Statement by IFAD President at the seminar with Sir Gordon Conway and the Rome-based agencies


One billion hungry: Can we feed the world?

Sir Gordon,
Esteemed Colleagues,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would first like to thank Sir Gordon for his insightful presentation. I applauded his book, the Doubly Green Revolution, when it came out in 1997. And I would like to doubly praise this new book, particularly for its holistic and nuanced approach to solving the problems of food production and hunger.

This book is essential reading for anyone with a serious interest in food security--and I hope it will reach a wider audience, because food security ought to concern us all. The message that there are no magic bullets – that we will need a range of tools and approaches, each tailored to the diverse needs of the natural, social and economic environments – is one that everyone needs to hear.

And we also need to face up to Sir Gordon's sobering assessment that: "in the longer term, climate change is likely to have a bigger effect on food supply than any other factor."

As a research scientist myself, I was particularly gratified to see his assessment that the economic benefits of CGIAR research has been at least double the research costs, and possibly 17 times greater.

Above all, I was glad to see Sir Gordon acknowledge that farmers in developing countries are:  "skilled and knowledgeable and often highly innovative."

To quote the book:  "Where development has not worked, it is often because their needs are not appreciated and their knowledge is ignored." 

Indeed, as we consider how to create a world without  hunger and poverty, we must make sure to ask the right questions.

Today, much of our attention is  on increasing production.

And it is true that 870 million men, women and children barely get enough food to survive, and far too little to thrive. But it is also true that today there is no actual shortage of food, globally.

This is the terrible paradox of food security. We grow enough food, but it is not getting to the people who need it.  If we focus on intensifying production without also addressing the problems of distribution,  and ending shocking levels of food spoilage and waste, then how will we ensure that every child, woman and man has enough nutritious food to lead full and productive lives?

Consider that 57 per cent of the potential edible crop harvest is not available for human consumption. And that in sub-Saharan Africa, an estimated 20 to 40 per cent of crop production is lost because of deterioration after harvest. Post-harvest losses on this scale are scandalous, particularly on a continent where millions go hungry.

Today, more than one third of the rural population of sub-Saharan Africa lives five hours from the nearest market town of 5,000 people. Transport and marketing costs are simply too high for them to participate in markets beyond their own farm gate.

If we want farmers to grow a surplus, they need processing and safe storage facilities so they are not forced to watch their harvested crops be eaten by pests or spoil in uninsulated sheds. They need roads that are not only paved but able to withstand more frequent and extreme weather. And they need reliable access to electricity and clean water, as well as links to markets and information.

These are not just issues in Africa, but in every region of the developing world.

The need to grow more - and to grow more effectively - is primarily a need of smallholders. These are the people who live and work on the world's 500 million smallholder farms. These women and men  need to be able to grow more and sell more at better prices.

Let me tell you about a project in Timor-Leste. This is one of the poorest countries in the world.  Two-thirds of the population is considered food insecure.

Poor farmers there have a saying, that Timor-Leste has three seasons: wet, dry and hungry.

The hungry season can last up to three months a year, with households going without staple foods such as rice or maize.

Low crop productivity has long been a problem in Timor-Leste, but when farmers were first offered higher yield maize seeds, they hesitated. The farmers, who were losing 30 per cent or more of their stored maize every year to rodent and weevil damage, had no use for a surplus.

So IFAD has joined forces with the Timor-Leste Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries and the Australian Government to provide better storage as well as better seeds.

The partnership brings together an existing IFAD project providing storage technology with an existing Australian project for seed production and research.  Working together, we expect to increase food availability by as much as 70 per cent through a combination of better yields and lower post-harvest losses.

The secure storage is an incentive for farmers to adopt high-yielding varieties, and should allow them to wait for the off-season to sell their surplus, when prices are higher. 

This is the type of partnership response to community needs that we must see more of, if we want to ensure the developing world can feed itself today, and in the years ahead.

Feeding the future will depend on sustainable development that respects and responds to local conditions, whether environmental or cultural, so that the land is not diminished nor the resource base depleted. And so that changes are implemented and owned by local communities and continue long after the last aid worker and development agency has left.

With a rapidly warming world creating higher levels of uncertainty for farmers, it will also depend on integrating risk management and climate change adaptation.

I share Sir Gordon's optimism. I have seen the ability of poor rural people to transform their farms, their lives, and their communities in Bangladesh, Haiti and Zambia and many other parts of the developing world.

Our job is to give poor rural people the tools they need, and to create the conditions for them to be able to benefit from the very real opportunities in agriculture.

If we do this, not only will the developing world feed itself, it will contribute to global food security, economic growth and wealth creation.  

Thank you.

Rome, 27 February 2013