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Fight against famine

August 1, 2011

Against the background of the famine which has killed tens of thousands of people in the Horn of Africa region, a new multimillion-dollar research initiative aims to boost food security for the world's poorest countries.

A young girl eating food supplement
Tens of thousands are on the brink of starving to deathImage: picture-alliance/dpa

In 1971, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) was set up to combat food shortages in tropical and sub-tropical countries by researching more productive crops and improved livestock farming. 40 years on, the need for action is no less pressing.

The ongoing famine in the Horn of Africa region is the sad proof that the challenge of feeding the world's growing population is more acute than ever. The United Nation's Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) puts the number of people starving at almost a billion.

CGIAR, based in Montpellier in France, has become the world's biggest international agriculture research coalition, an international network of 15 centers on four continents, working with governments and NGOs. Over the years, the organization says it has changed its approach from concentrating on a traditional crop in a particular region to a more integrated focus, linking teams and partners across the globe and taking account of the inter-connections between agriculture and water, soil, biodiversity and climate.

Agriculture: the key to ending rural poverty?

The organization has approved six new programs totalling some $957 million dollars (665 million euros). It says it aims to improve food security and the sustainable management of agriculture in the world's poorest countries.

Somalis receive food at a feeding center
Famines can be prevented, says Le PageImage: dapd

"More and better investment in agriculture is key to lifting the 75 percent of poor people who live in rural areas out of poverty," says Inger Andersen, World Bank Vice President for Sustainable Development and CGIAR Fund Council chair.

Lloyd Le Page, CEO of the organization, describes the situation in the Horn of Africa region as "an important example of how we need to be able ahead of time to respond to particular crises."

"Droughts are caused by weather conditions," he says, "famines are caused by political situations – and also by situations that could have been prevented had we planned ahead of time."

No "quick fix"

While agricultural research can do little to solve political and security problems exacerbating the situation in Somalia, it can help in preparing for food emergencies. But it's a long-term process, says Le Page, and it needs consistent funding.

"What we've seen over the last 10 to 15 years is an annual decline in donor budgets to agricultural research. That trend needs to be reversed, so that farmers have crops in their hands that are more drought resistant, crops that are more tolerant of new diseases being caused by effects of climate change, crops that are more efficient on water, more tolerant to heat."

The new program targets regions of the world where the livelihoods of millions of poor people are threatened by recurrent food crises, aggravated by the global financial situation, energy prices, over-exploitation of natural resources and climate change.

Securing the "staples" for a changing climate

Wheat, which accounts for a fifth of humanity's food and is the number one source of protein in developing countries, is one of the priorities – an example of how agricultural research can promote long-term food security. The demand for wheat is predicted to rise by some 60 percent in the world between now and 2050. Climate change could reduce production by 20 to 30 percent.

A farmer on a rice field
One aim is to make rice plants resistant to long periods of flooding

"Most of the wheat in the world is grown outside of developed countries and continues to be produced by medium to small farmers," says Le Page. "We're trying to develop wheat varieties that are more productive."

Another project is to develop rice plants which can survive prolonged periods of flooding. This would help developing countries where it is the main source of calories to cope with the increasing number of extreme weather events predicted as the climate changes.

Empowering women for a better future

It is not only the crops that can be improved. Farming methods have to become more sustainable and environment-friendly, given the competition for limited land and water resources. Conservation tillage or crop rotation can help – a message that has to be passed on to the small farmers who play a crucial role, especially in the developing world. Women, who are estimated to produce 60 to 80 percent of the food in most developing countries, are a key target group here.

Increasing the productivity of meat and dairy farming is also high on the agenda. CGIAR puts the number of rural poor who depend on livestock at more than 600 million.

Lloyd Le Page
Promoting food security is a long-term process, says Le PageImage: CGIAR

At the same time the demand for meat and dairy products is increasing, not least because of the urbanisation that's taking place rapidly, including in parts of Africa, with some of the fastest growing cities in the world, says Lloyd Le Page.

No progress without politics

"As people move to the cities, they tend to move to more dairy products and more meat products, and these products demand more grains and feed to produce them. They also consume more water. To produce one kilo of meat, it takes a lot more than to produce a kilo of grain. People also utilize a lot more snack foods than in the past."

Better crop yields, more sustainable farming methods – they can go a long way towards improving food supplies. But unless access for all can be ensured, the efforts of the scientists could be wasted. CGIAR's latest research iniative also tries to reach governments and regional authorities with the intention of helping decision-makers to shape effective policies and institutions. As the recurrent food crises in the developing world show, effective and responsible management at all levels is a prerequisite in the never-ending struggle to reduce poverty, promote sustainable rural development and provide food security.

Author: Irene Quaile / sst
Editor: Andrea Rönsberg

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