Thursday, March 6, 2008

Earlier efforts to achieve sustainable agriculture stalled by declining support

With the aim of helping avert future food crises, the world’s largest organization dedicated to international agricultural research called today for renewed commitment to a revolution in sustainable agriculture, which was set for success in the 1990s but then stalled as a result of waning financial support.

Just as all the elements needed for such a revolution came together more than a decade ago, support for agriculture, at the international and national levels, went into a tailspin, explained Emile Frison, Director General of Bioversity International – one of 15 centers supported by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). Frison spoke on behalf of the Alliance of CGIAR Centers during the High-Level Conference on World Food Security: The Challenges of Climate Change and Bio-energy, organized by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations.

Adjusting for inflation and exchange rates, Frison noted, wealthy countries cut their support roughly in half from US$6 billion to $2.8 billion between 1980 and 2006. «The new revolution in sustainable agriculture was essentially put on hold,» he remarked.

«That‘s one of the reasons we’re facing a food price crisis now,» Frison continued. «It also helps explain why we’re not better prepared to confront the impacts of climate change in agriculture. Farmers would be much further along in adapting to those impacts, if more of them had the resilient varieties now available and if more were using improved practices for managing natural resources, including biodiversity, soils, water and small-scale fisheries.»

Beginning in the 1960s, international agricultural research centers later supported by the CGIAR began developing modern varieties of rice and wheat, which made possible the worldwide Green Revolution in agriculture. Responding well to fertilizer, the new varieties gave crop yields a large boost, especially in irrigated areas with uniformly favorable conditions. The steady stream of improved varieties and other technologies had huge impact. For every dollar invested in CGIAR research since 1971, nine dollars worth of additional food has been produced, according to a 2003 study led by Yale economist Robert Evenson.

The Green Revolution even offered environmental benefits, lessening the pressure on fragile land that otherwise would have been brought into cultivation. But it also had environmental costs. More intensive cultivation, without proper resource management, led in many places to severe degradation of soils and water.

By the 1990s, however, the CGIAR had in place a strong program of research to achieve a more sustainable revolution in agriculture. Through that research, they found ways to balance the need for more intensive crop production with the need to protect natural resources. A notable example is the spread of «zero-till» technology in the rice-wheat systems of South Asia’s Indo-Gangetic Plain. Close to half a million farmers are using this technology on more than 3.2 million hectares, according to CGIAR impact reports. Crop yields are higher, and production costs are down, mainly because of savings in energy and water. Economic benefits were estimated several years ago to have reached a total of $147 million.

Increased harvests and steadily declining food prices throughout the 1980s and 1990s lulled donors into complacency about agriculture, Frison commented, and they shifted attention to other development challenges. Despite the funding cuts to agriculture, key research received support and produced important results. For that reason, Frison asserted, the Alliance of CGIAR Centers is ready to help resolve the current food crisis and reduce the risk of future crises through a set of short-, medium- and long-term measures, outlined in an action plan presented at the FAO High-Level Conference.

«We urgently need to accelerate the flow of new varieties tolerant to heat, drought and other stresses that will become worse with climate change,» Frison said. «We must also spread more widely the new tools and methods from research on natural resource management. But there are no simple solutions and no magic bullets.

«Nor should we concentrate just on globally important staples,» Frison added. Locally important crops and livestock, for example millets in India, bananas across much of Africa, and Andean roots and tubers and grains in South America, are often the key source of sustenance for poor, rural people. Production in such systems, which are common in marginal areas, must be increased to improve food security and nutrition for the poorest farmers.

«Success will require a substantial increase in funding and collective action among all key actors and players,» Frison stressed. »We believe that, in order to deliver the knowledge and technologies required, we must double our annual investment in pro-poor research.» The Alliance will continue to work in concert with other international institutions, such as FAO, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the World Food Programme and World Bank, as well as with many regional, national and local partners.

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