Enabling poor rural people
to overcome poverty



A food secure world: Challenging choices for our North, opportunities for the South

Mr Chairman,
Distinguished Delegates,
Fellow Scientists,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Firstly, I would like to acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the Land.  I would also like to pay respect to the Elders both past and present and extend that respect to other Indigenous Australians who are present.

I would also like to thank the Crawford Fund for organizing this conference, which is an invaluable opportunity for all of us working in agricultural research and development to learn from each other, sharing our experiences and ideas.

As many of you may know, I have spent much of my career in agricultural research.  Before joining IFAD, I worked for thirty years at several CGIAR centres and locations. For twenty of those years, I was a research scientist myself. For another ten years, I managed – if scientists can ever really be managed – the research scientists at the Africa Rice Centre.

So being here with such a distinguished group of researchers and development practitioners is both an honour and a pleasure for me.

Today, our topic is A Food Secure World.  Clearly, with nearly One billion women, men and children going to bed hungry every night, we are not there yet. This lack of food security takes on a special significance here, in the southern hemisphere. Around 95 per cent of the people considered food insecure or poor live in South Asia or sub-Saharan Africa. Of these, two-thirds live in Asia.

But I believe – indeed I know – that this situation – poverty, hunger or food insecurity– is not inevitable, and that this trend can be   reversed.

At a time when budgets are tight, it may seem prudent to cut back on investments in agriculture and development. But this would be a false economy. Why?

Let’s look at some statistics. The share of aid to agriculture started to decline from the mid-1980s and reached a low of 5.5 per cent during 2003 to 2005. The World Bank’s lending to agriculture also fell from a high of 30 per cent in the 1980s to 7 per cent in the mid-2000s.

This low level of investment was one of the contributing factors to the global food security crisis of 2007 and 2008. In 2009, the number of hungry people in the world hit an all-time high of more than 1 billion.

Since the food price crisis, however, there has been renewed commitment by development partners, particularly OECD countries, and international financing institutions to agriculture. This is a promising sign. We must learn from the mistakes of the past and maintain our commitment to investing in developing country agriculture.

Numerous studies show that GDP growth generated by agriculture is more than twice as effective in reducing poverty as growth in other sectors.

With the right policies and the right investments in agricultural and rural development — backed up by the right research — we can create a food secure world; a world where both hunger and poverty are dramatically reduced.

As a scientist, I believe in evidence and results. Today, I would like to share with you some of the evidence we have gathered at IFAD about the impact of development and agricultural research on food security and poverty reduction. I will also share some of the results we have achieved that can be replicated elsewhere. And I look forward to learning from the other speakers.

But, as I have said before, meetings, declarations, commitments and speeches do not feed hungry people. Results and impact are what count. Today, we are not only here to talk, we are here to listen to each other. But I hope this meeting will also lead to results, with agricultural research being increasingly recognised and used more effectively to transform the lives of poor people and improve food security for all.

The challenges ahead

Let me be clear. There is no magic bullet, no secret formula that will eliminate poverty and hunger over night. There are solutions, many solutions, but each must be targeted to the conditions of a specific region, or even a specific village.

And the challenges are daunting. The world’s population is expected to reach 7 billion this year, and to cross 9 billion by 2050.

To meet demand from a growing and more affluent population, global food production will need to rise 70 per cent in less than 40 years. Production in developing countries will need to almost double.

In most parts of the world, increased production will need to come primarily from existing arable land. We have exhausted the land frontier, particularly in Asia and the Pacific region. Where there are some opportunities for land expansion in Africa and Latin America, we will need to carefully weigh the environmental costs of further expansion before moving in that direction.  

We will also need to increase production at a time when yield growth is declining. This decline is the result of many factors including deteriorating soil and water quality, the build-up of toxins, and diminishing returns from modern varieties.

The word “sustainable” tends to be over-used in development circles. But sustainability is at the heart of our discourse on food security.

Some of the problems we have with yields today stem from the unsustainable practices of the past. So when we look at increasing yields, we must do so in a way that is sustainable – not just for today and tomorrow, but for many decades to come.

Whether in Africa, Latin America or Asia and the Pacific, we will need to increase yields in a way that does not pollute, diminish the land over time or contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.

In other words, we must have sustainable intensification. This means complementing conventional approaches to increasing productivity with a much stronger focus on soil and water management and overall farm production systems.

Our job will be made even more difficult by the impact of climate change, food price volatility, social unrest and political instability. And I do not need to tell you here, in Australia, about the impact that natural disasters can have on agriculture. This is something you know all too well.

Poor rural people are often the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Many live on ecologically fragile land and depend on agriculture, livestock, fisheries and forestry. We are already seeing the impact of climate change on agriculture in developing countries. Crop failures and livestock deaths are causing higher economic losses, contributing to higher food prices and undermining food security with ever-greater frequency, especially in parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

But there is much that can and must be done to help poor rural people in developing countries minimize risks so that they are not just powerless victims in the face of these challenges. So that they have the skills and tools to actually take charge of their own recovery – and better yet, limit the effects once disasters strike.

