Nearly fifty years ago, when USAID Administrator William Gaud coined the term Green Revolution, he was speaking not just about the new varieties of wheat and rice, but about the vast potential of agricultural technology to open new frontiers in development.
It wasn’t long before the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) was formed. The CGIAR was a response to a growing recognition that a worldwide network of agricultural research centers was needed to carry on the ideals of the Green Revolution.
Within a decade, the CGIAR had grown to include over a dozen centers—from Mexico to Nigeria.
But the ultimate test of an international research system is not the glamor of the inventions, but the impact of its results.
Today, we have technologies that can help farmers grow more productive crops and improve water management. The evidence base is growing around a select number of technologies that—if taken to scale—can impact tens of millions of lives. But those technologies are not reaching nearly enough farmers.
For example, the main hybrid maize used in Kenya today dates from 1986. And in Ghana, the main open-pollinated maize variety dates from the 1980s. Very promising varieties of stress-tolerant NERICA rice are hardly available in West Africa, where it could benefit millions, and fertilizer use in Africa remains the lowest in the world.
In order to tackle these challenges and help ensure key technologies reach their fullest potential, we have to focus our efforts. We know that technology alone can’t solve all of our problems. We need to be targeted in order to achieve results. The Green Revolution, while remembered for its silver bullets, was infinitely more complex. And with a growing population and challenges like climate change, today’s world is arguably even more so.
There are no one-size-fits-all solutions, and some technologies aren’t appropriate for all climates in all regions. And they don’t preclude other technologies from breaking through.
If we’re going to take a serious, focused approach to transforming agriculture to meet the challenges of the this century, we must fundamentally change the way we work to scale up a range of technologies that we know will have a lasting impact.
This list begins with climate-resilient cereals—a broad category that takes on a special significance today, as the World Bank has just released a new report that predicts global temperatures could rise by over seven degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century.
We must invest in submergence-tolerant rice, which could benefit 120 million smallholder rice farmers, primarily in South Asia and help to counteract the impacts of climate change. By increasing our focus on advancing rust-resistant wheat, we could improve yields across the developing world, from Afghanistan to Ethiopia. And by supporting the development of drought-tolerant maize, up to 40 million people in Africa could see increased yield gains by 2016.
We also know that highly productive grain legumes can have major impact for both nutrition and incomes. By scaling up the high-yielding pigeonpea, for example, we can nearly triple yields and could reach six million hectares across Eastern and Southern Africa and South Asia. And advancing the high-yielding chickpea could lead to 25 percent yield gains, reaching 340,000 farmers in East Africa alone.
And we know that soil fertility technologies are also tremendously effective. Dual-use legumes and soil inoculum, both of which are ready to scale up to tens of thousands of farmers, are efficient and reduce waste and the need for costly inputs. This is good both for growth and for the environment.
Deep urea placement has already helped enable the first-ever rice surplus in Bangladesh’s poorest state and can increase yields by 20-70 percent while reducing urea use by 40-50 percent. We can scale this up. And we can promote the growth of fertilizer trees to benefit 50 million farmers. This is another method that supports conservation agriculture and can save water.
And as we all know, biofortified crops—like Vitamin A maize and Vitamin A-rich orange-fleshed sweet potato—can do wonders to boost nutrition, which we know is particularly crucial in the first 1,000 days between pregnancy and a child’s second birthday. Just 500 square meters of plants can generate enough Vitamin A for a family of five for a year.
In Uganda, Mozambique, and Bangladesh, we’re already scaling up the orange-fleshed sweet potato to reach nearly one million households. And Vitamin A maize is already being tested for adoption in Zambia, where nearly six million people eat a maize meal regularly.
While improving crop productivity is crucial to transformative change, we must remember that agriculture is about more than crops. We can also improve livestock health to reduce losses due to disease. We are already developing a new subunit East Coast Fever vaccine, for example, with our partners at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the CGIAR, and others. The new vaccine will be easier to transport and use and could benefit 20 million farmers across Africa.
