‘Can we feed the world?’: A conversation with Sir Gordon Conway

By Elena L. Pasquini 28 March 2013

Sir Gordon Conway, author of "One Billion Hungry." Photo by: Neil Palmer / International Center for Tropical Agriculture / CC BY-SA

“Can we feed the world?” That is the question Sir Gordon Conway attempts to answer in his latest book “One Billion Hungry”.

Chair of international development at Imperial College London, United Kingdom, director at Agriculture for Impact, and a former president of both the Rockefeller Foundation and the Royal Geographical Society, Conway was at the headquarters of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in Rome, Italy, earlier this month, for a seminar attended by the chiefs of the three Rome-based U.N. food agencies and a whole host of development professionals.

“We face three big challenges at the moment: recurring food price spikes, about a billion hungry [and] we have to increase food production by 60-100 percent by 2050,” he said.

In a world where per capita income is on the increase, consumer spending and dietary habits are leading to a growing demand for livestock products, and climate change is resulting in more extreme meteorological events, the answer perhaps lies in sustainable agriculture: “That is an agriculture where the productivity is high, the stability is high, the resilience is high and the equity is also high. How do we get that?”

By investing in innovation, markets, people and through political leadership, he asserts.

According to Conway, innovation means making farms more productive and more resilient through ecological intensification, increasing production while using less water, pesticides and fertilizers, and lowering greenhouse gas emissions.

He also advocates genetic intensification, improvement of seeds to improve nutrition levels, resilience against diseases and climate change, as well as efficiency, for instance, in converting sunlight to energy.

His recipe also requires investment to link “farmers with other farmers, farmers and markets, farmers and institutions,” as well as fair and accessible trade, infrastructure, ICTs and access to credit.

At the seminar, Conway talked with Devex and shared his views on how donors and the wider international community should act to put that recipe into practice.

How can we create an agriculture that is resilient, productive, equitable and stable? And how can donors help achieve those goals?

I think they should invest in four things.

First of all, they need to invest in innovation. They need some more research not only into new technologies, but into new processes.

The second is the markets — not that the donors should themselves invest in markets, but they should invest in the infrastructure the markets need.

Thirdly, investing in people, particularly in women, making sure that women who are farmers are getting the right kind of support, help with land rights, help with access to extensions and so on.

The fourth is political leadership — you need political leadership in developed countries and also in developing countries.

Isn’t this an issue of resources, where governments simply don’t have the money? How do we make those investments effective and increase the impact they have on the ground?

I think it’s partially a question of money, but it’s also partially a question of being very smart about how you spend the money — targeting how you’re giving funds, funding the right kind of institutions who can make things happen, and having ways of measuring the impact of what you do. If you do those three things, you could do good work.

What role do you envisage for the European Union?

There is a specific role for the European Commission. The commission has a large budget to spend between 2014 and 2020 and I’ve argued that what we need in particular is the creation of an enabling environment for agriculture and farmers.

That means the creation of input markets where I can buy seed and fertilizers — and a creation of output markets, where I can sell the produce. It’s the creation of roads, the use of mobile phones, and so on and so forth. All those things need to be in place for farmers to be productive members of the economy. Different countries will support different things — some countries will support markets, some will support roads, some will support something else.

I think that the European Commission, in particular, needs to have an important coordinating role, ensuring that donor governments and recipient governments are getting the right kind of support to [create] an enabling environment.

What is the role of agencies such as the FAO and the World Food Program?

In part, they can do some of the work but they also have the technical expertise. So, it’s a mixture from the FAO, from IFAD International Fund for Agricultural Development, from World Food Program — it’s partly a mixture of doing some of the work themselves, but also providing the right kind of technical expertise.

In the seminar, you talked about Ghana — where agricultural growth increased at an annual rate of five percent for 20 years — as a best-practice example. How did Ghana achieve its goals?

My understanding is that the political leadership in Ghana created polices that made it attractive for investors — both the public and private sectors — to invest in roads, communications and research. So those are key issues and the partnership with the private sector is key.

You also talked earlier about extremes of agriculture — organic or genetically modified, high-or small-scale irrigation, big investments or small holder-led. How do we reconcile these extremes and what is the role of donors and international organizations?

I think it’s very important that organizations such as FAO and others point out that you don’t have to go to one extreme or the other. There is a middle way that will carry you forward [that is] more efficient and more cost-effective … I think we just need more rational discussion and — trying to avoid extremes — look for middle ways forward.

Do you envisage any risks for small-holder farmers through the ways in which the international community is addressing agricultural development?

I think if the international community focuses on innovation and markets and on people and political leadership, that will help small farmers.

Could partnerships with the private sector represent a threat?

Of course, it is to some extent. But without markets, small-holder farmers are going to be poor for the rest of their lives. That is not an option. We shouldn’t prevent small-holder farmers from having access to markets; we should encourage them to have access to markets. Without it, they will be poor forever.

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About the author

Elena L. Pasquini@elenapasquini

Elena Pasquini covers the development work of the European Union as well as various U.N. food and agricultural agencies for Devex News. Based in Rome, she also reports on Italy's aid reforms and attends the European Development Days and other events across Europe. She has interviewed top international development officials, including European Commissioner for Development Andris Piebalgs. Elena has contributed to Italian and international magazines, newspapers and news portals since 1995.

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