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Statement by IFAD President Kanayo F. Nwanze at Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas, USA

Location: College Station, Texas, USA

28 October 2015

Current and future challenges for sustainable food and nutrition security

Distinguished professors,
Ladies and gentlemen,


It is my great pleasure to be here today. The topic of sustainable food and nutrition security is central to my work and dear to my heart. And it is an honour to be delivering this lecture at Texas A&M.

 I feel a particular connection to Texas A&M because I spent four years at another Land Grant university, around 650 miles due north of here, studying entomology.

Land Grant universities turn out students who do well in the field of development because they understand something fundamental to our work – that the whole point of research (and teaching) is to improve the lives of local people.

One of the most important lessons I learned during my time at Kansas State was that researchers need to look beyond their test tubes. They need to know the local physical environment, and to understand the local community. I have seen the wisdom of this approach, both in my years as a research scientist in Africa and India, and also in my role as head of a United Nations Agency and International Financial Institution that invests in rural development.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I hope that many of the students here today will be familiar with Norman Borlaug, the plant biologist who is known as “the father of the green revolution” and “the man who saved a billion lives.”

Dr Borlaug once said, and I quote:

“It is a sad fact that on this earth at this late date there are still two worlds, ‘the privileged world’ and ‘the forgotten world’”.

That was in 1970. Almost half a century later, this sad fact remains.

If we are sincere about our ambition to rid the world of hunger and under-nutrition; then we must endeavor to reach this forgotten, invisible, world and the people who live in it.

Who are they?  They are the children, women, and men who live in the rural areas of developing countries. They account for about 40 per cent of the world’s population but they represent 75 per cent of the world’s poorest and hungriest.

They live in remote areas, down bush paths and sometimes unpaved roads, in mountains, valleys, forests or islands – far away and out of sight of the world's political and media centres. Because they are unseen, they are all too easy to forget until their crisis becomes our crisis.

Take the example of Ebola. This terrible disease is not new. It has killed off populations in rural Africa since the 1970s. But it was ignored and neglected until it had travelled across deserts and oceans, until it reached capital cities and was exported to Europe and North America. Only then did we see a collective, global response! Over 11,000 people have died from the recent Ebola outbreak.

Let me be more specific. Ebola was able to progress, unchecked, for months, because of lack of infrastructure. Because of lack of medical facilities. Because of lack of investment in early detection, treatment and vaccination. And, of course, because of poor education which led to widespread ignorance about how the disease was spread.

Why was Ebola neglected for four decades? Because most of those affected live in the invisible world, the forgotten world.

Or take migration. I do not have to tell you here in Texas that migration is an ongoing issue, day after day, decade after decade.

What causes people to migrate? Conflict, certainly, but also hunger, poverty, inequality, poor governance, persistent indignity and lack of opportunity. Extreme drought in Syria and Tunisia from 2009-2011 led to massive migration of rural peoples mostly farmers into urban/capital cities. In Egypt, the largest importers of wheat, the price of bread skyrocketed in 6 months of 2011. You all know what happened afterwards and since then. Let’s connect the dots. Extreme weather conditions, severe drought and crop failure, massive internal migration, civil unrest and political destabilization. As long as these were happening between or within national boundaries, they remained far away from the visible world!

These are the conditions that have forced millions of rural people to leave their homes, year after year, century after century.

 But migration only hits the international headlines when there is a disaster. In Europe, millions of people have made the dangerous crossing from Africa with little comment. It was only when they started drowning in large numbers in the Mediterranean; and suffocating inside freezer trucks in Austria -- that their quiet crisis was noticed by us, the visible world.

As a species, we humans are remarkably short sighted. We delay taking action when things would be relatively easy and inexpensive to fix. We wait until the situation becomes a crisis.

The same can be said for hunger. Why do we ignore realities until a problem becomes a crisis? Have we forgotten that prevention is better than a cure?

From my perspective, the fact that 795 million people go to bed hungry every night is not just a tragedy, but a travesty.  It is a travesty because we already grow enough food for every child, for every woman and for every man to eat adequately and nutritiously. It is a travesty because millions of children are stunted by under nutrition and their lives blighted forever – because of collective greed, complacency and inaction. It is a travesty because it can be prevented.

 Today, I hope to impress upon you that our best hope of achieving global food and nutrition security is to focus on the invisible and forgotten world. And I will explain.

2015 stands out as a record year for meetings. These meetings, and the growing consensus on development priorities, signal the international community’s desire to solve the world’s problems. But the time has come to go beyond words, go beyond speeches and declarations, go beyond meetings and reports, and go beyond commitments.

We know what to do because we already know what works and we know what does not work. What we now need is action, sustained, evidence-based action. And we must be held accountable for delivering tangible and verifiable results!

Agenda 2030 – which was endorsed just last month by the Member States of the United Nations – gives us the framework for ending hunger and under-nutrition, as well as tackling poverty, inequality and the impact of climate change.

