in research, coupled with an explicit commitment to deliver that research to the world’s farmers, would result in sustainable growth in agricultural productivity, and put us back on course to ending the hunger season that plagues millions of farm families around the world.
As the Millennium Development Goals deadline draws near, we need to refocus and redouble our efforts:
-World leaders, donors, CEOs and researchers must advance the science of delivery with a formal commitment to measureable outcomes and the public dissemination of research findings.
-Nations and agencies must increase public investment at the country or local level to strengthen and expand the capabilities of national agricultural research systems.
-Food policy should be coordinated at the global, national and regional levels in order to provide a more supportive environment for research, and market institutions must be improved so that they attract private investment needed to further incentivize the delivery of agricultural research.
All these actions taken together can enable us to link research to results, improve global food security and achieve the goals we got in this business to achieve…creating a world of growing and shared prosperity for all. It is the greatest humanitarian opportunity of our time.