The first Global Conference on Agricultural Research for Development continues today in Montpellier, France. About one thousand participants are meeting to find ways of ensuring food security for a rapidly growing world population.
The conference, also known as GCARD, follows the twin crises of soaring food prices in poor countries and the global recession. It aims to come up with concrete action plans to present to the G8 that would boost agricultural investment on many levels.
Action, not words
GCARD is first hearing from senior policymakers from governments, international aid agencies and others on the scale of agricultural investment needed. Among them is Kanayo Nwanze, president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development, or IFAD.
“Let me say at the outset that I firmly believe that results and impact are what count. I have said it on previous occasions and I will say it again today. Declarations, commitments and speeches don’t feed hungry people,” he says.
He says the scale of the challenge is “significant.”
“There are more than one billion poor and hungry people in the world today. That’s about one in six people of today’s population compared with a marginally better one in seven 10 years ago. Transforming the bleak future of these poor women and men is no mean feat. Indeed, volatile food prices, population growth, low agricultural productivity and the potentially devastating effects of climate change make it a particularly daunting challenge.”
Why agriculture suffered
The IFAD president says over the past 30 years, agricultural productivity in developing countries has been “stagnant or in decline.” He blames it on years of under-investment.
“We all know that overseas development assistance allocated to agriculture dropped from 18 percent in 1978 to just over four percent in 2008,” he says.
The amount of money spent by developing countries on agriculture during that same period also dropped sharply. Nwanze says the decline was as much as a third in Africa and two-thirds in Asia and Latin America. But nature plays a role as well.
“As for climate change, severe water shortages are predicted to affect between 75 and 250 million people by 2020. And Africa, where approximately 95 percent of agriculture depends on rainfall, is particularly vulnerable,” he says.
Climate change can be reversed, in part, he says, through reforestation programs, better land management and the rehabilitation of degraded crop and pasture land. But he says agricultural research is fundamental to meeting these challenges.
“Agricultural research can ensure that a smallholder, the fisher person, the pastoralists, the forest dweller and the herder are provided with the means to adapt to climate change. It can ensure that poor, rural people, whose lives and livelihoods, depend on the earth’s productive capacity, have the means to produce more and to produce it better,” he says.
Agricultural and rural development key to fighting poverty
Nwanze says, “GDP growth generated by agriculture has been shown to be at least twice as effective in reducing poverty as growth in other sectors.”
In recent years, more attention is being paid to the importance of smallholder farms. IFAD estimates 500 million smallholder farms worldwide are supporting two billion people -- one third of the world’s population.
Nwanze says with more support, smallholder farmers can increase their productivity to produce a food surplus. He says smallholders can become big business.
“Rural agri-business can drive economic growth. Rural agri-businesses can provide a career opportunity for youth. And rural agri-businesses can mean a pathway out of poverty,” he says.
There has been much controversy and opposition over the use of genetically modified crops as a means of boosting productivity. Earlier this year, in Mexico, an international conference noted the importance of bio-technology. But it also recognized the potential risks to nutrition and biodiversity.
The IFAD leader says 2010 has been deemed the International Year of Biodiversity.
“So this is a timely opportunity to remind the world how agricultural biodiversity can improve productivity and nutrition, enhance livelihoods, respond to environmental challenges and deliver food security,” he says.
Last July, the G8 summit in L’Aquila, Italy, issued a statement saying, “There is an urgent need for decisive action to free humankind from hunger and poverty. Food security, nutrition and sustainable agriculture must remain a priority issue on the political agenda.”
The Global Conference on Agricultural Research for Development runs through March 31st.