And the hard task lies ahead

February 14, 2011

It was amazing, a striking convergence of a wide range of dedicated professionals – from plant scientists to policymakers. Such a diverse gathering underpinned the importance of improving the nutrition of the world’s poor.

But I gathered from the International Food Policy Research Institute’s conference in New

For these experts and policy makers, the hard task lies ahead. Credit: IFPRI

Delhi that it is a complex problem with no simple solutions. It is always good to meet and share ideas, and even prescribe some solutions in a building as luxurious and imposing as the Taj Palace Hotel but what next?

It will need the bringing together of experts in agriculture, nutrition, health and policy to understand their complementary roles. They have largely worked in isolation, like antagonists.

“People do not live in isolation. Let us all become professional silo breakers,” Francesco Branco, Director, Department of Nutrition for Health and Development, World Health Organization aptly captured it.

Agriculture alone cannot achieve better quality food for the poor. And, therefore, health must be considered as an element in agriculture.

“Combating under-nutrition will require contributions from the fields of agriculture, health, water and sanitation, education, and social protection,” said Sylvia Mathews Burwell, President, Global Development Program. What a wide range of people to be involved!

Leveraging agriculture to improve health and nutrition will be challenge. Bringing the three together to New Delhi revealed that a lot of work needs to be done in and enhancing coordination as well as improving joint planning, management and evaluating programmes.

For Africa the task is even much bigger. I couldn’t agree more with Boitshepo Giyose, Advisor on Food and Security, New Partnership for Africa Development when she said, “Nutrition is non-sectoral. It is a new journey and the work has only begun. We should strive to have Africa free of hunger.”

Governments are starting to come to grips with the reality but they do not know what to do, according to John McDermott, deputy director general for research at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI). A government is the custodian of a people’s security including their food security.

In New Delhi they mixed and shared admirably but the hard task lies ahead. Over to you ladies and gentlemen. I am wishing you all the best.

Ochieng’ Ogodo, Sub-Saharan Africa News Editor, SciDev.Net

“Stop giving away your land …”

February 12, 2011

Per Pinstrup-Anderson of Cornell University in United States. Credit: IFPRI

They used force to conquer territories in the colonial days. Now, they are using negotiation to obtain large tracts of land to do farming in Africa. But, hold on a minute: how well fed are African people that they can rent out productive land in countries like Ethiopia to middle-income countries to cushion them against the anticipated food deficit and fluctuations in the global food market?

Per Pinstrup-Anderson, a professor of food, nutrition and Public Policy at Cornell University in the United States was categorical: “Stop giving away your land and support your small-holder farmers”.

If a country cannot invest in agricultural research, and the provision of public goods such as roads and functioning markets, hunger and malnutrition, with severe health consequences, will still be room-mates of smallholder farmers in Africa.

Woe for Africa! Most farmers there cannot access technologies that have been tested and shown to match their situation. Their soils are fast being depleted of nutrients. They lack post-harvest technologies for safe storage and safe transportation to markets.

And, without the right policy framework, efforts aimed at bringing experts together to address the challenges to linking agriculture to nutrition and health may be just a mirage. Without such a framework it will not be possible to do what this conference aims to do: leverage the three for the good of the poor in developing countries according to Pinstrup-Anderson.

Shockingly, the developing world is still stuck with a paradigm employed in the 1950s in Asia, which emphasised increased production. Governments must wake up to this: small scale farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa need infrastructure and farming technologies that would make them produce more on an existing piece of land. They need irrigation technologies, better seeds and nitrogen fixing methods to make soils richer in nutrients.

“Invest in agricultural research and collaborate with other leading institutions like the CGIAR to address people’s needs,” said Pinstrup-Anderson.

Ochieng’ Ogodo, Sub-Saharan Africa News Editor, SciDev.Net

The higher they rise, the harder they find it to collaborate

February 11, 2011

Experts in the fields of of agriculture, nutrition and health need to collaborate beyond conferences. Credit:IFPRI

I thought they worked together easily. But the further they climb the academic ladder and the more responsibilities they take on, the scarcer their interactions become.

