“Achieving the MDGs will not really solve the problem of hunger”

What role can agricultural research play in poverty reduction? What are the challenges ahead? An interview with Perez del Castillo, Chair of the CGIAR Consortium Board.

Mr. Perez del Castillo, how must international agricultural research be (re-)organised in order to contribute to hunger reduction and poverty alleviation?

For international agricultural research, the objectives are to increase food security, reduce poverty, improve nutrition and health, and do all this with a sustainable management of resources. Research is more towards food security and poverty alleviation, and this is very much linked to incomes. The idea is to respond to smallholders and their needs in order to improve their livelihood. With climate change now a challenge, research has to focus on plant varieties that are drought tolerant and flood and salinity resistant. The lack of micro-nutrients in our food is a further issue. But now we can respond to this challenge with a research process called bio-fortification.

The aim is to produce 70 per cent more food by 2050 in order to feed the ever-growing population, albeit with less land – because not much of the world is available for agriculture. Having to make food on available land has changed our approach to agricultural research. Food security, climate change and nutrition are global subjects, and our 15 International Research Centres in 150 locations across the world are collaborating to achieve our goals around these situations.

For example, we now look at production systems and dry land systems instead of commodities, and then we combine our research. The advantage is that each of the centres is a specialist in water, specific commodities, policies, nutrition, institutions, post-harvest, etc., and with a holistic view of the production system rather than an individual one, we combine all the research to benefit the farmer.

At CGIAR, we are taking a serious look into the role of women in agriculture. Women from different livelihood scenarios have different problems, and access to knowledge or input may be an issue. A study by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) suggests that if women are given the same rights as men in agriculture, production will increase by at least 30 per cent. So, we have a strong gender component integrated in all our programmes. But, for donors to be interested in our programmes, we must also demonstrate the specified activities and monitor the outcomes.

What are the bottlenecks you are faced with? 

The most difficult part is making an impact on the farmer’s needs. We need to alleviate poverty while aligning our research with what farmers want, such as seed suitable for the conditions they are growing their crops in.
Biofuel crops represent a further challenge. At the moment biofuels are just two per cent of the energy market. But they will become a challenge if the price for petrol stays very high and ethanol prices turn competitive. For small farmers with poor land quality, growing for biofuel can help if they do not have a good market for their crop and can do biofuels or even biomass in the meantime. But biofuel crops on a large scale would cause competition between food and energy. A research need could develop here in the future.

We are dealing with first generation biofuel crops at present, but the idea is to move to second generation biofuel crops such as wood residues, algae, etc. that do not directly compete with food. We need to speed up technology so that the second generation biofuels can take over sooner.
While CGIAR is certainly working towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MGDs), we will still need food even if we halve the number of poor. Our idea is to create additional or alternate means of income generation. Of course 860 million people going hungry every night is morally unacceptable, but achieving MDGs will not really solve the problem.
All we need is the political will and finance. Decision-makers tend to see food security and poverty as a humanitarian problem that needs technical solutions, and not as a political problem related to stability or peace.

How does CGIAR guarantee that small farmers’ needs are included?

Smallholders account for the majority of agricultural business in the world. So agricultural research must be taken to these farmers, and for this purpose we need partners. So to get partners interested in our research, CGIAR needs to spell out how we would have an impact on the ground keeping in mind our goals and the small farmer. We work with NGOs, universities, institutes, and even the private sector, because they have the capacity to produce.
CGIAR tries to empower poor farmers with innovative methods and better livelihoods while providing a solution to their problems. We now look at our work with a needs-based approach. Security is a challenge, but small farmers are certainly part of the solution. We have already begun to look at production systems across the world and are sharing lessons learnt with all regions.

In Bangladesh, for example, small farmers used to plant rice crops that they would lose through flooding during the monsoon and then try planting again. At most, they would have one harvest a year. We have provided them with ‘Scuba’ rice, a variety that can stand underwater up to three weeks and produces higher yields than the other varieties. Farmers were encouraged to mix the production of ‘Scuba’ rice with fish, prawns, and vegetables. This enabled harvesting three crops a year as well as access to the markets!
Fish consumption improved nutrition levels as well. The effort brought innovation and best practices to the farmers who were also given technical assistance that changed their livelihoods.

What are CGIAR research priorities for the next ten years?

Originally, our research dwelled around plant breeding and improving crop yield, and then we brought in the notion of natural resource management and best practices. Now, the concepts of nutrition and gender as well as climate change have taken priority. 
Research today should help reduce migration of farmers. Many are moving from rural to urban. We can help prevent this by creating incentives via agricultural research to keep the farmers on their farms.

Climate change will become a permanent feature because of its impact on rainfalls. More droughts and floods will occur, resulting in more pests and diseases. So we will have to look at the control of and adaptation and resistance to all these conditions.
Our framework has already included the gender priority component that gives farmer-women the means and access to inputs, and also access to knowledge and to land. Further research in this direction is underway.

We adopted changes in our approach to agricultural research two years ago. Now we seek to run the programmes more efficiently, have locals look at the synergies and the deficiencies that have arisen, and at overlaps if any, etc. in order to focus them more on the main goals.
Above all, it is important to link research outcomes with the goals impacting the lives of farmers and then set priorities to ensure that the goals are reached. And research is a long-term investment; since what you invest now will take at least ten to fifteen years to see returns, agricultural research needs financial stability.

Our gene banks are disease and pest resistant as well as drought and flood tolerant. This heritage for humanity is being financed separately from other projects.
In the past, much of our research was concentrated on the three most staple foods – rice, wheat and maize. But now we include roots, tubers and bananas, livestock and fish, and legumes, dry land cereals, forestry, etc. These commodities are important for the food security in developing countries.

Is the available budget sufficient?

In spite of financial difficulties we’ve been suffering, we have gone from an annual 640 million to 850 million US dollars. Food security is receiving much higher attention on the agenda of the decision-makers. So investment in agriculture is higher, and research has proven to be value for money. Each dollar invested in research in CGIAR yields an average return of nine dollars making agricultural research is well worth the donors’ investment. 
After years of neglect, investment in agricultural research is receiving priority once again. According to the World Bank, its impact on agriculture is twice that on non-agricultural sectors. International financial assistance towards agricultural development was around eight billion dollars in 1985, went down to three billion in 2002 and rose to seven billion in 2011.

Our aim is to double our research budget over the next ten years. I don’t think finance is a bottleneck for agricultural research. The way to obtain finance for research is to show results. This involves plenty of cultural changes, with centres working together and through the Consortium. Now, we focus on large programmes where we have 14 centres working on climate change; about nine on nutrition; eight on livestock, etc.
It has been two years since the reforms and we are spending more of the annual budget on our programmes. I believe we are moving steadily in the right direction.

Interview and Photo by  Sangeetha Rajeesh.

Prof. Carlos Perez del Castillo is Chair of the Consortium Board, Consultative Group of International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). For over 35 years, he has served in private and government organisations across the globe. He is Vice-Chair of the Board of the International Food and Agricultural Trade Policy Council (IPC) and member of the Steering Committee of High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition (HLPE) of the UNESCO Senior Expert Group on Reforms.

In 2004, he was Special Advisor, International Trade Negotiations to President of the Republic of Uruguay and had been the Permanent Representative of Uruguay to UN, World Trade Organization until 2004. He served as Chairman of the WTO General Council, Dispute Settlement Body, and its Council for Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPS), and was Vice-Minister& Acting Minister of Foreign Affairs, Uruguay, from 1995-1998.

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