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TWAS Newsletter
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Agricultural research key to food security

Agricultural research key to food security

Boosting agricultural research in the developing world is the key to ensuring food security for the world's poorest, says Adel El-Beltagy (TWAS Fellow 2005), Chair of the Global Forum on Agricultural Research (GFAR), writing in the latest issue of the TWAS Newsletter.

Agricultural research key to food securityWhen it comes to food security, there is both good and bad news. The good news is that, as recent history shows, progress is possible. Between 1990 and 2005, the percentage of people worldwide going to bed hungry each night fell four percentage points from 20 to 16. The bad news is that hunger in poor countries remains stubbornly in place.

The progress that has been made in solving the hunger problem should be applauded. Yet, the number of people who continue to lead lives marked by chronic hunger and malnutrition remains shockingly high. Food experts estimate that the figure currently stands at more than 960 million people, including 300 million children. That is more than 16 percent of the global population. Even more ominously, over the past year, the percentage has been moving upwards due to rising food prices.

Even those who once suffered from hunger but who now have enough to eat often fear that their improved state of well-being can be reversed. Food security in poor countries can sometimes be effected by severe storms, extended droughts or other natural disasters. It can fall victim to political conflict as well.

More often though, the fight against hunger is undermined by mundane yet misguided policies that make the vulnerability of the poor the norm. Take, for example, the recent flurry of global activity to convert millions of hectares of farmland from food to biofuels production. This global 'food-to-fuel' conversion, ignited by a spike in oil prices last summer that made biofuels production both desirable and profitable in many developed countries, ultimately left an additional 30 million poor people without the means to acquire sufficient quantities of food to lead healthy and productive lives. High food prices and declining food supplies sparked protests and social unrest in 38 poor countries.

The problem of hunger does not lend itself to easy solutions. If it did, it would have been solved long ago. Indeed the daunting challenges posed by hunger touches upon a full range of economic and political issues. It raises concerns involving unsustainable land use practices, adverse environmental impacts, limited access to credit and farm inputs (such as fertilizers and pesticides), and the inadequate marketing of agricultural commodities. It engages not just farmers but workers employed in food processing plants, transportation, distribution,  marketing, and farmer and consumer advocacy organizations, all of whom play key roles in the world's intricate food supply chains. It usually concentrates on local capabilities, yet often reaches out to international food aid organizations. It is a moral issue that can also undermine a nation's ability to successfully compete in today's global economy. It provokes serious, hard-headed debates about good governance (or more precisely the lack of good governance), while lending itself to some of the most heart-rending images of gaunt children with blank gazes begging for parcels of food. It arouses both anger and sympathy, and generates pangs of hope and hopelessness.

Re-Rooting Research

When we think of problems of hunger, we tend to focus on those individuals without enough to eat. And that is how it should be. Yet, historically, successful campaigns to end hunger have depended on the work of a sufficient number of well-trained agricultural researchers and the presence of adequate numbers of agricultural laboratories and training centres to ensure that first-class research and development can take place.

Agricultural research - the cornerstone of successful agricultural policies in the developing world between the 1960s and 1980s - lost some of its standing following the success of the green revolution. The agricultural research community did not do anything wrong. In fact, there was a prevailing belief that researchers had done their job and that the remaining challenges posed by hunger and malnutrition were largely due to inadequacies in distribution and marketing.

Only recently has agricultural research regained prominence as statistics showed a levelling-off of increases in crop yields in the 1990s. This has sparked growing concerns that the world will not have sufficient food stocks to feed its growing population, which is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050.

Emerging fields of research such as genomics and nanotechnology, which could have a dramatic impact on global agriculture, indicate that there will be ample opportunities to devise sustainable food production strategies capable of satisfying the needs of the world's growing populations without placing undo stress on the environment and natural resources. Virtually all of the population growth between now and 2050 - indeed up to 99 percent, according to the Population Reference Bureau - will take place in the world's least developed countries (LDCs). That means a large portion of agricultural research must be directed towards the need of the poor.plants_biotech

The main challenge, then, lies in ensuring that the world's poorest countries have access to both conventional and cutting-edge agricultural technologies capable of increasing crop yields. It also requires farmers in the poorest countries to possess the prerequisite knowledge and skills to use these technologies effectively.

This is not just a moral issue. In fact, because nearly half of the developing world's population work in agriculture or agriculture-related industries, this is an economic issue of unquestionable significance as well.

Two-Front Challenge

Building such capacity requires a comprehensive campaign for reform that must be waged on two fronts.

On the first front, agricultural research communities in the developing world must work more closely with their governments to convince public officials of the enormous value and impact that agricultural research and development have on society.

Successful agricultural policy depends on broad scientific and technological knowledge, and the ability to transfer such knowledge to farmers working in the field. It also depends on putting the right policies in place to ensure that the needs of all stakeholders, and especially those of resource-poor agricultural communities, are incorporated in agricultural research and development programmes.

Historically, agriculture has been one of the prime areas of investment for research and development among governments in the developing world. That has certainly been the case in Egypt, which is home to some of the most respected agricultural research centres in the developing world, including Soil, Water, and Environment Institute and the Cotton Research Institute.

Yet over the past decade investments have failed to keep pace with the challenge. Even more ominously, agricultural research institutes in the South have been lagging behind their counterparts in the North. Governments in the developing world, unfortunately but understandably, have focused more attention on other critical concerns - for example, access to safe drinking water and adequate sanitation - which they have come to believe posed a greater threat to their nation's well being.