As we hone in on which technologies to scale up, we must focus on maximizing impact and holding ourselves accountable. We are already doing this by reporting on results – the first-ever Feed the Future progress report and scorecard, available on the Feed the Future website, were released in October of this year. For research and development, we will analyze data and set targets to estimate how many people we can reach and the impact we expect our efforts will have on yields and overall growth.
This means that for each technology, we should be asking ourselves every year how we’re doing against our goals. Getting there means some fundamental changes in how we work, but we’re eager to get there together.
Over the last year, the CGIAR has been completing significant and important reforms to ensure we’re funding outcomes rather than institutions.
For instance, instead of providing open-ended support to individual research centers, you have moved to coordinated programs on strategic research themes. And rather than measuring progress center-by-center, you have moved to robust monitoring and evaluation that’s harmonized across the centers.
At USAID, we have taken similar steps; we are advancing a fundamental new emphasis on agricultural research. And we, along with our partners, have placed this at the heart of our work in Feed the Future, the United States Government’s global hunger and food security initiative.
We are working with our Feed the Future partners across the U.S. Government to leverage core capabilities and bring resources to bear against the challenge of global hunger. We are engaging, for example, with the G-20 to advance broader global dialogue and collaboration in agricultural research and development for efforts we know can make a difference. And we are pleased that the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture and USAID are partnering to award five grants totaling $4.5 million to support research to improve common bean production in East and Southern Africa, a critical crop for millions of African households that are cultivated mainly by women. These grantees will work closely with existing Feed the Future projects to help reduce poverty and undernutrition.
In four years, the U.S. has more than doubled research investments in global food security. And this past October, we launched the Feed the Future Food Security Innovation Center to ensure our efforts in research are strategic, focused, and well-coordinated.
For instance, instead of organizing our research by type of partner—CGIAR, private sector, or university—we’re organizing our research agenda by the greatest challenges we face.
To help achieve a critical “research mass” in these areas, I’m pleased to announce a new competitive exchange program that’s designed to encourage U.S. university scientists to share their expertise and build meaningful collaborations with CGIAR scientists around the world. This year, $1 million in funding is already available. I encourage you to contact USAID’s Bureau for Food Security Chief Scientist, Julie Howard to find out more.
At the global level, the announcement of the new Wheat Yield Network last month in Mexico was a model example of how we can work together at a greater scale. With more than 20 partners, the Network aims to raise the yield potential of wheat by up to 50 percent over the next 20 years.
And in the field, we have to take certain steps to outline a new way forward. As part of this year’s annual portfolio review, for instance, I am asking USAID Missions to work with country leaders to establish baseline adoption rates and yearly adoption targets for the specific technologies that they will focus on over the next 5 years.
Because we know that adoption doesn’t happen in a vacuum, I will also ask Missions to identify how they will support country policymakers in advancing reform-oriented policy actions. This supports Feed the Future’s focus on country-led processes, and in Africa, will advance the efforts of the global New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, where the G8, African countries, and the private sector have been making real progress on critical seed policy reform.
We need to accelerate and broaden this effort to address other policies affecting adoption, including providing training and financial opportunities for the local private sector and improving seed certification and inspection services.
Immediate help is already available in New Alliance countries, and we’re pleased that the G8 has asked the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) to take a leading role in helping countries to remove constraints and drive technology adoption. I will ask our Missions to work more closely with our partners, including the CGIAR, in this process.
I’d like to conclude by emphasizing that throughout history, some of the greatest leaps in human progress have come not just from new technologies, but from the power of applying those technologies locally.
From microinsurance packages to protect pastoralists against the loss of their herds; to mobile phone apps for farmers that provide access to real-time market prices; to new strains of wheat, rice, and other crops that thrive in unique environments, the advancement and use of technologies can have the power to transform.
Ultimately, in order to leave behind generational legacies of success, we can’t afford to stick with the status quo or be content with linear gains. We need to see over the horizon, and we must foster a spirit of research and innovation to dramatically accelerate development. If we’re successful, we will not only reach tens of millions of people; we will transform the face of extreme poverty.
Last updated: January 22, 2015