The Power of Science and Technology: Improving Agriculture, Improving Lives

February 16, 2015

By Jonathan Wadsworth, Executive Secretary, CGIAR Fund Council

Woman harvesting flood tolerant “scuba rice.” Photo: International Rice Research Institute

Woman harvesting flood tolerant “scuba rice.” Photo: International Rice Research Institute

Across the developing world, small-scale farmers face numerous obstacles that limit their productivity, and many cannot grow enough food to feed and nourish their families, much less to sell. They lack access to credit, extension services, technology and inputs such as fertilizer, and their yields are constrained by water scarcity, land degradation, poor soils, and devastating pests and diseases.

When you throw climate change into the mix and the extreme weather it leads to, including more frequent and severe floods, heat and drought, smallholders’ livelihoods are further threatened, along with global food security. According to the latest science, if we continue down a “business as usual” path, the world will be two degrees Celsius warmer by the 2030s, leading to further reductions in agricultural productivity. Globally, cereal yields could decrease by one-fifth. And in Africa, the most food-insecure region of the world, farmers’ harvests could decrease by up to 50%.

While these challenges are formidable, they are not insurmountable – if we’re willing to harness the power of agricultural science and technology for the benefit of some of the world’s most poor and disadvantaged people. And that’s exactly what CGIAR does. For over 40 years, we’ve been generating science-based solutions and innovations to meet the needs of smallholders – innovations that can be truly life changing.

Female farmer at the Climate Smart Village in Nyando, western Kenya. Photo: K. Troutmann/CCAFS

Female farmer at the Climate Smart Village in Nyando, western Kenya. Photo: K. Troutmann/CCAFS

Take the case of Sharifa Numbi, a farmer in Tanzania. After suffering through several droughts, Ms. Numbi switched to drought tolerant maize developed by CGIAR and its partners and immediately tripled her yield. She now has plenty of maize to feed her family plus extra to sell in local markets, giving her money to send her children to school, visit the doctor, and finish a mud-brick house.

Further adoption of these maize varieties is expected to benefit 30 to 40 million Africans by 2016 and provide added grain worth up to US$200 million each year.

Across monsoon Asia, where yearly floods destroy rice harvests, another CGIAR innovation is making a difference in the lives of both small-scale farmers and poor consumers. New rice varieties, dubbed “scuba rice” because they can survive under water for more than two weeks, are saving vulnerable crops, including those of Virender Thakur, a farmer in the Mahottari District of Nepal. His rice field was submerged for 16 days, but still yielded a good harvest, while his neighbors, who did not grow flood-tolerant varieties, lost their entire rice crop.

As floods worsen in the coming years under climate change, scuba rice – currently grown by over 5 million smallholders – has the potential to benefit 18 million farming households and save millions more from hunger.

CGIAR is also a leader on climate-smart agriculture, which delivers a “triple win” by increasing productivity and food security, improving resilience, and reducing carbon emissions.

In Climate-Smart Villages – sites in Africa and Asia where researchers, development practitioners, and farmers come together to test agricultural

Hardy, drought tolerant maize is life for African farmers. Photo: Anne Wangalachi/CIMMYT

Hardy, drought tolerant maize is life for African farmers. Photo: Anne Wangalachi/CIMMYT

innovations and assess their potential benefits – CGIAR and its partners have introduced climate-smart technologies and practices to farmers like John Obuom and Poline Achieng’ Omondi in western Kenya. And their efforts are bearing fruit. They have improved soil fertility, restored degraded land, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions – all while providing more food and income for their family.

Although these achievements are important, they are not sufficient. We need to capitalize on the vast potential of science and technology to make agriculture even more productive, resilient, and climate-smart. And we need to scale up successes to ensure that all smallholder farmers have the opportunity to overcome challenges, improve their productivity, and provide for their families and, in doing so, help to feed and nourish the planet.