LONDON (AlertNet) - Senior officials from the Group of 20 nations will meet with scientists in Montpellier, France, next week to discuss how they can boost the contribution agricultural research makes to global food security and development in poorer states.
The Sept. 12-13 conference comes at a time when international food prices are close to record highs, and a severe drought in the Horn of Africa has left close to 13 million hungry people in need of urgent aid.
"This is the first time the G20 has woken up to the importance of agricultural research for development," said Mark Holderness, executive secretary of the Rome-based Global Forum on Agricultural Research (GFAR). There is a need both for increased investment from G20 nations and stronger partnerships to share their expertise with less-developed countries, he added.
The food price crisis of 2008 - and the social unrest it provoked around the world - were a wake-up call, highlighting long years of donor indifference towards agriculture. But when global markets headed even higher earlier this year, rich governments finally realised food security was a problem that wasn't going to go away, he said.
"We are coming out of two decades of complacency," said Holderness, who will produce a summary of the G20 vision that emerges from the Montpellier meeting. "We know we have the ability to provide and develop the answers, but we are not doing it in a joined-up way. The G20 has a political and an investment imperative (to act)."
In June, G20 agriculture ministers endorsed an action plan on food price volatility and agriculture, and finance and development ministers will review progress on its various initiatives when they meet in Washington in late September. The outcomes of the Montpellier gathering will feed into this, as well as the food security pillar of the G20 summit in Cannes in November.
Holderness said it was not simply a question of tackling high food prices in the short-term, but "looking at the train coming down the track in 30 years' time", when the effects of population growth and climate change will be even more severe unless action is taken now to work out how to feed the world with limited land and ecological capacity.
Agricultural research institutions and systems - particularly in some African nations - are "woefully" under-resourced and lack capacity, meaning they cannot deliver on the world's food needs, Holderness said.
At the same time, agricultural researchers are under pressure to make a better case for increased investment in their work by demonstrating more effectively the linkages with, and benefits for, development, he added.
The G20 countries - which include fast-developing economies like China, India and Brazil - can provide valuable practical support to make agricultural research more relevant and accessible to poorer states, the plant scientist said.
Besides providing more financial assistance - a challenge in tough economic times - they could mobilise their knowledge and scientific assets to help resource-poor farmers improve yields and adapt to changing conditions, thereby boosting food security.
They could also deploy public finance strategically to provide incentives for the private sector to become more involved in finding solutions to the agricultural problems faced by poorer nations.
Holderness said he hoped next week's conference would result in a plan for greater collective action between Northern and Southern economies to build up agricultural skills, and forge stronger links between research at the international, national and local levels.
Emerging nations within the G20 group are sources of innovative technology and have a "tremendous amount of knowledge" they could share, he added. China, for example, has made major investments in achieving food security through its own farming sector.
There is also a need for more forward thinking about the kind of agriculture societies want to pursue, but it must involve farming communities themselves, Holderness said.
“Does a country want to see a vibrant rural economy based on smallholders, or does it prefer to focus on cash crops for export? Whatever the priority, we (the international research system) should be asking, how do we help?” he added.