This is the complex environment in which to tackle food security. But it can and it must be done.

The case for smallholders in rural development

In a country where average farm size is well over three thousand hectares, you may be surprised to know that  at IFAD, we believe that small farms hold the key to ensuring global food security.

Now before you decide to walk out, please let me explain. This is not, in any way, a comment on farming in Australia. But it is something that people who are doing research for development need to be aware of.

The reality is that there are around five hundred million small farms – and when I say small, these are farms of less than two hectares – in the world. More than 75 per cent of these farms are in the Asia and the Pacific region. In Africa, 80 per cent of all farms are small. Around 2 billion people depend on small farms for their livelihoods.

In some contexts – here in Australia, in the prairies of North America, in the Pampas of Argentina, the terrain and the socio-political structure are conducive to larger farms. But in most developing countries, the landscape is different and creating large farms is neither feasible nor sensible.

Small farms are often more productive, per hectare, than large farms, when agro-ecological conditions and access to technology are comparable. In India, for example, smallholders contribute more than 50 per cent of total farm output even though they cultivate only 44 per cent of the land.

Many studies have confirmed that there is an inverse relationship between farm size and productivity per hectare. Why is this?

One reason is that small farmers have a strong personal incentive to get the most from their land and from their own labour.

Another reason is that family farms have very low management costs and are labour intensive, while large farms are either heavily mechanised - offering little employment opportunities - or have high costs for managing the workforce. Family farms also tend to grow a wide variety of cultivars, many of which are landraces.

Today, most of the world’s small farmers are poor. Many do not grow enough food to feed themselves and their families, never mind their communities.

But experience repeatedly shows – in China, Ghana, Viet Nam and elsewhere – that when smallholders are given the means and the incentives to increase production, they can lead agricultural and economic growth. 

Our aim should be to transform smallholder agriculture into successful rural agribusinesses that are profitable, that generate surpluses, and that provide career opportunities and a pathway out of poverty and hunger.

Agricultural research

Agricultural research is fundamental to meeting today’s challenges. It was agricultural research that so successfully drove the first Green Revolution in Asia.

Agricultural research can ensure that the smallholder, the fisherman, the pastoralist, the forest dweller and the herder have 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.

As scientists, as researchers, as experts in development, we have a moral and social responsibility to harness the best of pro-poor agricultural research. It is essential that we develop, and then disseminate, innovative and climate-change resilient technologies, such as seeds that are more tolerant to droughts or to floods. If we don’t, agricultural productivity will remain abysmally low.

At IFAD, we have seen time and time again how agricultural research can transform people’s lives. There are many examples, but today I would like to share with you a discovery that is close to my heart:  NERICA rice.

NERICA stands for New Rice for Africa. For millions of people in West Africa, food means rice. But about 40 per cent of the rice consumed locally is imported because the high yields that were achieved in Asia during the Green Revolution have been difficult to replicate in the harsher African environment.

In 1991, researchers at the Africa Rice Center started creating rice varieties that combined the high productivity of Asian rice with the hardiness of local African rice species. The first hybrids were just being tested in farmer fields when I became Director General of the Africa Rice Center in late 1996.

The NERICA rices offer many advantages to farmers. They mature in 90 to 100 days, compared with 120 to 150 days for traditional varieties; they demand less labour because they need less weeding and they are drought tolerant. With minimum inputs, farmers have seen yield increases ranging from 25 to 250 per cent. There are now hundreds of new NERICA varieties.

NERICA is a good example of how scientific research and social applications go hand-in-hand. The film I am about to show you was made many years after my work on NERICA was done. Not only does it illustrate the powerful applications of research, it also gives a good overview of the work IFAD does.

 

As you can see, research is not only the key to unlocking productivity for poor farmers it is also the key to unlocking their potential as entrepreneurs.

Agricultural research has an important role to play in creating the conditions to bring poor rural people out of subsistence and into the marketplace.

Let us examine the evidence: according to the International Food Policy Research Institute, every additional $109 spent on agricultural reseach in China lifted one person out of poverty. That’s not bad. In Uganda, the returns were even better, with one person lifted from poverty for every $16 spent on agricultural research. A separate report by the CGIAR indicated that $1 spent on agricultural research produces $9 worth of added food in developing countries.

As we consider the capacity of agricultural research to support rural development, we have to use all of the available tools, technologies and science at our disposal. That includes biotechnology.

Agricultural biotechnologies, including Marker Assisted Selection, Marker Assisted Breeding, tissue culture and embryo rescue techniques can bring many benefits. They can boost productivity, improve the tolerance of seeds and plants to drought, temperature stress and pests, and make nutrient use more efficient.

Resource-poor farmers in developing countries stand to benefit most from agricultural biotechnologies. But we must also recognise that biotechnology is only a tool, it is not an end in itself. In many developing countries, simply optimizing conventional approaches, such as the simple use of fertilizers and micro-irrigation, could yield dramatic results.

