Rice fields in north Vietnam. Half of earth's population eats rice every day. The research network CGIAR has developed rice varieties that can withstand floods.
Photo: Tran Thi Hoa/World Bank
Agriculture for the future
Small-scale agriculture still constitutes the majority of global food production. Climate change and decreasing land access has made food security a vital issue in large parts of Africa. Swedish support contributes to research and innovations on how crops can be grown under tough climate conditions.
Global poverty has declined, but 870 million people are still malnourished. And while research advances, a changing climate means new challenges for the attempt to increase food production.
According to the UN climate panel, weather conditions will worsen. Extreme weather like drought and floods will become more common, along with plague and disease. This will most severely affect those with the least ability to adapt: Sub-Saharan Africa, particularly small-scale farmers.
There is a need for ecologically sustainable crops that can handle these challenges. Sweden supports several organizations that produce such knowledge, among others BecA and CGIAR.
BECA: Climate-smart grass and food security
Biosciences Eastern and Central Africa (BecA) have realized that solutions sometimes wait right in front of our noses. Or rather our feet. The grass Brachiaria grows naturally in east Africa, and is a common grazing feed in South America and eastern Asia. They examine how some microorganisms (endophytes) can improve the characteristics of the grass, for example raising nutritional values. This allows small-scale farmers to get more milk out of their animals. The grass can also contribute to the reduction of greenhouse gases by absorbing nitrogen.
Some types of Brachiaria can also combat soil erosion. 12 million hectares (or as many soccer fields) are lost to desertification every year, and the pace is increasing. Research on resilient crops is therefore important. At the same time, there is a need for multidisciplinary research that can develop sustainable ways to deal with our environment, in order to limit the rapid spread of deserts.
This is just one example of BecA research. They offer high quality laboratories to African researchers and universities, promote collaboration, and offer supplementary research training. This capacity support enables for research that increases productivity for small-scale farmers in Africa.
Between January 2012 and October 2013, they have been visited by 98 researchers from 16 countries. They have researched on many food security topics. For example, Alexander Bombom from Makerere University in Uganda (which also receives Swedish research support) developed a hybrid of maize and sorghum, in order to combine the resilience of sorghum with the nutritional values of the more sensitive maize crop.
CGIAR: A global network for feeding stomachs
As part of the struggle against hunger, Sweden also supports the network CGIAR, which is world-leading in food security for the poor. For four decades, they have created methods and developed crops that are used in over fifteen million farmers in low-income countries. CGIAR has 15 research institutes all over the world, like International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines, and International Maize and Wheat Research Center (CIMMYT) in Mexico.
Rice is the crop that feeds the most stomachs in the world. Half of earth’s population eats rice every day. In Asia, there are about 20 million hectares of farmland that is regularly beset by floods. As a response, IRRI has developed rice that is more resilient to water, with the result that a larger share of the harvests can be saved.
This is just one of many examples of how the CGIAR network improves crops that form an important part of the nutritious intake of the poor, like beans, cassava, maize, rice and sweet potatoes. By increasing the sizes of the harvests, and the resilience to parasites or drought, the food prices for the poor can be lowered.
New climate, new challenges
Sometimes, everything is turned upside down. At least for the maize farmers of Zimbabwe during 2011, who after years of drought had to face a massive rain period. But the CGIAR-financed maize that was created to withstand drought led to 25 percent higher yields than the commercial varieties. Thanks to the cooperation between CGIAR, small-scale farmers, and the government of Zimbabwe, the characteristics of the maize could be tested thoroughly. Maize is still the most important food crop in Sub-Saharan Africa, and is a vital source of food and income for many.
But when the threats increase, so does the willingness to act. For example, the international support to CGIAR has increased from $500 million to $1 billion between 2008 and 2013.
– With this new funding, CGIAR is better positioned than ever before to produce world-class science to meet the needs of small-scale farmers, fishers and foresters, says Jonathan Wadsworth, Executive Secretary of the CGIAR Fund Council.
Swedish agricultural research support
CGIAR was founded in 1971 and has since then worked with food security and sustainability in low income countries. Swedish support to CGIAR amounts to 585 million SEK for the period 2013-2018.
Sida contributes 80 million SEK to BecA for the period 2012-2015. The support is administrated through the Nairobi embassy.