Food Security: Why Dry Areas Should Invest In Innovation

Published on 18th February 2014

Desert farming in Israel                Photo courtesy
The complex challenges facing dry areas cannot be solved with one silver bullet, but will require an integrated approach involving sustainable natural resource management, crop and livestock genetic improvement as well as socio-economic innovation. Enhancing the ability of communities in dry areas to increase their livelihoods will require a combination of sustainable intensification and diversification of production systems where possible, while in marginal lands, with fragile agro-ecosystems, the strategy should be to aim at production system resilience rather than intensification. The bottom line, though, is that a dry country like Egypt, even with its history of massive investments in irrigation systems and access to a generous portion of Nile river water, simply does not have enough water to feed its population.

The conclusion is: dry areas will be food importers and governments in this region appear to have accepted that conclusion. So, if they have to import food, what can governments do to ensure food security?  Massive investments have already been made in at least three types of solutions:

• Buying farmland elsewhere, particularly in Africa: investments to acquire tens of thousands of hectares of farmland have been made by companies from, among others, the UAE, partnering with the UAE government in realizing a strategic food security program. These ’greenfield investments’ have proved to be more problematic than expected, including accusations of ‘land grabs.’

• Storing large quantities of staple foods to guard against shortage or price spikes, proposed currently in Saudi Arabia: this is a very expensive option when food is as costly as it is now.

• As recent as late last year investors from Gulf States also began investing heavily in established agri-food businesses in Europe and the US. Even if it proves to be successful, this strategy will require many billions of dollars to have the desired effect.

There is one more option – one with a very strong track record – that in my view is currently under-represented in the investment portfolio of governments in the region: investment in innovation in agriculture.

My recommendation here today is that governments in dry areas, such as UAE, should consider massively increasing their investments in innovation, specifically in research for agricultural development, to safeguard their future food security by keeping global food prices low.

Let me reinforce my assertion that agricultural research for development – the engine that drives innovation – is an excellent investment opportunity for dry area governments, and allow me to go back in time a little. In the 70’s, when the world was equally worried, or perhaps even more worried, about global food security – particularly about famines in Asia – the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations took the initiative to make major investments in agricultural innovation. They set-up international agricultural research institutes for commodities, such as rice, wheat, maize, and potatoes, for tropical agriculture, and for dry areas. These institutes became CGIAR, the world’s leading agricultural research partnership, working towards a food secure future. With their partners, CGIAR Centers developed high yielding varieties for staple cereals that were the engine of the Green Revolution, that helped prevent famines in Asia, and led to abundant food and low food prices for several decades. All evaluations show that returns on these investments were phenomenal.

Today, with recurrent food price spikes and significant rises in food prices overall, fears about food security have come back with a vengeance. The UK’s Chief Scientist, John Beddington, referred to this as the ‘Perfect Storm by 2030’: the need to increase food production by 50%, energy production by 50% and water use by 30% – all coming to a head in 2030, while at the same time facing increasing risks of floods and droughts due to climate change. Escalating food prices have brought people into the streets in many food importing countries, including this region. Tensions due to migration have increased and will continue to do so if we do not take action. People are migrating because higher food prices, if not matched by income increases, push them back into poverty.

This is not just the problem for a future generation: while obesity is a key problem in parts of the world, including the Gulf, fully forty percent of children under five in developing countries, some 200 million children, are stunted. An irreversible condition that, due to chronic malnutrition, affects their brain development as well as their height – and means they will never reach their full potential.

Can research once more save the day, as my five-year old son would say, for his generation? We have to ensure that children receive plenty of nutritious foods, so they grow up to reach their full potential.  One promising approach is by developing new varieties of staple food crops that are rich in the minerals and vitamins that children need. New high-yielding, and more nutritious varieties of foods such as maize, cassava, beans, pearl millet, rice, beans and orange sweet potato are already being widely grown and eaten—our goal is to reach 50 million persons in farming households with these crops by 2018. We have already achieved about 10% of this goal.

Research is the engine that drives innovation, and innovation is what helps to develop solutions for food security challenges. This is certainly an exciting time to be an agricultural scientist. The life science revolution is just reaching agriculture. The cost of sequencing full genomes, of discovering  genetics that unlock life’s secrets, is falling faster than the decline in the costs of integrated circuits that drove the IT revolution. Our understanding of genetics and genomics has evolved so rapidly that what wasn’t possible just 3-5 years ago has not only become possible, but also affordable today.We can now identify the right combination of genes to produce the resilience to grow crops in arid conditions. To this end, a new integrated breeding platform that CGIAR Centers and national partners are establishing in Morocco is expected to have particular relevance for the dry area environment and agricultural context.