This is, again, where context is specific. Sub-Saharan Africa has around 60 per cent of the world’s uncultivated land, and uses only one tenth of the average amount of fertilizer. If Africans increased their use of fertilizer, improved seeds and irrigation, they could significantly improve crop yields without causing environmental damage.

Bear in mind that farmers in sub-Saharan Africa use, on average, less than 13 kilogrammes of fertilizer per hectare. This compares with 73 kilogrammes in the Middle East and North Africa, and 190 kilogrammes in East Asia and the Pacific.

Therefore, there is enormous potential for sub-Saharan African countries to increase yields by using higher levels of fertilizers, particularly if this is accompanied by restoring pH balance and using improved seed and irrigation methods.

Even in East Asia and the Pacific, there is wide variation in fertilizer use across countries. But clearly, in countries that have over-used fertilizer for too many years, this approach would be counter-productive.

The challenge, therefore, is striking the right balance. Biotechnologies, including, for example, genetically modified crops, can provide us with more resilient, more nutritious crops. They can help shorten our delivery and results time. But as responsible scientists, we must also consider the eco-systems where they operate, as well as the farmers who stand to benefit from them.

New breakthroughs in conservation agriculture and biotechnology will help farmers increase production in an environmentally sustainable manner. At the same time, better understanding and adoption of agro-ecological approaches, including integrated crop/pest/nutrient management systems and organic agriculture can help make intensification of agriculture more sustainable.

Through our focus on pro-poor innovations, IFAD supports the development of sustainable agricultural technologies. And we recognise that technological change should support the natural resource base, not undermine it.

As we consider how to feed the world in the 21st century, we need to take care to protect and enhance biodiversity and not to overlook the potential of local varieties.

NERICA is a case in point. For centuries, smallholders in Africa had preserved rice biodiversity, cultivating and growing native species. One of these was Oryza glaberrima. Without it, we would not have many of the important traits of the  NERICA rice varieties.

There is wisdom in traditional techniques, handed down over the centuries, and rich potential in local varieties. We must safeguard them, while not ignoring innovations when they are appropriate and sustainable.

IFAD not only funds research, it invests in people-participatory technology development so that rural communities can help inform the work of scientists. Our community-driven development model helps move people from subsistence to the marketplace. It is successful because it ensures that rural communities play a key role in influencing decisions that affect their livelihoods. In this way, they are invested in their own development and they are more likely to ensure that poverty reduction initiatives they help devise are sustainable.

We also support micro-finance programmes, the empowerment of women, advocacy and policy dialogue with governments, as well as lending our support to farmers’ organizations and their institutions. In short, we must invest in providing rural communities with the infrastructure, social services and governance structures for their development.

Why is this important?

The development of rural areas is central to eliminating hunger and poverty, mitigating climate change, achieving widespread economic security and social stability, and promoting peace. And it is, of course, at the heart of efforts to ensure long-term food security.

But it is not enough to simply increase food production. This also means working with government to create the right incentives for private sector involvement, to create markets, and to link smallholder farmers to those markets.

Working in partnership

At IFAD, we see every day how entire communities can be transformed by market-oriented agriculture. In the Pacific Islands, for example, where farmers had traditionally used organic farming methods, IFAD supported two projects supporting public-private partnerships – 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 18 billion dollar global market.

The experience of coconut farmer Mano Kami in Samoa is typical. Before joining the organics programme, her family barely earned anything and depended on remittances, sent home by relatives living abroad, to survive.

After her farm was certified as organic, she was able to earn more from her produce. Her income went up, she extended her home and today she can even afford to donate money to her church.

Our work in the Pacific Islands and elsewhere shows that, to be effective, we must work in partnership.

Partnerships are IFAD’s main mode of operation. We work with developing country governments, non-governmental organizations, research centres, other UN agencies, the private sector, and with poor rural people themselves.

In 2010, through domestic and international co-financing, for every dollar contributed to the Eighth Replenishment of our resources, IFAD mobilized another six dollars from our partners for rural development programmes.

Working in partnership we can optimize research and development, we can scale-up innovations, we can deepen our learning and we can share our growing knowledge.

Conclusion

I have talked today about the crucial role that smallholder agriculture in the South can play in achieving global food security and reducing rural poverty. I have discussed the many important choices the North must make to help smallholder reach these goals.

But perhaps the single most important factor for success will be ensuring that the North and the South work together in true partnership to achieve their common goals.

Governments and private foundations in the North can enhance the capacity of national agricultural research and development systems in the South. They can do this directly and through support to the international agricultural research centres. And I have not even addressed another area of burgeoning cooperation, that is South-South cooperation.

A recent study by the Asia Society and the International Rice Research Institute suggests that developing countries need to train a new generation of scientists and researchers before the present generation retires. This is vital if these countries are to successfully capitalize on advances in modern science. Governments, universities and private foundations in the North, as well as the South, can contribute to this.

Conferences such as this play an important role in facilitating collaboration and laying the foundation for partnerships. So once again, I would like to offer my sincere gratitude to the staff at the Crawford Fund for giving all of us here today the opportunity to forge new alliances and strengthen existing ones.

Thank you.

6 April 2011, Brisbane, Australia