How Agricultural Research Reduces Poverty

Thursday, September 1, 2016

fs-blogOn the dusty backroads of Kenya, farmers with one or two acres of land talked about some of the difficulties they face — a disease in cassava, inadequate fodder for their animals, degraded soils and molds in maize.

And in two world-class research centres nearby, scientists from the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research talked about their research into these very problems.

It should be no surprise. The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), which aims to “innovate on behalf of poor people in developing countries”, conducts much of the agricultural research that drives progress in developing countries.

Canada has been a strong supporter of CGIAR over its 40-year history, but support has declined in recent years. Canada’s current review of international assistance provides an opportunity to renew support, recognizing the strong alignment between Canada’s goals and the work of CGIAR.

CGIAR is made up of 15 research centres, each specializing in a central aspect of developing-country agriculture, encompassing commodities (e.g. rice, maize, wheat, fish, potatoes, forests, livestock), agro-ecosystems (e.g. tropical agriculture, semi-arid tropics, agroforestry), and cross-cutting agricultural issues (e.g. climate change, food policy, gender equity).

In July, I visited two of these centres in Kenya – the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and the World Agroforestry Centre. I also met with several other organizations and hundreds of small-scale farmers who are direct beneficiaries of such agricultural research and development work.

The World Agroforestry Centre has identified trees that improve the crops they are planted with. For example, Faidherbia leafs out in the dry season (reducing evaporation from crops) and sheds its leaves in the wet season (contributing mulch and fertility to the crops).

This and other agroforestry trees can contribute to several of the goals that Global Affairs Canada identified in its International Assistance Review – goals around the economy, human health and the environment.

Similarly, ILRI is tackling livestock-related problems faced by small-scale farmers in Kenya and elsewhere and finding sustainable solutions to poverty and hunger. ILRI scientists are researching livestock disease vaccines and fodder crops, for example, seeking improved animal and fodder technologies, species and farming systems that will work for small-scale farms raising a few animals.

ILRI is home to the Biosciences east and central Africa (BecA)-ILRI Hub, a high-tech facility where scientists from about 40 countries work in state-of-the-art laboratories doing research that provides a foundation for eventual application in the field. Among the many BecA-ILRI Hub topics are those looking for maize varieties and storage systems that minimize contamination by molds and techniques for identifying molds before infected maize can make people or animals sick.

A key goal of the BecA-ILRI Hub is to build the capacity of African scientists to solve African agricultural problems. Over the past 15 years, the BecA-ILRI Hub has trained almost 300 African scientists, at least one-third of whom are women, and worked with over 50 partner organizations on the continent.

Amidst the lab coats, pipettes and autoclaves, I found scientists working on cassava and banana breeding, milk production and processing, and insurance systems to enable small crop and livestock farmers to withstand climate shocks.

With a strong agricultural sector at home, Canada has long recognized the importance of agricultural research in achieving development goals and has been a significant donor to CGIAR. In fact, it was a major contribution from Canada that enabled the establishment of the BecA-ILRI Hub in the early 2000s.

One of the current projects that Canada supports at ILRI seeks to improve the livelihoods of 135,000 smallholder households in Ethiopia. This project focuses on improving the production and marketing of livestock products (everything from bees to beef) and irrigated crops. Farm couples are trained together to encourage gender-equitable wealth creation.

Global Affairs Canada has indicated that it plans to re-focus its international assistance on the poorest and most vulnerable people, especially women and girls, and to seek clean economic growth while dealing with the realities of climate change. A significant new investment in small-scale agriculture would be an excellent way to achieve these goals, with support for agricultural research as a key component.

Originally published in the Hill Times. Paul Hagerman is director of public policy at the Canadian Foodgrains Bank. In July, he led a tour of 11 Canadians to Kenya to learn about food security issues.