Montpellier, France – How’s this for short-sighted: A billion people go hungry every day, food prices have climbed 30 to 40 percent, climate change is reducing agricultural production – and for the past two decades, the world has slashed investments in publicly-funded agriculture until it is a pittance in most countries.
“Moral outrage is needed. We must abolish this… It can be done. It must be done,” Ismail Serageldin, director of the Library of Alexandria, Egypt and a former World Bank economist, told nearly 700 World Food Prize laureates, ministers, scientists and a few representatives from development and farmer organisations at the first Global Conference on Agricultural Research for Development (GCARD) last month here in southern France.
“This is the launching pad to transform hunger in our time,” Serageldin concluded.
The “rocket” on the launching pad is a major transformation of the 500 million dollars of public funds for international agricultural research carried out by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), an alliance comprising some 8,000 researchers in 100 countries.
For the past year, a global consultation process involving over 2,000 stakeholders from 200 countries has produced a draft plan for reform that promises to meet the needs of the world’s 500 million poor small farmers who feed the two billion poorest people.
Called ambitious and far-reaching by proponents, the “Montpellier Road Map” sets the priorities for “linking science and innovation to the needs of farmers and the rural poor”.
Critics say it resembles little more than a passionate shuffling of the status quo. As the French say like to say: “Plus ça change; plus c’est la même chose” (the more things change, the more they stay the same).
“Researchers want to solve their problems, not the small farmers’ problems,” said Edward Kateiya, representing the Kenya National Federation of Agricultural Producers.
“They are not addressing our needs here. Farmer empowerment is the key and what we really need,” Kateiya told IPS.
Small farmers and their organisations were noticeably absent. La Via Campesina, likely the world’s largest small-farmer coalition representing more 148 organisations in 69 countries, had no official role in the conference. Although the organisation has a strong presence in France, only one or two members were able to attend due to admission restrictions.
“When I asked if GCARD could do research on how to prevent small-scale farmers from being expelled from their lands by land-grabbing investors, they said it was not their concern,” Jacques Debarros, of the Confédération Paysanne, France told IPS through a translator.
“But when the representative of the U.S. government said GMO (genetically modified) crops could reduce hunger around the world if there were less restrictive regulations in other countries, it was very much their concern,” Debarros said.
“Should we understand that the agricultural model promoted by GCARD is a model that works without any farmers?” he asked.
The opening session of the GCARD in the Montpellier Opera Hall featured some of the most senior agricultural experts, almost entirely male, over 50 years old and who have headed important agriculture institutes the last decade or two and continue to do so.
“In the 1970s, Africa had no need to import food,” reminded Kanayo Nwanze, president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), a specialised U.N. agency that is dedicated to financing agricultural development projects.
Ten years ago, one in seven went hungry – now it is one in six, Nwanze, the former head of the Africa Rice Centre, told participants. Climate change, population growth, water shortages and volatile food prices means the challenge of feeding the world has never been greater, but is “not insurmountable”.
Real reform should include a generational change in leadership, many here say, because hunger has become more widespread and food prices higher on the “old guard’s watch”. And that’s despite an international focus on the Millennium Development Goal to halve hunger by 2015.
“They asked people inside these organisations to make reforms. They couldn’t bring themselves to close research centres or gut their own territories. They can’t imagine anything new,” said Hans Herren, president of the Millennium Institute in Virginia.
Herren, a research scientist long involved in CGIAR, was the World Food Prize winner in 1995, and is credited with implementing a biological control programme that saved the African cassava crop, averting a food crisis.
“We already produce more food than we need but there still a billion hungry. That reality is not being addressed here,” Herren said in an interview.
Global agriculture needs a paradigm shift to a multifunctional agro- ecosystem approach as detailed in the 2008 International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), he said.
Herren was co-chair of the three-year assessment that not only examined agricultural science and technology, but also the reality of its impacts on the environment and society. It concluded that industrial, large-scale agriculture is unsustainable and the best hope for the future are agro-ecosystems that marry food production with ensuring water supplies remain clean, preserving biodiversity, and improving the livelihoods of the poor.
“There is no mention of the assessment here. The CGIAR has yet to come to terms with it,” Herren said.
The emphasis at GCARD was on boosting agricultural productivity through increased yields using public-private partnerships and employing genetically engineered crops, he said. “It’s frustrating, this belief that biotechnology will solve all the problems.”
Trade and subsidies are the biggest reason why people are hungry, but even though that is widely known, little is being done about it.
“Agricultural subsidies amount to one billion dollars a day in OECD countries,” said Jacques Diouf, director-general of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) since 1994.
“We need fair trade. Unless we solve this problem we will continue to have more hungry people,” he said.
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