Can this ambitious agenda be achieved?  My answer is: why not?  We did it with the first Millennium Development Goal to halve the poverty rate, and we did it five years ahead of schedule. And in the last 15 years, the proportion of undernourished people in the developing world has fallen by almost half, to 795 million.

There is no reason why we cannot achieve our goals by 2030.

But meeting this new agenda requires a strong commitment to transforming the rural areas of developing countries.

Why this specificity? Because, as I said earlier, rural areas are where most of the world’s hungriest and poorest people live. Simply stated, we cannot eliminate poverty and hunger without reaching them.

And there are good reasons why even those of us living in cities should support rural transformation.

We need rural areas to grow our food, because food is grown in rural areas, not cities. We need rural areas to maintain our clean water as it flows through rural areas towards our cities.

And we need strong rural economies that offer decent jobs and dignified living conditions so that the world’s growing population is not forced to pack itself into the cities, leaving the countryside abandoned.

Today, too many of the world’s rural areas are destitute. But over the years,– in places as far-flung as Bangladesh, Bolivia, Burundi and Burkina Faso – I have seen time and time again how rural transformation can change lives and communities.

I understand that everything is bigger in Texas, but I am here to tell you that rural transformation must start with small farms.

The world’s 500 million small farms are the main producers of food in many developing countries and they will remain so for decades to come. In most of the developing world, the terrain and the socio-political structure are simply not conducive to larger farms.

Developing the potential of smaller farms is good economics because farming production systems have few economies of scale. In fact, small farms are often more productive, per hectare, than large farms when agro-ecological conditions and access to technology are comparable.

In China, 200,000 small farms cultivate only 10 per cent of the developing world’s agricultural land, yet they are responsible for 20 per cent of total production. Over 60 per cent of Vietnam’s rice farms are less than 2 hectares. These small-scale farmers are contributing to the success of the largest rice exporting country.

Successful small farms lead to more vibrant rural economies. These, in turn, result in higher demand for locally produced goods and services, and this spurs the growth of non-farm employment in services, agro-processing and small-scale manufacturing. The net result is a dynamic flow of economic benefits between rural and urban areas so that nations have balanced and sustained growth.

Importantly, by transforming rural areas into economic hubs of activity, we make them more attractive to young people. In too many parts of the world, youth unemployment and underemployment rates are unacceptably high. Although today’s young people are more educated than ever, their prospects for employment look bleak when one considers that an estimated 600 million young people in developing countries will be competing for around 200 million jobs over the next decade.

We need to create attractive job opportunities for young people in rural areas and help them benefit from growing demand for food.

So, how do we unlock the potential of smallholder agriculture in the developing world so that it contributes to sustainable economic growth and global food and nutrition security?

Ladies and gentlemen,

Over the course of my career in research and development, I have learned much about what does, and does not, work.

Today, I would like to share with you four key elements of success. The first is we must take advantage of everything that science has to offer. And when I say science I also mean the softer sciences -- the social sciences, human behaviour and the dynamics of policies -- as well as biology, chemistry and physics.

Development needs to respond to the needs of the communities we serve rather than a scientist’s need to see her or his discovery in the field. Yes, it is exciting to develop a technology in the lab; and even more exciting to see it’s implementation in the field. But why give a poor farmer in Africa a new seed that increases yields when that farmer lacks access to safe storage, or does not even have access to markets to sell her surplus? Of what use is that technology?

I have also learned that no amount of high technology or advances in research and development will have the desired impact on people's lives unless the social aspects of a community are adequately addressed.

Let me give you an example. Last year I visited three projects in Ethiopia, around 200 kilometers south of Addis.

The first two had responded to the local social dynamic. They were participatory and inclusive. The farmers – women and men – had formed strong organizations. They were growing and financing their business through strong rural savings and credit organizations. They were irrigating their crops managing water supply through a community-based water users association. Yields and income were higher. Nutrition had improved.

But at the third project, a development plan had been implemented without addressing social issues. There were no farmers’ organizations. The men dominated the discourse and women were excluded. These farmers had seen no real improvement in yields, income or nutrition. They were not even able to box their produce properly!

Remember that no amount of high technology or advances in research and development will have the desired impact on people’s lives unless the social aspects of a community are also addressed.

The second key factor for success is respecting and working with the people on the ground.

At IFAD we build the capacity of farmer groups and organizations because when smallholders join together they have greater purchasing power. They have greater bargaining power in the marketplace. And they have greater power to influence the policies that affect their lives.

But we also know that local people have local knowledge. They know the times of flooding, the high water marks, which areas are most affected by water scarcity, and which crops and livestock respond best during droughts.

They may not have had the same opportunities as you and the same level of education, but their knowledge of the land and local conditions is far deeper than that of the development workers who parachute in for a few weeks or months. They know what they need. Our job is to help them get it.

This leads to my third factor for success. Donors and development agencies have a role to play, but rural transformation requires governments to be responsible, to invest in their own people, with transparent governance and reliable institutions. To enforce existing regulations and taxes, and to make sure the revenues go into the public coffers, not people's pockets.