And nothing, at this meeting, illustrated it as vividly as today’s session on Addressing Agriculture-Associated Diseases.

This international conference, organised by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), is aimed at initiating conversations between experts in agriculture, nutrition and health, since they have complementary roles. Rajul Pandya Lorch, of IFPRI, calls it finding synergies for the three to leverage agriculture, nutrition and health.

“Our experience is that farmers appreciate collaboration but scientists work in isolation,” said Kabba Joiner, a health consultant from Burkina Faso.

There are few areas where experts work together. Srinath Reddy, president of the Public Health Foundation of India, taught me that one of them is in climate change.

“This is one of the few areas with a multi-sectoral approach,” he said.

John McDermott, deputy director general for research at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), says that disciplines only come to consensus when there is a serious crisis. Then, you see some semblance of collaboration. Otherwise, in normal, day-to-day activities, even within an institution, it is difficult to find it.

Very few research institutions, he said, share facilities. They are full of compartmentalisation. “From the young at universities we need to get people out of their silos. The young also quickly learn to pick it up,” said McDermott, adding “we are best friends at big meetings like this but then it ends there”.

Even with intradepartmental collaborations, like those between malaria, TB and HIV/AIDS departments in the ministry of health, working together is like undertaking the energy-sapping stunt of climbing a tall mountain from the rear, according one delegate from Ghana.

“The higher you go, the more impossible working together becomes,” he said. That is the dilemma that experts in agriculture, nutrition and health face – yet their roles are complementary.

Dominique Charron, Programme leader at the International Development Research Centre, prays that experts will change from collaborating only at meetings.

McDermott finds few successes, among them the 2008 avian flue pandemic when animal and human health experts came together. But still, he says, it is doable

Ochieng’ Ogodo, Sub-Saharan Africa News Editor, SciDev.Net

Integration, integration, integration

February 10, 2011

Rajul Pandya Lorch: We need innovations and technologies that will increase production but also ... address safety and nutritional value

Where is the problem of food insecurity, health and nutrition at its most severe? The developing world, particularly Africa, bears the brunt. And where are the solutions?

Calls were made as the conference began for a radical shift in agricultural policies and research to link increased production to health and nutrition. This holds the key to better livelihoods for the poor majority who wholly depend on agriculture in the developing world.

Rajul Pandya Lorch, fead of the 2020 Vision Initiative and Chief of Staff at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) said the meeting should address policy, linkages and research gaps.

She wants scientists in the three areas to stop working in isolation, as their branches of expertise are intertwined in real life situations – and that is a serious gap that must be bridged.

“These are some of the things we will look at in the meeting. We do not only need innovations and technologies that will increase production but also to use science to address safety and the nutritional value of the foods produced,” she said.

An integrated approach is needed to address gaps in the whole food value chain – from pre-production technologies to infrastructure and markets that are accessible, and affordable, to the poor.

But the conference, inaugurated yesterday by Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh, has a huge task to deliberate on so many issues in the next two days.

Sukhadeo Thorat, chairman of India’s University Grants Commission, expects it also to deal with this fact: the availability of food does not guarantee good nutrition or the health needs of the people. Science must be one of the pillars in agricultural policies to address quality and safety.

It is for this reason that IFPRI director-general, Shenggen Fan, thinks agricultural research needs to be viewed in tandem with nutrition and health.

“They need to design agricultural policies and investments for health and nutrition and not production alone,” he said, adding that agricultural science must focus not only on production but also address health, nutrition and diseases that are linked to agriculture like malaria and avian flu.

Ochieng’ Ogodo, Sub-Saharan Africa News Editor, SciDev.Net

SciDev.Net to blog from New Delhi agriculture conference

February 4, 2011
GM seeds by Monsanto

Credit: Monsanto

Next week, I will be attending an international conference on Leveraging Agriculture for Improving Nutrition and Health, organised by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and to be held in New Delhi from February 10-12, 2011.

