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
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
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.