Shaping the Future of Agriculture Together

Published on 13th April 2010

A farmer in Kenya prepares his land        Photo courtesy
There are more than 1 billion poor and hungry people in the world today. That’s about one in six people of today’s population, compared with a marginally better one in seven people 10 years ago. Transforming the bleak future of these poor women and men is no mean feat. Indeed, volatile food prices, population growth, low agricultural productivity and the potentially devastating effects of climate change, make it a particularly daunting challenge.

On population growth, current forecasts estimate that there will be around 50 per cent more people in 2050, with most growth expected in developing countries. Feeding the projected 9.1 billion will require overall global food production to increase by 70 per cent. While production in developing countries will have to almost double.

Over the past three decades, agricultural productivity in developing countries has been stagnant or in decline because of years of under-investment in the sector. For example, the share of ODA allocated to agriculture dropped from 18 per cent in 1979 to 4.3 per cent in 2008. Agricultural spending to total government spending by developing countries declined by a third in Africa and by as much as two thirds in Asia and Latin America during the same period. As for climate change, severe water shortages are predicted to affect between 75 million and 250 million people by 2020. And Africa, where approximately 95 per cent of agriculture depends on rainfall, is particularly vulnerable.

The case for agriculture and rural development

GDP growth generated by agriculture has been shown to be at least twice as effective in reducing poverty as growth in other sectors. Agriculture – spanning crop production, fishing, livestock, forestry and pasture – has driven economic growth through the centuries, from 18th century England, to 19th century Japan, to 20th century India, to Brazil, China and Viet Nam today.

Let’s not forget that agriculture also plays an important role in exacerbating – and falling prey to – climate change. Agriculture and deforestation together account for an estimated 26 to 35 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions. We need to turn this around. We need to reverse deforestation and encourage afforestation and reforestation. We need to improve land-management practices such as agro-forestry, and the rehabilitation of degraded crop and pasture land through the development and dissemination of sustainable agricultural technologies and land use systems. We need to make farming practices climate-friendly. That way, agriculture – while being part of the problem – can also be part of the solution to climate change and food security.

How do we boost agricultural productivity and achieve global food security while at the same time managing climate change? Part of the answer lies in partnership-based agricultural research for development.
The role of agricultural research

Agriculture research is fundamental to meeting today’s challenges. Agricultural research has been shown to deliver rates of return in excess of 40 per cent. It can ensure that the smallholder, the fisherman, the pastoralist, the forest dweller and the herder are provided with the means to adapt to climate change. It can ensure that poor rural people have the means to produce more and to produce it better. It’s essential that we harness the best of pro-poor agricultural research and push back the frontiers of innovation. It’s essential that we develop and diffuse innovative and climate-proof solutions, such as seeds that are more tolerant to drought or to floods, to assist resource-poor farmers.

NERICA rice is but one example of the fruits of agricultural research.  NERICAs were developed through pioneering research at AfricaRice. There are now hundreds of new NERICA varieties, which combine the hardiness of local African rice species with the high productivity of Asian rice. They also mature up to 40 per cent more quickly than traditional varieties, taking only 90 to 100 days from planting to harvest.  NERICA is thus not only a product of science, it is also a technological input into the management of natural resources. 

Another pioneering research programme, which IFAD supported, was the Africa-wide Biological Control Programme.  Through IFAD-funded research into a natural predator of the cassava mealybug in South America, at least 20 million lives in the entire cassava belt of sub-Saharan Africa were saved, for a total project cost of only US$20 million. In other words, for every dollar invested a life was saved – which is a staggering achievement, I’m sure you’ll agree.

The role of smallholders and agribusinesses

There are some five hundred million smallholder farms worldwide supporting around two billion people. With effective agricultural research, these people can increase their productivity and so reduce their vulnerability. With greater and higher quality yields, they can even start producing a surplus to sell at local markets, benefiting not only others in their communities but also their financial security.

Our aim should be to transform smallholder agriculture into successful rural agribusinesses that are profitable and in which agricultural surpluses can be marketed. Rural agribusinesses can drive economic growth; provide a career opportunity for Africa’s youth and can mean a pathway out of poverty. The face of agriculture must change. Farming and agricultural land don’t have to be the domain of the poor. Farming in developing countries doesn’t have to be by the farmer with a hoe, a baby on her back. Farming, by definition, is a business. And every successful business requires investment – sustained investment.

Currently, average global expenditure on agricultural research as a percentage of GDP is only one percent. In most developing countries it’s even lower. Investment in agricultural research needs to increase. Agricultural investment needs to be planned in a way that is coherent with overall national strategies for economic development and poverty reduction. Agricultural research plans need to allow for a genuine two-way flow of knowledge and information, between the scientists and the rural communities, including indigenous peoples, to ensure that our response to the needs and conditions in rural areas is truly comprehensive.


Agricultural biotechnologies encompass a wide-range of tools and methodologies that can be applied to crops, livestock, forestry, fisheries and aquaculture, as well as to agro-industries. Agricultural biotechnologies, including MAS, MAB, tissue culture and embryo rescue techniques can boost productivity, improve the tolerance of seeds and plants to drought, temperature and pests, and make nutrient use more efficient.

The International Conference on Agricultural Biotechnologies in Developing Countries, convened by the FAO in Mexico earlier this month, recognised the potential that biotechnology offers in particular to poor rural people in resource-challenged areas. But it also recognised that there are risks – including possible adverse nutritional effects and threats to biodiversity through the flow of genes into wild and cultivated species. The challenge is therefore in striking the right balance. As responsible scientists, we must approach biotechnologies from an angle that looks at both the agricultural and eco-systems that they operate under, as well as the people, which they stand to benefit.

ARD and Agrobiodiversity

Let’s not forget that 2010 is the International Year of Biodiversity. Agricultural biodiversity can improve productivity and nutrition, enhance livelihoods, respond to environmental challenges and deliver food security. Biodiversity is a vital tool for rural development, climate change adaptation and poverty reduction. Agricultural research for development can help protect and enhance biodiversity if it draws on the generations of knowledge accumulated by farming communities and indigenous peoples. These people are best placed to recognise their local needs and understand their local conditions.

What this underlines is the crucial role of effective partnerships in ARD innovation systems. On the question of partnerships, we need increasingly also to involve the private sector. Traditionally, agricultural R&D has over-emphasized the “R” at the expense of the “D”. Strategic partnerships with the private sector can redress the balance. The private sector can help drive the skills and technologies needed for post-production activities, such as processing, value-addition, storage, and marketing.  But like the rural youth, we need to provide the private sector with incentives.

An effective way of engaging the private sector in rural development is through public-private partnerships. Local and national governments can create the right policy environment to allow agribusinesses and agro-industries to develop and flourish. If the public sector provides support for rural infrastructure, for example, or for technical advisory and other extension services, this makes the sector a less risky investment choice for the private sector and therefore a much more attractive business opportunity.

Partnerships are fundamental to delivering the transformational potential of science and technology in rural development. Working in partnership, we can optimize the R&D system; we can promote scaling-up innovations; and we can deepen our learning and share our growing knowledge.

By Kanayo F. Nwanze, IFAD President .


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