Leaders in agriculture, nutrition and health from across the globe will gather to deliberate on how to create a more integrated system that mobilises agriculture to improve people’s nutrition and health.

The event will be opened by Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, and be guided by an advisory committee that includes John Kufuor, former president of Ghana and M.S. Swaminathan best known as the father of the green revolution in India

The conference will examine linkages between agriculture, nutrition and health and explore opportunities for improving nutrition and reducing health risks along the whole value chain.

I am looking forward in particular to hearing how individual countries are faring in their efforts to make these linkages, and what we can learn from them.

I will be blogging throughout the meeting, and tweeting from @scidevnet. Meanwhile check out our SciDev.Net spotlight, The Challenge of Improving Nutrition, and serve you with the conference deliberations as it progresses through this blog.

Ochieng’ Ogodo, Sub-Saharan Africa News Editor, SciDev.Net

Ugandan biotech law remains elusive

September 24, 2010

Ugandan biotechnology is showing good form. Genetically modified varieties of banana, cassava, cotton and maize are being developed at labs in the country. These have been given traits to address a number of local problems including drought , disease  and low nutritional contents.

However, although the country’s government approved a GM policy in 2005, it has yet to adopt a law regulating the use of genetically modified organisms. This law is a prerequisite for the improved crops to reach the country’s farmers.

There is widespread anxiety among Ugandan biotechnologists about the delay in getting a biosafety law passed by Parliament. Unfortunately, they may have some time yet to wait before they know for sure the fate of the products they are developing.

So what is holding up the bill? Well, GM is a controversial issue, and one that does not have full support among Ugandan politicians. But a contributing factor will now be the upcoming national elections in 2011. Re-election will be foremost in the minds of most Ugandan MPs in the months leading up to it. And so the bill is likely to be passed on to the next Parliament, says Maxwell Otim, UNCST deputy executive secretary.

Linda Nordling, SciDev.Net columnist

What makes agricultural extension services tick?

July 4, 2010

Can agricultural extension services, designed to bridge agricultural research outputs with farmers, offer a model for making science understandable to society at large?

A session at ESOF 2010 pondered over what works in agricultural extension and why.

Panelists concurred that agricultural extension helps farmers put scientific knowledge into contexts they are familiar with. Pierre Labarthe from the National Institute for Agricultural Research (NRA), France, explained that “agricultural extension services are linked to universities in various countries and are created as a bridge between science and practical inputs for farmers. Each country has varying capacities to access and use scientific knowledge, but all of them need a clear picture on scientific production and the actual limits of the validity of the research outcomes.”

Agri extension services: from research to use

The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), for example, found the cost of fertilisers was hobbling farmers’ productivity in Africa. So extension services are geared to advise on the use of locally available organic fertilisers, says IFPRI scientist Kristin Davis.

Farmers need to know how they can work at optimum levels in changing climate conditions, and how to adhere to food safety standards, she adds.

Moussa N’Dienor, scientist at the Institute of Research for Development, Senegal, points out that farmers are additionally having to address land and water management issues, as well as coping with the high competition and stringent quality requirements of international markets.

The snag is that, unlike large international research structures, rural advisory services are suffering from declining national support; and lack direction regarding investment priorities and evidence-based policy recommendations. The Global Forum for Rural Advisory Services, launched in January 2010, seeks to address some of these gaps.

The forum’s launch coincides with renewed interest in agricultural extension or advisory services that comes in the wake of rising food prices; renewed government and donor interest in agricultural and related advisory services; and a broad global commitment to restructure agriculture development institutions.

Marianne de Nazareth, SciDev.Net contributor

The road ahead

March 31, 2010

So it’s over. The first GCARD conference closed on a high, with hopes for a new era of agricultural research for development – and a ‘roadmap’ to guide the way.

Walking to the train station, I thought about how the weather had paralleled the tone of the conference. Day one (sunshine) started with optimism, tensions mounted on day two (grey and gloomy) when delegates felt they weren’t having enough of a say, frustrations came to the fore on day three (rain) when they got to air their concerns – and today was bright once again.

