Enabling poor rural people
to overcome poverty



At the crossroads of agricultural development: Making the right choices for future generations

Dr Ziegler,
thank you for your kind introduction,

Your Excellency, Prime Minister of the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam, (Dr Nguyen Tan Dung),
Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, (Dr Cao Duc Phat),
Minister of Science and Technology, (Dr Hoang Van Phong),
Members of the Board of Trustees,
Fellow scientists,
Development professionals,
Ladies and gentlemen,

Before joining IFAD, I worked for thirty years with the CGIAR. For 20 of these years, I was a researcher; for another ten, I managed the research scientists at the Africa Rice Center.

So being here today and seeing so many friends, colleagues and familiar faces, truly feels like coming home.

It is a privilege to be here – at the third International Rice Congress – and to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the International Rice Research Institute. Indeed, IRRI has much to celebrate. From breeding the miracle rice that, along with the work of Dr. Norman Borlaug, helped spark the first Green Revolution – to boosting crop yield through the years and addressing the emerging challenges of climate change today – IRRI has helped lift many millions of people from hunger.

And how fitting that we mark this milestone in the City of Hanoi, which this year celebrates its one thousandth anniversary. In many cultures, a fiftieth anniversary is golden, but I’m not sure that anyone has ever contemplated what would be appropriate for a thousandth anniversary..

The crossroads of agricultural development

Today, we are standing at a crossroads. If we choose the right road and act now to invest in agricultural and rural development – including agricultural research – we can create a brighter future for the one billion extremely poor people who live in the rural areas of developing countries. A future where they can move out of subsistence and into the marketplace. A future where young people have opportunities and choices.

If we follow the path of least resistance and do nothing, we risk creating a world of escalating poverty, of growing hunger, of conflict, bloodshed and instability caused by food insecurity. For the sake of future generations, we must choose the right road.

Why is rice crucial?

In our efforts to ensure food security and eliminate hunger, rice is absolutely crucial. It is the dietary staple for almost half the world – including most of the world’s 1.4 billion poorest citizens.

IFAD has always recognized the importance of rice in eliminating poverty and hunger. Since its inception, IFAD has invested nearly US$27 million in 34 rice research programmes in Africa. We also continue to provide adaptive research grants to support the important work by IRRI scientists and others in the laboratory and in the field.

Rice is an ideal food. It stores well. It requires little processing. Together with companion crops like soy and pulses, it is the basis for a healthy, nutritious and sustainable diet.

Most importantly, rice has huge potential to feed people and help them generate income.

The proof is right here, in Viet Nam. After 35 years of war, Viet Nam in 1975 was desperately poor and hungry. And with harvests of barely 10 million tons, it was a net rice importer.

Thirty-five years later – in a good year – Viet Nam can produce more than 36 million tons. It is now the world’s second largest exporter and seventh-largest rice consumer.

Significantly, this huge leap in productivity was achieved mainly by smallholders. It also led to a huge decline in poverty.

And there is so much scope for innovation in rice.

We can make rice more nutritious with the addition of vitamins and minerals.

We can produce varieties that require less water.

We can make it more resistant to salinity and submergence.

And we can reduce the need for costly inputs that are beyond the means of the world’s poorest farmers.

The roots of hunger

If we can do all of these things, why, then, do we continue to face a global hunger crisis?

Today, nearly one billion, women, men and children go hungry every day. If the world’s population were holding steady, we would be treading water at best. But as we all know, that is not the case. By 2050, the population is expected to be 9.1 billion. 

Feeding these 9 billion-plus people will require overall global food production to increase by 70 per cent. Production in developing countries will have to almost double.

Yet over the past three decades, agricultural productivity in developing nations has been stagnant or in decline. 

Ladies and gentlemen,

This is one of the great puzzles of our time – we have the most advanced technologies; the clearest understanding of the stakes; and the strongest partnerships among concerned stakeholders like those of you here today. Yet our challenges only grow.

We must ask why

It is because, in my view, meetings and initiatives can take us only so far. Meetings don’t feed hungry people; action does. Innovation is necessary, but it is not sufficient. Goodwill is necessary, but it is not sufficient.

Yes, we may have the most advanced seeds, tools and methods known to history, but the investments needed to bring these technologies from the lab to the farm – and from farm to market – have not kept pace.

We have seen the share of Official Development Assistance allocated to agriculture drop from 18 per cent in 1979 to just 4.3 per cent in 2008. Similarly, we have seen agricultural spending as a proportion of overall government spending decline by a third in Africa and by as much as two thirds in Asia and Latin America during the same period.

We must take action now

Our message is very simple: it is not enough to attend conferences and agree on declarations of support. We need action. Not next week, not next month or next year, but today.

The nations of the world – developed and developing – can no longer afford to view agriculture and infrastructure as superfluous investments. They must dramatically increase their investment, and they must do so immediately.

And it is our job to reframe these expenditures in terms of benefits rather than costs. We must talk of revenue growth, public-private partnerships and return on investment, rather than in terms of charitable giving.

Let’s examine the evidence: according to the International Food Policy Research Institute, for every US$26 that India invested in rural roads in the 1990s, one person was lifted from poverty. In Uganda, every US$16 spent on agricultural research lifted a person out of poverty.

Each child who has enough food to eat; each smallholder who can bring products to market; can become a productive member of society.

Dollar for dollar, investing in agriculture pays for itself many times over.

And this is no abstract concept. This summer I met a rice farmer in Rwanda named Joseph Habyarimana. 

Joseph is participating in PAPSTA, an IFAD-supported partnership with the government and people of Rwanda. 

He told me about land that was once eroded, but is now arable. 

Experts have provided Joseph with the tools and know-how to use the limited water available to him more effectively. He now has fertilizer. Since joining this partnership his yield has more than doubled.

