(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Putting science to work for food security

A boy takes care of shoots in the greenhouse at The Learning Farm in the lush hills of Indonesia's Puncak
Esther de Jong/IRIN

If farmers in Niger, West Africa, get poor yields in a dry year from a strain of pearl millet, the staple cereal, they can ask their representative organization to contact a research body to find a solution. The research body might consult a regional organization, and if the scientists then need funds to work on a solution, the farmers will have to approve the project before donors endorse funding.

This bottom-up approach to making Agricultural Research for Development (AR4D) more effective, described as the way forward in helping the world become food secure in the next few years, was endorsed at a critical three-day meeting on agriculture in France which ended on 31 March.

Proactive problem-solving was supported in a comprehensive assessment report on AR4D that formed the backdrop to the conference - the first Global Conference on Agricultural Research for Development (GCARD) - held at the request of the G8 group of industrialized countries to identify future food production needs and a course of action, said Eugene Terry, one of the authors of the report.

Making science more accessible

The crux of the meeting was making science work for farmers and food security, and the answer lay in how to make the science more accessible.

Most countries and farmers shied away from genetically modified (GM) crops because they did not understand the science involved, said Terry, who was the first director-general of the West Africa Rice Development Association. "If people are not informed they will be vulnerable to all kinds of propaganda about GM crops."

The conference identified eight critical areas of agricultural research, with the development of GM crops as a critical part of the health and nutrition theme. "People need to be told about the risks and benefits of genetic modification, and then they can make their decision," said Terry. 

''People need to be told about the risks and benefits of genetic modification, and then they can make their decision ''

GM foods sometimes caused allergic reactions because during genetic modification certain types of protein were introduced into the genetic makeup. "Research is ongoing in trying to minimize the impact of the 'alien' proteins," he said.

"Companies that produce GM seeds spend millions to reduce the toxicity, and none of these seeds can be released without FDA [the US Food and Drug Administration] approval, but the poor man is not told about these things."

Food crops "biofortified" by loading higher levels of essential micronutrients - minerals and vitamins like vitamin A, zinc, and iron, in their seeds and roots during growth - were one of the most effective ways of combating malnutrition, according to researchers who work in the area.

The HarvestPlus Challenge Program of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), which focuses on developing biofortified crops, said it was one of the cheapest ways to provide essential micronutrients, but most of their work still used traditional plant-breeding techniques.

US$75 million could buy vitamin A supplements for 37.5 million pre-school children in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan for a year; the same amount could fortify prepared foods with iron for 375 million persons for a year - about 30 percent of the population of Bangladesh, India and Pakistan - or it could help develop and disseminate rice and wheat varieties biofortified with iron and zinc for the entire South Asia, forever.

The other seven research themes were: agricultural systems for the poor and vulnerable; enabling agricultural incomes for the poor; optimizing the productivity of global food security crops; water, soils and ecosystems; forests and trees; climate change and agriculture; and agricultural biodiversity.

"Of course, these are not new themes," Terry acknowledged, but there were deadlines now. Three research "mega-programmes" adapted from any of the themes would have to be finalized by the end of 2010, and the progress reviewed by the next GCARD in 2012.

The themes

Agricultural systems for the poor should ensure they had access to food throughout the year. "The emphasis should be on high-yielding but short-season crop varieties, and encouraging farmers to go for mixed cropping," said Terry.

Small-scale farmers should be motivated to move away from producing food for subsistence and into commercial production, which meant making seeds and technology available.

Research would have to optimize the production of global food security crops - maize, rice, wheat - and look at roots crops like cassava.

Incessant cycles of crops depleted the soil of valuable nutrients, but using organic manure could help restore some of the nutrients. "The emphasis has to be on sustainable intensification," said Terry.

Investment in developing climate change-ready crops was critical, as large parts of the world were already grappling with droughts and floods.

Further research into the role of trees and forests in capturing carbon, and the role of the ecosystem in influencing rainfall patterns, was essential.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that about three-quarters of the genetic diversity of agricultural crops has been lost in the last century, making research into enhancing biodiversity another major focus.

All this research would take lots of money, Terry pointed out. Developing countries have been asked to allocate 1.5 percent of their spending on agriculture on research, and donors at the conference said beneficiary countries looking for funds would have to show their commitment by investing in agriculture infrastructure, like building roads to connect the small-scale farmers to markets.

Uma Lele, lead author of the report on AR4D, commented: "We need action, action, action, and abolition - not alleviation - of poverty."

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