The Green Revolution has a new avatar: transformed Agricultural Research for Development (AR4D), and food experts hope it will provide the panacea for hunger.
In the 1970s, when half the world's population was hungry, governments, global institutions and agricultural experts brought about the Green Revolution with the help of technology that provided high-yielding varieties of rice and wheat. Within four years, countries like India moved from being food-aid dependent to food secure.
"We are facing a crisis of a similar scale and the world needs to come together again to take action [with the help of biotechnology]," said Uma Lele, a retired senior adviser to the World Bank and the lead author of a comprehensive assessment report on AR4D, which will provide the backdrop to a critical three-day meeting on agriculture starting on 28 March in France.
The report, Transforming Agricultural Research for Development, will be presented at the first Global Conference on Agricultural Research for Development (GCARD), requested by the G8 group of industrialized countries to identify future food production needs and a course of action.
During the assessment 2,000 experts were consulted, including national research organizations across the world. The report hopes to focus attention on the critical need to revive agriculture. "Everyone [in agriculture and food security] has been talking about AR4D as the way forward. We [Lele and three other agriculture experts] were asked to unpack it for the meeting."
What does AR4D mean?
|We need to produce food for a growing population on the same piece of land|
The aim of AR4D is to achieve sustainable food and income security for all food producers and consumers, especially the poor, using the same resources - land, labour, water - available within the constraints of climate change and an expanding population.
The sustainable system will seek to reduce negative environmental impacts, but cannot be "defined by silver bullets" like a particular technology or practice, because "there are no standard blueprints" and many of the options used in the last five decades did not work.
"We need to produce food for a growing population on the same piece of land," said Eugene Terry, one of the authors and a plant pathologist who was the first director-general of the West Africa Rice Development Association.
So how does it work?
The answer lies in sustainable intensification. AR4D calls for a broader approach and departs from the traditional methods where scientists were kept away from the process that delivered the new technology to farmers. "The focus is on developing technology and adapting it to the local conditions," said Lele.
AR4D research needs to happen where it will be used - such as in national research institutions - with a focus on innovative scientific breakthroughs appropriate to local or and even regional conditions. At the local level it will devise methods to assess how new technologies were being implemented.
It will adopt a bottom-up approach involving the poor and disenfranchized, and use a combination of traditional knowledge and practices gleaned from farmers, conventional technologies and modern biotechnology. Partners will be sought in the public and private sectors, and in civil society.
The report emphasized that AR4D was not itself development, but "contributes to it through greater sensitivity ... vigorous commitment to building the capacity of partners, including particularly the beneficiaries and increased accountability, for more and better results on all fronts: poverty reduction, productivity growth and environmental sustainability."
Lele acknowledged that many small countries lacked the capacity and resources for research, or were caught up in conflicts that prevented beefing up agriculture. "You need political will to bring about change," she said.
Photo: Akmal Dawi/IRIN
|Developing climate change-tolerant crop varieties will take time|
One of the aims of the global meeting in France would be to set up a bigger umbrella of food security players, including the private sector and larger developing countries, to share expertise or help build capacity.
"We submit that substantial investments would be needed in the development of infrastructure, markets and human capital, among other things, which are not covered under R&D [research and development]," Terry said.
"Many activities that can be rightly carried out at the national or local level by stakeholders are financed and carried out by international organizations in the name of providing international public goods, whereas there is underinvestment in building the national capacity of countries."
Terry said governments' "neglect of their own rural areas has often compounded the problems. Donors keen to show quick impacts of the uses of their funds are tempted to allocate them to achieve quick short-term results."
Will it work?
The World Bank estimated that some 1.4 billion people were living in poverty in 2005, and another 100 million have been pushed into hunger since the financial crisis in 2008.
Food production has stagnated in many countries, while the global population is expected to hit nine billion by 2050, mostly in developing countries. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) put growth in global agricultural production at 2.1 percent per year since 1961, but projected that this would slow to 1.5 percent annually in the next 25 years, and then to 0.9 percent annually in the succeeding 20 years to 2050.
The assessment report said the reasons for this slowdown ranged from lower population growth in some food producing areas to a drop in yields. Besides the need to invest in infrastructure, in the capacity of institutions to deliver inputs and distribute food, and in developing people, many answers lay in biotechnology.
In most developing countries crop yields were more than 30 percent lower than they could be; in the case of rice and maize in sub-Saharan Africa, the difference was as high as 100 percent, the report said.
The high-yielding crop varieties of the Green Revolution flourished in Asia, where agriculture is irrigated, but largely failed in Africa because most crops are rain-fed.
Even cereals like sorghum and millet, the staple foods in semi-arid areas, have done better in India than in Africa. "It is because India has spent on research and adapted the cereals to meet its needs," said Lele.
Investment in agricultural research and development (R&D) has been abysmally low in most developing countries. Five countries - China, India, Brazil, Thailand and South Africa - accounted for just over 53 percent of the R&D undertaken in developing countries, the assessment noted.
Donor aid to agriculture has been dismal, "but there is only so much an outsider can do to help you," said Lele. For instance, in the Green Revolution, several aid agencies helped introduce India to high-yielding rice varieties, but the country went on to develop 200 rice varieties of its own.
Food insecurity is still present in India and the population is increasing, as in other developing countries. India and other countries that benefited from the Green Revolution are living with its after-effects, but an incessant cycle of crops has depleted the fertility of soil in many areas.
Everyone is in need of innovative solutions, and this time they want to ensure that success in food insecurity should not pass Africa by - the focus is on region-specific solutions, which it is hoped AR4D will provide.
No time to waste
Lele said the need to focus on investment in agricultural R&D was not new. The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) and its network of 15 research centres across the world was set up by the World Bank and wealthy country donors in the 1970s to develop new crop varieties, farm management techniques, and innovations for farmers in the developing world.
When the latest food crisis struck in 2007, the CGIAR drew some criticism. "The impact of CGIAR has slowed," said Lele, because the group's research activities suffered when donor funding became focused on short-term projects tied to specific agendas. "As you know, research needs long-term investment."
The CGIAR receives only 4-5 percent of total public expenditure on agricultural research worldwide, and faces competing demands on its resources, the assessment noted. The CGIAR has recently instituted reforms.
The authors of the report called on developing country governments to increase their investment in agricultural R&D to 1.5 percent of their revenue from agriculture, but Lele commented that agricultural spending had a dismal history in many developing countries.
"The situation will not change until every individual and institution starts taking responsibility. Research pays off only in 10 years or so; we have to start now."