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We need to sow seeds of development, not violence, in developing states

By Masa Iwanaga - posted Thursday, 24 July 2003

The conflicts, famines, and other maladies that cripple developing countries are abetted by endemic poverty and hunger. More than 70 per cent of the population in these countries lives in rural areas and relies on agriculture for food and livelihoods. To make sustainable development a reality for these people, we must begin in farmers' fields. That is the starting point for alleviating poverty and hunger, and resulting unrest.

By empowering the poor to create better lives for themselves, promoting greater social equity, and fostering environmental wellbeing, international agricultural research can have socioeconomic and environmental impacts that extend beyond uniquely rural concerns. Unfortunately, investment in this kind of research has declined dramatically. From 1986 to 1996, development assistance directed specifically at agriculture fell almost 50 per cent in real terms.

Australia has recognised that the roots of civil security and sustainable development for all people are in the countryside, and it is investing in rural people's future. Two ambitious projects - one in East Timor and one in Afghanistan - pursue nation-building by working to provide the seed that people need to resume productive lives in rural areas. A third effort is dedicated to protecting the world's diversity of crop varieties, because these varieties have many characteristics that will help the world's farmers cope with drought, diseases, infertile soils, and the many other agricultural problems that drive people from the land.


In East Timor, more than 90 per cent of the population lives in rural areas and engages in subsistence farming. Many saw their livelihoods destroyed in the civil strife that ignited in 1999 following East Timor's vote for independence from Indonesia. By the time the war ended, the country's seed supplies had been consumed or destroyed. In response, the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) put together a unique initiative to improve food security and bolster East Timor's badly damaged agricultural research system.

The Seeds of Life Project is a collaborative effort building agricultural, scientific, and agribusiness capacity throughout East Timor. Maize is the major food crop in East Timor, so International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) is integral to local efforts to rehabilitate agriculture. Already new maize varieties promise better yields for Timorese farmers.

In Afghanistan, the AusAID-funded, ACIAR-managed Seeds of Strength Project has seen similar success. Through the project, the Afghan government, international organisations, and other partners provide the seed that people need to resume productive lives in rural areas.

The project has already logged significant accomplishments. Wheat is Afghanistan's most important crop, accounting for about 70 per cent of cropped area, and CIMMYT has provided 300 tons of new wheat seed and 650 tons of fertilizer to 9,000 farmers in four provinces. As for maize, about 3.5 tons of "breeder seed" of seven maize varieties is being used to produce more seed for farmers to plant in the next cropping season. By rapidly delivering the resources that people need to resume their lives, these projects ease the transition to a more stable economic and political future.

Australia has also intervened to safeguard a crucial resource for the future of agriculture in developing countries and the rest of the world. In May 2003, Australia became the global leader in financing the conservation of biodiversity in the world's major food crops, including the maize and wheat stored in CIMMYT's genebank, by pledging A$ 24 million to the Global Conservation Trust. The Trust is an international endowment to safeguard collections of seed and plant material in perpetuity. Australia's pledge nearly doubled the combined contributions to the Trust of the United States, Switzerland, Egypt, Colombia, and the United Nations and Gatsby Foundations. The pledge demonstrates Australia's appreciation of the value of these resources for all of humanity and for its own farmers and economy. More than 90 per cent of the wheat varieties grown in Australia are descended from varieties stored in CIMMYT's genebank, and they yield a net benefit of about A$ 150 million every year to Australian farmers.

The Crawford Fund, a national support organization for international agricultural research, has worked closely with research organisations and Australian Government departments to promote these Australian contributions.


The choice to help people rebuild their lives and become less vulnerable to poverty and hunger may be all that stands between ourselves and a world marked by continued insecurity, conflict, and violence. Presently about 300,000 children under the age of 18 serve in armed government forces or rebel groups in developing countries. Most of them have left or lost their families in rural areas because of hunger, unbearable economic insecurity, and political violence. Many of these preconditions for disaster could have been averted by investing wisely in rural areas. No more children should have to fight for food. No more people should lose their livelihoods for want of seed.

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This article was first published in The Canberra Times on 21 July 2003.

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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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