07 February 2020
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It gives me very great pleasure to be here in Ciudad de México to celebrate CIMMYT’s 50th anniversary.
Our colleagues at CIMMYT have much to be proud of. Your research is delivering results for smallholder farmers and reducing poverty and hunger around the world. You have strengthened the capacity of wheat and maize farmers in developing countries. And your institution has a well-deserved reputation for rigorous standards as well as for its innovations in science and technology.
As you may know, I have spent much of my career in agricultural research. Before joining IFAD, I worked for a total of 30 years at three CGIAR centers, including 20 years as a field scientist and ten years managing researchers at the Africa Rice Centre.
Today, I am in my tenth year at the International Fund for Agricultural Development, which has a tradition of funding research for agricultural development.
In fact, my first big breakthrough as a scientist was funded by IFAD! This was during the late 1970s and 1980s, when cassava crop losses were as high as 80 per cent in sub-Saharan Africa, and I was on my first field posting by IITA in Congo DRC – or Zaire as it was called then.
I do not need to tell you at CIMMYT how important cassava – or yucca – is for poor people. It is a staple food for more than half a billion people in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
When I started researching ways of controlling the pest I decided to do something that was considered very innovative at the time. Instead of exploring new synthetic pesticides, I researched insects that could prey on the mealybug without damaging the crop.
In 1978, I travelled to the then Commonwealth Institute for Biological Control (CIBC) in Trinidad and brought back several species of predatory wasps. I left Congo shortly after, but the approach was expanded by Hans Herren, supported by IFAD, the Swiss Development Cooperation and other donors and became the foundation of an Africa-wide control programme.
By 1988, the mealybug threat was under control throughout Africa; at least 20 million lives were saved, along with around US$2.2 billion in production.
The cost of this programme was only US$20 million. In other words, one life was saved for every dollar invested – without any adverse effects on the environment or to human health.
This work was recognised in 1995, when the World Food Prize was awarded to Hans Herren.
This early experience taught me a number of lessons that have stayed with me throughout my career. It taught me to take risks. It taught me to think outside the box. And it taught me that small and inexpensive interventions can yield great results.
Over the course of my 40-year career, I have seen time and time again, first-hand, the dramatic changes that occur in the lives of poor rural people when agricultural research is focused on development outcomes.
There is ample evidence that investing in agricultural research and development generates ample returns in the form of improved nutrition and reduced rates of poverty.
I would like to cite a few examples of how practical and simple innovations have led to great outcomes.
Let me start with New Rice for Africa, or NERICA. Rice is a staple of the African diet, but the wild varieties that grow well in sub-Saharan Africa are low yielding. My former colleague Dr. Monty Jones had tried for years to cross a hardy African rice – Oryza glaberrima—with a high-yielding Asian species – Oryza sativa.
As you know, crossing wild species is not a simple matter and his success rate was very low. Then, Dr. Jones went to China and was shown a method of using coconut milk in rice tissue cultures. He tried it with his interspecific crosses, and his success rate rose to around 50 per cent.
The rest is history. Today there are hundreds of NERICA varieties. They mature quickly, demand less labour, and they are drought tolerant. Farmers have seen yields rise by 25 to 250 per cent. In 2004, Dr. Jones’s work on NERICA was recognized when he was co-awarded the World Food Prize.
And it would never have happened without the innovation of adding coconut oil to the cultures.
Sometimes, innovation is being creative with existing practices. In Bangladesh, nutrition was a big problem for fish farmers and their families, so IFAD partnered with the government and WorldFish to introduce nutrient-dense small fish and to educate families about the importance of nutrition. The farmers now sell the bigger fish and save the small fish for their families. Malnutrition rates dropped considerably as a result of these measures.
These examples highlight what happens when research targets the needs of its end users – and for the developing world that means the smallholder farmers, fishers and livestock producers.