As Joseph puts it, “With the money I get from the sale of rice, I can buy clothes for the whole family. We can also afford to eat good food from the market.”

Joseph Habyarimana is just one small success story in a very large world. We all know many others like him. They are the living, breathing proof that programmes that encourage entrepreneurship work.

Agricultural research

Farmers like Joseph need the best that agricultural research can offer. And they need us to work for a revival in investment in agricultural research. Today, average global expenditure on agricultural research is only one per cent of GDP, and in most developing countries it is even lower.

We must reverse this downward spiral. Agricultural research, which so successfully drove the first Green Revolution in Asia, can deliver rates of return in excess of 40 per cent.

Agricultural research can ensure that poor rural people, whose lives and livelihoods depend on the earth’s productive capacity, have the means to produce more and to produce it better.

When the spread of new research is accompanied by enabling policies and infrastructure, we see significant production growth. China, Ghana, India, countries in Latin America, and right here in Viet Nam, all experienced tremendous growth in yields and reductions in poverty levels when new methods became widely available.

Even in West Africa, where a harsher growing environment has made it difficult to replicate the high yields achieved in Asia during the Green Revolution, we are seeing great signs of progress.

One example is NERICA – the New Rice for Africa programme. The NERICA story has been told many times over, but like grandma’s best stories, it is worth telling again.

In 1991, researchers at the Africa Rice Center started working on rice varieties that combined the high productivity of Asian rice species with the hardiness of local African rice species. 

NERICA rice varieties mature in 90 to 100 days, compared with 120 to 150 days for traditional varieties; they demand less labour because they need less weeding time, and they are drought tolerant. With minimum inputs, farmers have seen yield increases ranging from 25 to 250 per cent. 

And remember, this is happening in one of the world’s most difficult climates. The success of NERICA proves that innovation, coupled with infrastructure, can dramatically bring more crops to harvest and more food to the table anywhere on earth.

NERICA is also an example of how old knowledge can inform new. For centuries, smallholders in Africa had preserved rice biodiversity, cultivating and growing native species. One of these varieties was Oryza glaberrima, which contributed important traits to the NERICA rice varieties.

As we consider how to feed the world in the 21st century, we need to take care not to dismiss the rich potential of local varieties or the wisdom of traditional techniques handed down through centuries. But neither should we ignore the opportunity to introduce appropriate and sustainable innovations.

Changing perceptions

But innovation by itself is not enough. Our job going forward must be as much about changing perceptions as it is about changing policies.

For most of development’s history, poor rural people were viewed with pity and given handouts.

We need to rewrite that story. Having witnessed firsthand the capacity of Asian, African and Latin American farmers to adopt new technology and make it profitable, we need to view each of the world’s 500 million smallholder farms as potentially successful small-scale businesses.

But in order to expand these relatively small-scale successes, we need to make smart investments. We need to invest in research and development to intensify production. We need to invest in natural resource management to conserve the environment. We need to invest in water provision and conservation to increase food production and promote health. We need to invest in the development of infrastructure, of value chains and market access so that small producers can truly reap the benefits of greater productivity.

At IFAD, we see every day how the lives of entire communities can be transformed by market-oriented agriculture. In the Pacific Islands, for example, where farmers have traditionally used organic farming methods, IFAD supported two projects – one to establish organic standards for the region and another to build the capacity of farmers to meet those standards – so that farmers could enter the US$18 billion global market. 

Mano Kami, a coconut farmer, says that before she joined the organics programme her family earned nothing. After her farm was fully certified as organic, she was able to charge much more for her produce. Today, thanks to her higher earnings she has extended her home, and can afford to pay her electricity bills and can even make church donations. She is no longer dependent on the money sent home by relatives living abroad.

Our work in the Pacific Islands and elsewhere also shows that, to be effective, we must work in partnership – partnerships with research centres, with UN agencies, with governments, with civil society, with the private sector and with poor rural people themselves.

Local and national governments can create the right policy environment for agribusinesses and agro-industries to develop and flourish. If the public sector provides support for rural infrastructure for example, the sector becomes a less risky investment for the private sector and therefore a much more attractive business opportunity.

IFAD’s experience in the Indo-Gangetic plains of South Asia confirms this. With the involvement of CGIAR centres, the innovative public-private research partnership developed the zero-till drill – a prototype for minimum tillage, boosting yields by up to 10 per cent and cutting costs by a similar proportion.

Women and young people

And, as we invest in a better rural world for tomorrow, we must not overlook women and young people. Women are the key to ensuring food and nutritional security in the home. They are also, increasingly, the farmers of the developing world. But women are too often the most disadvantaged members of rural societies, without rights to the land they work or the power to hold onto the profits of their labour. IFAD has long recognized that there will be no substantial progress in poverty reduction and food security unless there is a greater investment in empowering women.

We must also renew our commitment to the young people of the developing world. The title of this year’s Congress is, fittingly, “Rice for Future Generations.”

If we do not engage the world’s rural youth today – and lay the groundwork for profitable rural enterprises tomorrow – they will be driven to cities in search of other opportunities. If we allow this to happen, we will be left with no one to plough the fields that will feed the future.

Ladies and gentlemen; my colleagues and friends: we have many reasons to celebrate the past half-century of agricultural development. But we have come to a critical crossroads. Fifty years from now, our children and grandchildren will reflect back upon this moment in history.

They will see that we had the knowledge and the resources to shine light on the gathering darkness of poverty and hunger.

How will they judge the choices we make?

I believe with all my heart that though the challenges are staggering, our children and grandchildren will look back at this moment in history as the time when we joined together to create the conditions that allowed one billion souls to emerge from poverty, and in doing so led our world to a brighter day.

Thank you very much.

9 November 2010