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Agricultural research alleviating poverty in Africa

By Masa Iwanaga - posted Monday, 29 August 2005

The Live 8 concerts staged ahead of the G8 summit in Scotland raised a flag about poverty in the developing world but did little else. The aging rock 'n' rollers, sincere though they were, could offer little more than melodious slogans.

Unfortunately the world's disadvantaged need slogans as much as they need drought or disease. Poverty has complex causes but undeniable outcomes. Poverty robs people of their dignity.

Methods to eliminate or at least reduce poverty will depend on a range of actions in the areas where poverty is endemic and crippling. We know the ends we want: a vibrant, viable education system that gives opportunities to girls and boys; good governance to reduce corruption and increase public participation; access to quality health care services, markets, and service infrastructure; and food and nutritional security for all.


Most people of the developing world depend directly or indirectly on agriculture for their livelihoods. In much of Africa, farmers cannot meet the demands of the growing populace even when climate and politics are stable. The land is infertile and degraded. Farming systems and the very crops they produce are antiquated.

Climbing the charts with improved crop varieties

Agricultural research has historically performed what looked like miracles and continuously provided new ways to enhance farm productivity and feed a growing world. For example, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT, by its Spanish-language abbreviation) was built on the shoulders of the researchers who created the "green revolution" of the 1960s.

This revolution occurred when high-yielding, disease-resistant wheat varieties developed by Nobel Peace Laureate, Norman E. Borlaug, and his team in Mexico were delivered to India and Pakistan. They brought food self-sufficiency to the Indian subcontinent when it had faced mass famine and also sparked a global movement toward science-based agriculture.

In a changing world, with continuously growing populations and less available land, yesterday's solutions are not enough. Nevertheless, three lessons from the green revolution stand out for policy makers in all countries, rich or poor.

First, agricultural research is a fundamental building block for progress in food production and global food security. Second, rapid access for farmers to advances from the research labs and experimental fields depends on the functioning in concert of many actors along complex research and impact pathways. Third, the farmer is king. In the end, the decisions of millions or hundreds of millions of farmers across the world determine whether the new varieties and technologies are adopted, impacts registered, poverty reduced and livelihoods improved.

Bachelors take note: better farming is attractive!

By way of illustration, consider the case of Indian researcher Arun Joshi and farmer Anil Singh. Joshi is an agricultural researcher at Banaras Hindu University in northern India and a CIMMYT research partner. Anil Singh is a farmer from Karhat Village in Mirzapur District (Uttar Pradesh, northern India). Singh was once an impoverished smallholder before he began experimenting with zero-tillage and new wheat varieties in 1997. He received support from CIMMYT and its partners, funding from the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, and donations from others.


"When Anil's future father-in-law first saw the village of Karhat, he told everyone that women shouldn't marry its men, because they wouldn't be able to support a family," says Joshi. "When Anil had success with zero-tillage and other farmers adopted the practice, his father-in-law changed his tune completely, and now says that all young ladies should marry men from Karhat!"

Singh, his brother, and the 11 other family members used to scrape by, growing only a rice-wheat rotation on a small farm. Adoption of direct seeding without tillage for wheat has increased harvests and brought savings in seed, labour, diesel, farm equipment, and irrigation water.

With less time taken in preparing the land, they can plant their wheat earlier, so the brothers have introduced okra, tomato, gourd, potato, mung bean, and other crops, and are growing "green-manure" legumes that can fix nitrogen from the air to enrich the soil. Through a selection program supported by the Department for International Development (DFID-UK) and co-ordinated by Joshi with CIMMYT input, farmers themselves judged and selected the best new varieties and gained access to the seed.

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About the Author

Dr Masa Iwanaga is Director General of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Mexico.

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