Yet, public spending on R&D is lowest in the regions that need it most. High-income countries account for 57 per cent of spending, measured in purchasing power parity dollars, compared with only 11 per cent for low-income countries.
Sub-Saharan Africa, which needs a new green revolution more than any other region in the world, spent only 5 per cent, roughly the same as Brazil.
Data shows that when funding is cut, progress is reversed. When I visited the research facilities in Bujumbura, Burundi, it was enough to make you cry. There was nothing to see but dilapidated buildings.
It is a tragedy, because without the investment in research, we are unlikely to see the transformation of the rural space that is so desperately needed in developing countries to improve food security, nutrition, and economic growth.
But one thing I have learned over the years is that research alone will not end hunger and poverty. Today, we grow enough food to feed every child, every woman and man on our planet. Yet nearly 800 million people go to bed hungry every day.
As scientists for development, we must ensure that our research benefits the 2 billion people who depend on the world’s 500 million small farms, as well as the millions of pastoralists, forest dwellers, fisherfolk and herders.
They are the ones who need to produce more and to produce better. Not just for today. Not just for tomorrow. But for generations to come.
As scientists and development practitioners, we must always ask ourselves: are we paying enough attention to smallholders? They form the single largest group of farmers in the world. They are also, as a group, the biggest source of on-farm investors in agriculture! Yet too often, they are excluded from the benefits of research, and too often it is farmers and their families who are going hungry.
Today, I would like to share with you four value propositions for innovations that matter.
The first is that understanding of biological and physical sciences is not enough.
As scientists and researchers, we tend to focus on biological and physical experiences. But in my years of working in development, I have learned that science has the greatest impact when it is combined with an understanding of the softer sciences.
We must apply the same rigour of thought to understanding the social dimension of local communities who most need to benefit from our work.
This leads to my second value proposition for innovations that matter: fostering greater equality for all rural people, especially women. Poor rural women in developing countries typically work about 12 hours more per week than men. That’s an extra day and a half of labour per week.
And the importance of women to the nutrition and well being of the family is undeniable. So, we must ask ourselves, is our research addressing their needs?
My third value proposition is recognizing that innovation can come from finding a novel way to use an established technology. A fertilizer micro-dosing technique developed by ICRISAT and its partners is helping farmers grow more food without exploiting the soil by using a bottle cap to measure out small, affordable amounts of fertilizer and placing that fertilizer precisely – with or near the seed.
The technique is so simple that even if a famer is illiterate, she or he can easily apply the correct amount of fertilizer.
My fourth and final value proposition for innovations that matter is to use local knowledge and listen to local people. They may not have university educations – or even be literate by our terms. But they too can be innovative. And they can introduce us to ways of thinking that are not confined by our own experiences and cultural backgrounds.
For example, farmers in the Sahel have traditionally used planting pits and half-moons to collect and store rainwater and run-off.
By reviving and improving on these traditional practices, farmers were able to rehabilitate degraded land.
The results in the village of Batodi in Niger are impressive. Twenty years ago, the fields around Batodi were almost barren.
Today, the farms around Batodi have higher tree densities than they did 20 years ago. The soil is more fertile and the trees provide fodder for livestock. The water harvesting techniques seem to have recharged the groundwater, and well water levels are higher. Village gardens have sprung up around the wells.
Ladies and gentlemen,
As we continue our discussion today about the role of innovation in agriculture, I would like you to consider – what is innovation?
The answer depends on the perspective of the observer.
Innovation does not necessarily mean doing something “new”. It does not need to be a negation of the past. It may simply mean using a traditional technology and adapting it or using it in a new way.
For a small farmer, simply expanding the size of a planting pit and adding small amounts of fertilizer and manure is as innovative and effective as a genetically modified seed.
To my colleagues at CIMMYT, I congratulate you on this anniversary wish you another fruitful and exciting 50 years. And I hope your innovations help smallholder farmers take their rightful place as the foundation of a 21st century food system that is productive, sustainable and ecologically responsible.