MONTPELLIER, France (AlertNet) - A commitment by G20 nations to strengthen agricultural research in developing countries will help reduce food insecurity as long as it focuses on small farmers and their needs, officials and experts said at a G20-backed conference this week.
After many years out in the cold in terms of funding, agriculture is firmly back on the political map as a result of fast-rising food prices, including the 2008 crisis that led to unrest around the world, and a further push to record highs this year as a result of crop losses from extreme weather, population growth and growing appetites in some developing countries.
Last November, the Group of 20 countries - which includes fast-developing economies like China, Brazil and India - agreed at a summit in Seoul to promote a bigger role in development for agricultural research. As part of that process, senior officials met with scientists in Montpellier this week to discuss ways of boosting the contribution their research systems make to food security and economic growth in poorer nations.
"The G20's engagement in this is likely to reduce the risk of extreme food insecurity in the world to come, and that is vital given that we are going to have climate change and other big threats coming along and hitting us," David Nabarro, the U.N.'s special representative on food security and nutrition, told AlertNet on the sidelines of the conference.
"I believe that, over the next two years, we are going to be in a situation where...there is more science applied to the very basic problems the world faces on food security, in particular the poorer communities."
The G20 is putting forward new thinking on agriculture, after years of neglect by donors, Nabarro said. He cited interest among G20 agriculture ministers at a June meeting in helping smallholder farmers and their communities to prosper, and using agricultural systems to improve nutrition while reducing the environmental damage they cause and cutting their greenhouse gas emissions.
But Nabarro said research institutions in the world's richest countries have only recently shifted from a narrow focus on boosting agricultural production to responding to the interests of small producers - many of whom are women in Africa and Asia. That requires greater attention to sustainable livelihoods and farming systems beginning at household level, he added.
G20 nations account for around 70 percent of scientific publications on agriculture, and 60 percent of agricultural exports, suggesting they could add significant muscle to research that is relevant to less-developed countries. But so far, their experts have concentrated on boosting yields of commercially profitable crops - mainly wheat, maize and rice.
They should widen their work to include relatively neglected crops that are staple foods in poorer nations, such as cassava, as well as livestock and fish, said Carlos Perez Del Castillo, board chair of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). The group is a consortium of 15 organisations that work on sustainable development and helped organised the Montpellier meeting.
Perez Del Castillo also urged greater attention to production systems as a whole.
On a recent trip to Bangladesh, the former Uruguayan minister and World Trade Organisation official witnessed how new flood-resistant varieties of rice, which can survive for nearly three weeks under water, are boosting farmers' incomes, alongside the introduction of fish and shrimp farming.
The farmers are now getting up to three crops a year, and children's nutritional status has improved from eating fish. The project, led by CGIAR institutions and funded by the U.S. government, is "not rocket science" but is making a real difference to local people's lives, Perez Del Castillo told AlertNet.
A preliminary summary issued at the close of the meeting on Tuesday said G20 agricultural research systems – including both public and private institutions - could “contribute decisively to the improvement of food security for the rural poor, especially women and children, in developing countries via improved coherence and coordination, stronger and equal partnerships and better knowledge sharing".
The document encourages G20 research institutions to consider new partnerships bringing in their counterparts and others in developing countries, including women smallholder farmers, and to place an emphasis on fragile states. It also underlines the potential of information technologies and systems in ensuring the latest research and products reach farmers on the ground.
The gathering threw its support behind a "Global Agricultural Foresight Hub", intended to help set priorities for policymakers and researchers, and a "Tropical Agriculture Platform" which would provide training and support for farming-related learning in the tropics.
But the conference was short on specific comments, mainly because G20 officials need to go away and discuss proposals with their governments and research institutions, organisers said.
France’s international cooperation minister, Henri de Raincourt, said the Montpellier outcomes would be taken into account by G20 development and finance ministers meeting for the first time in Washington on Sept. 23-24, stressing that food security should not be sacrificed to the financial difficulties preoccupying many rich governments.
SEARCH FOR NEW MONEY
De Raincourt told reporters that new sources of financing are needed to implement effective agricultural projects in developing countries, as they cannot be financed by state budgets alone.
France is hoping to persuade its European neighbours at the upcoming G20 summit in Cannes in November to back the creation of a tax on financial transactions. That could help pay for investments to strengthen agriculture, such as improved infrastructure that would enable farmers to get their produce to market, the minister suggested.
The CGIAR’s Perez Del Castillo said international efforts to boost food security have not received the investment they deserve from donors, despite being mentioned in international political declarations.
"It is still considered very much a humanitarian issue, which needs technical solutions. So the financing sometimes is not given a priority," he told AlertNet.
Mark Holderness, executive secretary of the Rome-based Global Forum on Agricultural Research (GFAR), said the Montpellier meeting had explored ways of creating incentives for more private-sector backing for agricultural innovation in developing countries.
“For example, it’s about helping farmers’ groups into business,” he said. “It’s about getting away from this thinking that you research a technology and it solves a problem. It’s not just publishing scientific papers but asking, ‘Who are researchers serving and who is benefiting?’”