CGIAR scientists are working on discovery science that in some cases certainly sound as futuristic as the lab-grown hamburger – for example, redesigning the basic architecture of rice and wheat, making them more efficient in their photosynthesis processes, transforming them from a so-called ‘C3′ plant to what more closely resembles a ‘C4′ plant, such as maize, sugar and sorghum.  Because of their leaf anatomy and biochemical specificity, C3 plants such as rice, wheat, potatoes and cassava, have slower photosynthesis rates in hot environments, use more water and nitrogen fertiliser while having lower yields than C4 plants.  Such modified rice and wheat plants should increase yield, water and nitrogen use efficiency by 30-50%. These projects may be able to deliver a product to plant breeders and farmers for field testing in just 12 years. No other evolutionary mechanism exists that could be added to a C3 plant so as to deliver that superior combination of benefits.

Much of our work has to find applications even more quickly. An example is creating an evergreen agriculture, a transformative approach to climate-proofing and enhancing crop production that is already delivering results to millions of farmers today. The EverGreen Agriculture project is promoting the use of strategically placed fertiliser trees and shrubs in crop fields to‘re-green’ desolate landscapes, enhance soil fertility, and buffer food crops from drought and rising temperatures.  Results are significant. In Zambia, unfertilised maize yields in the vicinity of Faidherbia trees averaged 4.1 tonnes per hectare, compared to 1.3 tonnes per hectare nearby but beyond the canopy. In Malawi, maize yields were doubled when hundreds of thousands of farmers established fertilizer tree species on their farms. And in Niger, more than 1.2 million households have recently regenerated 200 million fertilizer trees on their sorghum and millet fields across 5 million hectares. The potential for re-greening the drylands everywhere in Sub-Saharan Africa is enormous.

In addition to boosting productivity through sustainable intensification, we also have to protect crops against diseases, and post-harvest loss. When a new form of wheat stem rust, a disastrous wheat disease, was discovered in Uganda in 1999 (and therefore called Ug99), the race was on to develop Ug99 resistant wheat varieties before the disease spread. CGIAR partnered with many others, in particular Cornell University, in the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative and today Ug99-resistant varieties have been made available to farmers, preventing disasters at a scale affecting many millions of people.

Much of the world’s food supplies are contaminated by the deadly aflatoxin produced by a mold (Aspergillus flavus). African farmers alone lose as much as $450 million in potential trade every year because of aflatoxin contamination. Long-term exposure to aflatoxin can damage the health of livestock, cause cancer and liver diseases in humans, weaken the immune system, and retard the growth and development of children. CGIAR scientists and partners have developed a low-cost and sustainable solution called aflasafeTM. This natural, biological control product consistently reduces contamination in farmers’ fields and in the store by up to 90%. Country and region-specific aflasafe products are under development in nine African countries. Large-scale development and adoption of aflasafeTM could help developing countries restore vital trading links and protect the health of millions currently at risk from aflatoxin-related illnesses.

Finally we have to prepare for the future, both new opportunities and new threats. An example of new opportunities is linked to cell phones and remote sensing. Collaborating with US universities, CGIAR has developed low cost sensors and remote sensing information to adapt precision agriculture techniques to the needs of low income farmers, and achieved fertilizer and water savings of up to US$ 300 per hectare in Mexican and Asian farmers’ fields. In Africa, farmers can now use their cell phones to purchase inputs, get expert advice, obtain insurance, and sell their products.

Examples of new threats relate to climate change.  A CGIAR project called Climate Analogues identifies communities that represent the past and future states of a particular climate. It allows farmers to travel to a place where their future climate is experienced today, to learn from other farmers how they have adapted to climate challenges.

In CGIAR today close to 90% of the research of the 15 CGIAR research Centers is organized in 16 global CGIAR Research Programs that can be directly linked to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals for food security, health, nutrition and environmental challenges. Achieving these goals requires investment– particularly from public funds as many of the food security issues of the developing world in general, and of the dry areas in particular, do not present large enough markets of farmers with an ability to pay to generate a profit for private sector companies. Although funding for public international agricultural research for development, largely but not only through CGIAR, has doubled in the last 5 years, given the billions invested in other solutions, and the challenges we face, the billion dollar of CGIAR funding accomplished in 2013 is still modest.

For major investors in food security, such as the dry area governments, and particularly Abu Dhabi, in the UAE, the Gulf States, or the region at large, my recommendation is to massively increase investment in agricultural innovation in national systems, as well as taking a seat at the table of the international system. In the interest of many stakeholders around the world, but particularly food importing countries, history shows us that this is the most effective route to keeping global food prices low.

By Frank Rijsberman,

CEO, CGIAR Consortium.


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