Take my own continent of Africa.

It is often noted that Africa has the largest share of uncultivated land with rain-fed crop potential. But I see this as a strategic land reserve. And just like every other type of strategic resource, it is a treasure that should not be needlessly exploited.

In Africa's case, there is huge potential from existing agricultural land, which is currently operating at best, at only about 60 per cent of its potential. Consider that only around five per cent of cultivated land in Africa is irrigated, compared with 41 per cent in Asia. Or consider that, on the average, Africa applies only 10 to 13 kg of fertilizer per hectare of cultivated land compared to more than 100 kg in South Asia.

Africa needs to scale up productivity, not necessarily by exploiting and expanding agricultural land, but by improving the productivity of existing land.

Africa’s leaders must invest more of their countries’ own resources in agricultural research and development. They must reform their institutions to improve both the adoption and impact of agricultural innovation systems. And they must support the marriage of traditional technology with this culture of innovation.

It would not take much for Africa's productivity to double in the next five years on existing agricultural land alone.

The fourth and final factor for success is to dream big, but do not be afraid to think small. Innovations are not always the result of big ideas. Sometimes, it is the smallest interventions that, when scaled up, have the biggest results. For example, a fertilizer micro-dosing technique developed by ICRISAT and its partners is helping poor farmers grow more food without exploiting the soil. The technique is simple – farmers use a bottle cap to measure out small, affordable amounts of fertilizer. The technique means that even if a famer is illiterate, he or she can safely and easily apply the correct amount of fertilizer. It is an elegant solution to an age-old problem.

Simply bringing wheelbarrows to one village in the Pacific island of Tonga provided a means of transportation down steep and unpaved paths to the harbour so that villagers could get produce to market and earn more. Simply recycling used flip-flops has meant that there is source material for micro-irrigation parts in Madagascar.

Research certainly has a role to play in food security, today and in the future. It is research that has given us a variety of new tools including Marker Assisted Selection, Marker Assisted Breeding, tissue culture and embryo rescue techniques and products like NERICA, Quality Protein Maize, Vitamin E-rich potatoes, etc.

But we must recognize that technology, including biotechnology, is only a tool. It is not an end in itself. Agricultural research must meet the needs of poor farmers, and that includes research into improving existing methods that are easily affordable and accessible to poor people.

It is also time to revolutionize smallholder agriculture through digital technology. We are in the 21st century and have seen what mobile technology -- the e-wallet system, mobile banking etc. -- can do for rural populations and smallholders.

Digital technology can speed up the education of small farmers, make connections possible, transfer information at incredible speed, build virtual communities and revolutionize farmer organizations. This is no longer rocket science! And I see huge opportunities for our younger population in modern agricultural production systems, especially along the value chain in value addition, market information and even in field application.

Ladies and gentlemen

Just as development is not something we do to people, decades of ineffective foreign aid for development have shown that development is not something one nation can do for another. The impetus for development must come from within -- and this means a commitment from leaders to domestic financing, to the rule of law and to the rooting out corruption and fiscal mismanagement. Only when these conditions are met can foreign aid have its desired impact.

Consider that in Africa illicit outflows cost the continent around US$50 billion a year. This is money that should be building Africa's roads, installing Africa's electrical lines, educating and feeding its people.

Many developing countries have considerable domestic resources. Just think of the oil and gas, the gold and the diamonds that come from Africa.

In fact, cumulatively domestic resources of the developing world are estimated at an annual $7 trillion. Compare this to $150 billion of total ODA. Is this what is going to drive development, reduce hunger, eliminate poverty – in short, achieve the 2030 Agenda? No! Success will be driven by better domestic resource mobilization, robust tax administration, and redistribution regimes, a curb on corruption and illicit financial outflows, prioritization of budgetary expenditures and investment in long-term rural development.

But for these resources to be of any value, we need responsible governments that invest in their own people, with transparent governance and reliable institutions; we need governments that are accountable to their people and not to their own pockets. Many of them do not need development assistance. What they need are visionary leaders, with a proud national identity and a driving motivation to harness the collective will of their people to translate it into a lasting change for a better life.

As I said earlier, the time has come to move beyond words to action. As they say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. The good intentions of previous decades have not always translated into lasting change. But today, the will for action is greater than ever before.

What I witnessed last month in New York was the dawning of a new era. The world came together, as one, with commitment at the highest levels and a resounding call to action.

The message was made by heads of state, by leaders of government and business, and civil society. That message is that our world is one world – whether rich or poor, old or young, from the North or from the South – we are all in this together. We either float together or we sink together.

By working together, and committing to meet Agenda 2030, I believe we not only ensure sustainable food and nutrition security, but we can create a world where crisis is averted.

To you, the students in the audience, whether African, Asian or from the Americas, the years ahead will hold tremendous opportunities in international development, and particularly in agriculture.  We will need your talent, your energy and your creativity.  I hope we can count on you!

Thank you.