Worldwatch report urges shift in agricultural research priorities

By Agri-Pulse Staff

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

WASHINGTON, Jan. 19 - The environmental nonprofit Worldwatch Institute unveiled its “State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet” report Wednesday, billing it as “an incisive account of the global food crisis - and how it can be solved.”

Opening the Institute's 15th Annual State of the World Symposium, Worldwatch President Christopher Flavin set the tone by explaining that the “Nourish the Planet” report began with researchers finding that “agricultural investments were still too narrowly focused in primarily breeding seeds for increasing crop yields” for “a handful of hybrid seeds wheat, corn, rice and a few other plants.” He said research showed that nearly 40% of the investment by the international agricultural research industry goes to seed breeding. He called for shifting the focus to low-cost ways to boost soil fertility, to make better use of scarce water, and on finding new ways to reduce food waste which can run as high as 60%.

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Flavin said the research should focus more on learning from farmers because “farmers have the ability and have innovative techniques for irrigating fields, insulating themselves against crop failure.”

USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan said in her keynote address at the symposium said that “Farmers, from sub-Saharan Africa to the U.S., are the first stewards of the land because they understand the importance of sustaining the world's natural resource base. Our soils and land, our water, our biodiversity are central to long-term farm productivity. And it is this understanding that drives farmers to be some of our best innovators. The ability of small-scale farmers with limited capital to farm in sustainable ways improves not only their own productivity but also benefits all of us.”

Worldwatch's “Nourishing the Planet” project which produced this year's State of the World report, gathered its findings during a 15-month tour of agricultural innovations, visiting projects in 25 sub-Saharan African countries. The 2011 report highlights projects like Uganda's DISC program which develops indigenous vegetable gardens to improve nutrition and reduce food shortages by teaching school children to grow local crop varieties.

Edward Mukiibi, co-founder and Project Coordinator of Developing Innovations in School Cultivation (DISC) in Uganda, said “School nutrition programs shouldn't simply feed children. We must also inspire and teach them to become the farmers of the future and revitalize the vegetables and traditions of our culture. Ensuring that the next generation of farmers is well versed in local biodiversity and sustainable growing practices is a huge step toward improving food security.”

The Food and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN) in South Africa is focused on another frequently neglected audience: women. The organization uses interactive community plays to engage women farmers, community leaders, and policymakers in an open dialogue about gender equity, food security, land tenure, and access to resources. Because women in sub-Saharan Africa make up more than 75 percent of agricultural workers and provide 60-80 percent of the labor to produce food for household consumption and sale, it is crucial that they have opportunities to express their needs in local governance and decision-making. FANRPAN's entertaining and amicable forum makes it easier for them to speak openly.

In addition to spotlighting these and other successful agricultural innovations, the Worldwatch report draws from the world's leading agricultural experts to outline major successes in preventing food waste, building resilience to climate change, and strengthening farming in cities. The report comes at a time when many global hunger and food security initiatives - such as the Obama administration's Feed the Future program, the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program (GAFSP), the United Nations World Food Program (WFP), and the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Program (CAADP) - can benefit from new insight into projects that are working today to alleviate hunger and poverty in an environmentally sustainable manner.

“The international community has been neglecting entire segments of the food system in its efforts to reduce hunger and poverty,” said Danielle Nierenberg, co-director of the Nourishing the Planet project. “The solutions won't necessarily come from producing more food, but from changing what children eat in schools, how foods are processed and marketed, and what sorts of food businesses we are investing in.”

The report provides a roadmap for increased agricultural investment to more effectively target projects that are empowering farmers to lift themselves out of hunger and poverty. Bread for the World President David Beckmann said Congress should “make U.S. foreign assistance more effective in reducing hunger and poverty around the world. Reforming foreign aid will allow developing countries to reduce hunger and help poor people to build a better future for themselves and their communities."

Serving locally raised crops to school children, for example, has proven to be an effective hunger- and poverty-reducing strategy in many African nations, with strong similarities to successful farm-to-cafeteria programs in the United States and Europe. Efforts to prevent food waste are also critical. “Roughly 40 percent of the food produced worldwide is wasted before it is consumed, creating large opportunities for farmers and households to save both money and resources by reducing this waste,” said Brian Halweil, Nourishing the Planet co-director.

The findings of State of the World 2011 will be shared in over 20 languages with global agricultural stakeholders that include government ministries, policymakers, farmer and community networks, and the increasingly influential nongovernmental environmental and development communities.

For more information on Worldwatch's Nourishing the Planet program, click HERE.

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