How agricultural research is creating a different future

The Climate Change, Agruculture and Food Security workshop in Ethiopia aims to develop and improve climate-smart crops. Photo by: L. Dejene / ILRI / CC BY-NC-SA 

Few global disasters in history have had an international profile equal to the famine that ravished the Horn of Africa exactly 30 years ago. Besides claiming hundreds of thousands of lives, the road to recovery for Ethiopia and its immediate neighbors also seemed endless. But the demand to “feed the world” has been heard by governments, donors and nongovernmental organizations in the region and around the world, who have since worked to build policies and systems to ensure the bleak images of 1984 remain in the past.

How far has this region developed, in the intervening 30 years since this crisis first hit the headlines?

While recurring droughts have continued to plague the northeastern part of the African continent, with another famine hitting Ethiopia in 2011, the region has also experienced a dramatic improvement in its food systems from a generation ago, thanks at least in part to agricultural research. As the world’s largest agricultural research partnership, the CGIAR Consortium’s research plays a critical role in addressing hunger and poverty for small-holder farmers around the world.

Here are just a few examples of the impact this turnaround has had on Ethiopia in recent years.

1. Planning ahead. Beginning with the bigger picture — tools have been developed to allow policymakers to look ahead in time and plan for future scenarios. Instruments like the AgriTech Toolbox, developed by the International Food Policy Research Institute, can determine which agricultural technologies will be the most effective for boosting crop yields in the face of climate change between now and 2050. For Ethiopia, for example, the tool has estimated that adoption of no-till agriculture, in which soil disturbance is minimized to protect water and nutrients in the soil, could raise maize yields by an impressive 37 percent.

2. New rice varieties. Pests, diseases, climate change and drought all threaten crop yields in Ethiopia and all over the world. However, new rice varieties that have been developed by scientists at Africa Rice Center and the International Rice Research Institute are better able to withstand these stresses. The New Rice for Africa varieties, which were released to Ethiopian farmers between 2005 and 2007, are producing between 3 and 6 tons per hectare. The area under rice production in Ethiopia is estimated to have increased from 49,000 hectares in 2007 to about 90,000 hectares in 2008. It is projected to reach 400,000 hectares by 2010.

3. Improving livestock. Ethiopian families and farmers have kept goats for centuries to serve both their diets and their household income. Right now, in the Oromia region of Ethiopia, the International Livestock Research Institute is working with the local community to identify the most genetically robust animals in terms of body size and reproductive ability. The fruits of this project should be a new generation of goat kids that will be stronger and more fertile, improving both nutrition and income levels in the community.

4. Letting forests and farms work together. While forestry and farming have been pitted against each other for many years, researchers at the World Agroforestry Center are working to maximize the benefits of growing trees and crops side by side (known as intercropping), which creates mutual benefits such as improved nutrient intake. Planting maize under the canopy of the faidherbia tree, whose leaves provide a natural source of nitrogen, potassium and organic carbon, have been shown to boost maize yields up to 5 tons per hectare, as opposed to 2 tons per hectare achieved outside the canopy. In the Bako and Melkasa regions of Ethiopia, scientists are working to discover the agroforestry techniques that suit those particular regions best, to improve crop yield while ensuring environmental sustainability.

5. Building capacity. The recently concluded research program, Improving Productivity and Market Success of Ethiopian Farmers, has helped to improve Ethiopia’s agricultural value chains, that is, the links between producers, the suppliers of farm inputs and markets, for a range of crops and livestock products. The project focused on building the local small-to-medium enterprise seed industry, in which farmers who specialized in seed production sold to other farmers. Early results showed the number of households producing teff seeds in southern Ethiopia rose from 57 in 2006 to 362 in 2010 and an increase in the average yield of seeds from 0.8 tons to 1.2 tons per hectare. The number of bean seed farmers increased from 64 households in 2008 to 1,032 in 2010 and the average yield doubled in that time to 1.6 tons per hectare.

The road is still long, but if agricultural research continues to be prioritized by Ethiopia and the wider African continent, vast changes can be made. The tremendous benefits from agricultural research must not be underestimated or overlooked again.

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Feeding Development is an online conversation hosted by Devex in partnership with ACDI/VOCA, Chemonics, Fintrac, GAIN, Nestlé and Tetra Tech to reimagine solutions for a food-secure future from seed and soil to a healthy meal.

About the author

  • Rijsberman2colorcropped 192x192

    Frank Rijsberman

    Frank Rijsberman is CEO of the CGIAR Consortium, a global partnership of 15 international agricultural research Centers with the shared vision of a food secure future. With over thirty years' experience as a researcher and consultant in natural resources management, Frank is leading the implementation of this vision through a coherent portfolio of research programs focusing on increasing food security, improving nutrition and health, reducing rural poverty, and protecting the environment.