But it’s not all sunshine and roses. Amidst the celebrations of a conference generally considered a success, there were pertinent reminders that the work begins here.

Kathy Sierra, chair of the CGIAR fund council, urged the conference to get going sooner rather than later. “We need to move ahead and focus on results. Without that, the collaboration and communication will fade.”

GCARD global author Uma Lele echoed the urgency, with her simple but memorable mantra: “Action, action, action.”

And let’s not forget about investment. No matter how much you fine-tune research to the needs of the poor and get them involved, nothing can happen without funds. Incoming GFAR chair Monty Jones warned the conference “I will be seeking your money”, to peals of laughter. He was smiling. But he wasn’t joking.

Naomi Antony
Assistant news editor, SciDev.Net

GCARD soundbites: day 4

March 31, 2010

The final day of GCARD was a lively one, with promises of concrete change coupled with sober reminders of the task that lies ahead. We heard from a range of stakeholders, all of them united by their desire to do things differently – and put this desire into action. Here’s day 4 in quotes:

“A number of barriers have prevented us from realising agricultural research for development’s potential.” Kofi Annan, former UN secretary-general

“Are we concentrating [our] efforts on the right crops and regions?” Participants from the thematic area 8 discussion

”We should be … ashamed that we haven’t reduced hunger and poverty in the world.” Monty Jones, incoming GFAR chair

“Gender is non-negotiable.” Mary Njenga, Kenyan researcher

“[The process] ‘I research – you transfer – they adopt’ is no longer applicable.” Brazilian delegate

“Put some lights and targets on the map which will indicate the road.” Participants from the ‘Thinking forward’ session

“When it comes to a tough job, they turn to a woman.” Uma Lele, GCARD global author

“The role of partnerships has been highlighted in a way it hasn’t been before.” Carlos Perez del Castillo, chair of CGIAR’s Consortium Board

“One third of the human race are smallholder farmers.” Kathy Sierra, chair of CGIAR fund council

“We are starting a new era of agricultural research for development and all of you need to own it.” Adel El-Beltagy, outgoing GFAR chair

“Action, action, action!” Uma Lele

Naomi Antony
Assistant news editor, SciDev.Net

Are you listening, CGIAR?

March 31, 2010

Carlos Pérez del Castillo and the rest of the CGIAR must ensure stakeholders' suggestions are genuinely incorporated into the modified thematic areas. Credit: GCARD

Listening to the feedback from yesterday’s parallel sessions, I was inspired by the delegates’ genuine passion to bring about change.

All the usual suspects made an appearance. As Kevin Cleaver of the International Fund for Agricultural Development put it on day two: “There’s not a lot that’s new here in concept – what may be new is that we do it this time.”

Delegates called for research and decision-making to be bottom up, conducted for the poor with the poor. “Think local” was the overall consensus, with a reminder to the CGIAR that they need to start from the user – not the product.

Capacity strengthening must be invested in early on, delegates reminded us. “Build individual and institutional capacity strengthening from [the] beginning, across all partners and beneficiary groups,” they said.

Partnerships, though “not a pancaea or cure-all”, were also considered of great importance. But not just any partnerships – ones where the participants set the agenda.

The concern that non-food security crops are being neglected (see Are the crop world’s “big three” stealing the show?) was presented. Their place within the reforms was not discussed, and I will be interested to see how – or rather, whether – the CGIAR addresses this.

Participants also wanted the broader context of agricultural research systems – how it fits in with other sectors, for example – to be taken into consideration, as well as detailed impact pathways that link research outputs to development outcomes.

I could go on, but it would require several more posts.

Monty Jones, incoming GFAR chair, assured us that the feedback would be incorporated.

“Fine-tuning means bringing together the key partners again. We don’t want the situation where we lock ourselves in a room and make a final decision. At every stage let’s get the key partners involved.”

Provided this includes the poor, that sounds like a promising start to me.

Naomi Antony
Assistant news editor, SciDev.Net

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