On the second front, agricultural research institutions in developed countries must work closely with their counterparts in developing countries. Initiatives should be enacted to facilitate the transfer of cutting-edge agricultural technologies from the North to the South. The goal should be to provide farmers in developing countries with the tools that they need to increase crop yields and to market their crops profitably. Who sets the agenda for the generation and transfer of new technologies and knowledge  has been a common issue in debates dealing with the sharing and transfer of new knowledge, skills and technologies between the North and the South. This is a debate worth having.

Yet, it is important to note that growing North-South gaps in agricultural research are delaying the adaptation of new technologies in the South. And that, in turn, is undermining potential increases in crop yields and placing even more stress on efforts to feed the population.

With effective global policies in place, researchers in developing countries could serve as "transponders" - that is, as knowledge brokers with the skills and resources that are necessary to convey emerging agricultural technologies and state-of-the-art agricultural practices to farmers in the field. Farmers could then apply the knowledge they acquire to expand their crop yields.

Experience has shown that agricultural researchers in developing countries are more likely to have a deeper understanding and appreciation of the challenges farmers in their countries face than agricultural researchers in the North. Equally important, they carry more credibility among local farmers and therefore can have a greater impact on what happens on the ground.

The problem is that, increasingly, researchers in developing countries do not have sufficient knowledge of the emerging technologies to convey that information to the farmers. That is where Northern researchers and agricultural institutions can come into play.

This new agricultural research paradigm is based on North-South-South collaboration - a process of information exchange that moves from researchers in developed countries to researchers in developing countries to farmers in developing countries.

Over time, of course, this research paradigm could be shifted into a South-South collaborative framework between the developing world's researchers and farmers. But for now Southern agricultural researchers in the developing world need access to knowledge and technology that is only available in the North. Experience also shows that building local capacities for innovation and promoting the spread of innovations locally is as important as promoting the transfer of technology and knowledge between researchers of the North and the South. North-South and South-South collaboration in agricultural research is not a zero-sum game. Both can take place at the same time without undermining either side of the equation.

Benefits North

How might the North benefit from such a North-South agricultural research paradigm? First of all, in a time of financial crisis, global exchange and trade - in goods and services - are always welcome. For example, it is useful to note that between 2004 and 2008, Africa's gross domestic product (GDP) grew at an annual rate of 6 percent. As economists Paul Collier, Oxford University, and Witney Schneidman, Director of Global Sullivan Principles, in Washington, DC and former US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, recently noted, "Africa, usually the poorest performing region in the world economy, is now among the best performing regions".

Child in Ghana (FAO/A. Proto)One would think that Northern countries would be eager to collaborate and take part in the rising fortunes of Africa, which also has the highest percentage of people working in agriculture - some 70 percent of the population.  The exchange of agricultural information not only makes moral sense (who would deny people information that would enable them to live healthier and more productive lives?), it also makes good economic sense. Ties with African and other developing countries will likely payoff in the future. Take, for example, the recent increase in trade between China and Africa.  Between 2000 and 2008, China's trade with Africa increased four-fold from just over US$10 billion to US$40 billion in 2007. Last year alone, it grew nearly 40 percent.

Beyond the moral sensibilities and economic payoff that the exchange of agricultural research would invoke for the North, there is also the question of security. It has become a cliché but it is nevertheless true: hungry people are also desperate people who are more likely to engage in angry and even violent protest. That places the stability of governments in poor nations, where people suffer from hunger, at risk.

As recent events in Haiti show, governments that are unable to feed their people are governments that are likely to become unstable. Weak - or even more ominously failed - governments, in turn, are likely to harbour people who pose potential threats not only to their own countries but to the North as well. The price of doing nothing to improve the state of agricultural research and development in the developing world could be greater social instability across the South, especially among its poorest countries. That is a price no one can afford.

Solving the problems of hunger and malnutrition, of course, involves more than devising policies that enhance the capabilities of the developing world's agricultural research communities. For the South, it also means instituting political reforms that create more secure land rights, devising economic policies that provide greater access to capital, and advancing infrastructure programmes that bring farmers closer to markets, helping to raise their incomes.

For the North, it means not just scientific collaboration but also a reduction in farm subsidies, which last year amounted to US$280 billion a year (about equal to the GDP of all of Africa), and a reconsideration of national biofuel policies which some experts estimated could increase from a US$11billion industry today to a US$98 billion industry in 2011 if current levels of government support in the United States and Europe remain in place. A recent study by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), commissioned by the OPEC Fund for International Development, projects that if current biofuel targets are reached, an additional 30 million hectares of land would be converted to cereal production for fuels. That, in turn, would place an additional 140 million people at risk for

There are two gaps at work in agriculture in the developing world, and we must do all that we can to close both. First, there is the North-South gap in capacity in agricultural research and development. Second, there is the South-South gap between research and application between scientists and farmers in developing countries.

We need to quickly narrow both gaps if we hope to achieve a more equitable and peaceful world:  A world in which all people have access to sufficient quantities of nutritious food, and a world in which hunger is a thing of the past.

Launched in 1998, the Global Forum on Agricultural Research (GFAR) is dedicated to improving the capacity of the agricultural research sector, especially in relationship to issues of critical importance to resource poor, small landholders in farming communities in the developing world. GFAR seeks to advance its goals by facilitating and promoting dialogue on critical issues related to agricultural research, cost-effective partnerships and strategic alliances and by improving the ways in which knowledge is shared and communicated. Its primary aim is to create effective research and innovation systems that meet the complex economic, social and environmental needs of sustainable agricultural development. GFAR's signature event is a triennial conference that brings together diverse stakeholders from around the world - farmer associations, nongovernmental organizations, the private sector and government - to address current and emerging global issues and establish concerted plans for action. Meetings have been held in Dresden (2000), Dakar (2003) and New Delhi (2006). For additional information about GFAR, see: