Agriculture and food security — where are we headed in 2017?

By Lisa Cornish 11 January 2017

A young woman in a rice field in Myanmar. Photo by: Bioversity International / CC BY-NC-ND

As climate change impacts the global ability to grow food, both in quality and quantity, researchers in agriculture have become an important asset for establishing long-term food security as the world’s population continues to increase.

In December, agriculture and food security researchers visited Canberra for high-level discussions on development matters with the Australian Center for International Agricultural Research and Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. And as 2017 will be an important year for establishing long-term goals and making important inroads into advances within the sector, Devex spoke with attendees to better understand where we are headed.

Crosscutting agriculture and food security across the SDGs

The adoption of the sustainable development goals has provided the agriculture and food security sector with a greater understanding of the development sector’s focus over the coming decades. According to Andrew Campbell, CEO of ACIAR, the sector want to be involved more widely in development discussions and a focus in 2017 is establishing greater ties across all development issues.

“The 17 Sustainable Development Goals capture the challenges well,” Campbell told Devex. “Australia’s Foreign Minister [Julie Bishop] wants us to take leadership role within the Indo-Pacific region climate change mitigation and adaption and there are important links to the effects on food production. But gender, the empowerment of women and girls, is also important because there is clear evidence that creating equal opportunities for engagement based on gender, you get better outcomes — and we want to create opportunities through business or employment.”

Health and human nutrition are other important areas agricultural development workers want to be involved with as well as other key issues. “The consensus is that we should continue to be doing more research and looking more at food systems, policies and environmental health, nutrition and energy — the big ticket items that we usually don’t look at in agricultural research,” Ruben Echeverria, director general of the International Centee for Tropical Agriculture, explained to Devex.

But projects working on nonagriculture based development projects will need to show a strong link to agriculture and food security. “With gender projects, we would not be doing these just for the sake of getting a tick in the box,” Campbell said. “The projects need to add value to the work we are already doing.”

Research to scale will begin with better linkages and collaboration in 2017

Work plans and directions for agriculture and food security research will be looking to 2027, with Campbell explaining that ACIAR are developing a new ten year plan to “get some light on the hill with some forward thinking”. But in 2017, long-term goals will first begin with better and wider collaborations for scaling out of projects as well as sustained funding.

“We need to come together to have a greater consensus on priorities to be more focused on the geographies where we are going to have a greater impact,” Echeverria said. “For example, climate change will reduce the growing season of many crops by 20 percent in the next 20 to 30 years. That is something we need to start working on right now to adapt to such a big change.”

Campbell said it was important for agricultural research to become closely tied to aid policy and private sector planning, which he would be pushing strongly over the next 12 months. “We increasingly want to do more work with DFAT where we fund the research end and DFAT funds the development and scale-out end. We will also be looking to the private sector but it is rare that they want to fund research — that’s far too upstream for them.”

But the agriculture and food security sector will still be creating ties to the private sector to ready their support when food security projects are ready to scale out.

Contributing to government and development policy

Robyn Johnston, principal researcher at the International Water Management Institute in Myanmar, explained to Devex that agricultural researchers wanted to better assist governments and the development sector to spend money on environmental projects better. And she said it was a topic she would be pushing in 2017. “It is important that our development partners understand the importance of resource assessment before they invest,” Johnston explained to Devex.

In Myanmar, she explained, there was “huge amounts” of development money coming into the country following the 2015 election of the current Myanmar government after the first openly contested vote since 1990. “There are literally hundreds of millions [of dollars] coming for rehabilitation and irrigation schemes,” Johnston said. “But these irrigation systems were built decades ago and most of the world has moved. Before we invest in irrigation rehabilitation in Myanmar, we look at how approaches are likely to play out and where we should investing to support new directions that are more flexible and provide a secure future for irrigation on the country.”

According to Johnston, resource assessments and thinking long-term about environmental and agricultural decisions would be an important focus for all agricultural researchers in 2017 to assist in being at the table for wider development discussions.

Post-conflict recovery

Agriculture and food security workers will also be closely following global political developments during 2017 to identify possibilities of entering post-conflict countries to begin rehabilitation projects.

“It is a high priority of development sector working and donor countries to restore agriculture in post-conflict regions,” Andrew Noble, deputy director general for research at the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas, told Devex. “The first thing you want to do is re-establish functional agricultural production systems in post-conflict countries and this needs to start quickly.”

But it takes time, perseverance, expertise and funds. ICARDA has the advantage of having worked in post-conflict or transition countries. In Afghanistan, projects range from capacity building projects for small-holder farmers to building the capacity of the national agricultural research system.

“We know that we can work in these difficult environments and re-establish the agricultural sector,” Noble said. And he is expecting this to be the priority focus of his work and in agricultural development over the coming year.

Scaling up of heat tolerant wheat lines in Africa

For the past 30 years, agricultural researchers have been developing heat tolerant lines of wheat to grow — and flourish — in some of the world’s hottest environments. Noble explained to Devex that these wheat lines are now ready for scaling up — and it is a food security development he is excited for in 2017.

“Currently, sub-Saharan Africa is spending in the region of about $15 billion annually in importing wheat,” he said. “It is transformational for countries that have been virtually reliant on food imports to becoming self-dependant on grain being grown. They can now divert money that was being spent on food imports to other areas of the economies require support.”

Ethiopia, Nigeria, Mali and Sudan have seen success in this area, with the Nigerian government committing to boost production in 2017. With the African Development Bank, ICARDA has been working to scale up in a number of strategic farming regions of Africa as well as beyond target countries and into regions that are not traditional wheat grain producers to create wider and more sustainable food sources.

“Traditional wheat lines, where it has been grown in Africa, are yielding between 1 and 2 tons per hectares,” Noble said. “The new lines being introduced are yielding between 5 and 6 tons — it is a huge impact on farmers.”

And a huge impact physically, socially, financially on developing countries.

According to the researchers, agriculture and food security faces important challenges ahead on the road to feeding the world’s population in 2050 and bringing the sector to the forefront of global development work. In 2017, they expect important progress to be made allowing lasting and sustainable change.

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About the author

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Lisa Cornishlisa_cornish

Lisa Cornish is a Devex reporter based in Canberra, Australia. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.


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