Supporting food security solutions

As the world observed World Food Day on October 16, IDRC asked researchers: What can be done to help small-scale farmers become more productive, resilient, and profitable?

The quotes below represent a range of views on this important issue. The opinions expressed reflect those of the speaker, and not necessarily those of the International Development Research Centre.

Simple question, complex answer

It is a simple question, but the answer is complex. The first requirement is to understand: what is preventing these farmers from becoming more productive and making a profit? Is it lack of land ownership? Do farmers have the independence to make decisions about the land they work, like installing irrigation systems? Do they have access to nutrients and fertilizers? Do they have access to high-yielding varieties of crops? Is the selection of crops appropriate to the climate, the soil, and the quality of water? And do the farmers have access to markets? Don’t believe it if somebody comes and says, “I have a formula that works everywhere.” No, each set of circumstances is different.

Daniel Hillel – Israel
Center for Climate Systems Research
Columbia University

Daniel Hillel, an IDRC Research Fellow in 1975, pioneered an innovative way of bringing water to crops in arid and dryland regions and was awarded the 2012 World Food Prize. Hillel is best known for demonstrating the scientific basis for “micro-irrigation”— the steady trickle of finely calibrated amounts of water onto crops, instead of the traditional cyclical flooding and drying of fields. The new method dramatically reduced the amount of water needed to nourish crops, resulting in healthier crops and higher yields to feed more people.


Including women in the crusade against hunger

Greater and better food production, along with less malnutrition, will only be made possible with the contribution of rural women. The knowledge, production practices, and defining of food conservation, preparation, and consumption schemes all depend predominantly on women’s decisions. Women play a key role in the fight against hunger. We must invest in inclusive processes that recognize and value their contributions and their new and evolving roles. We must empower them and give them the tools to be part of the crusade against hunger.

Carolina Trivelli – Peru
Latin American Centre for Rural Development (Rimisp)

Carolina Trivelli of the Institute for Peruvian Studies and Latin American Centre for Rural Development (Rimisp) is Peru’s former Minister for Inclusive Development. With support from IDRC, Trivelli has led research on factors that entrench poverty and inequality in rural areas of Latin America and research on the impact of conditional cash transfers and asset building for the rural poor. She also co-led the IDRC-funded Multi-donor Research Platform on Social Protection, Financial Inclusion, and ICTs.


Focus on animal health, improve food production

A highly complex question to answer in a few words — but the answer includes: scientific, social, economic, and technological research, innovation, planning, and collaboration in multiple and diverse areas. The results of which must include: new ideas, processes, strategies, policies, and solutions for effective, efficient, and sustainable agriculture and livestock, land availability, and use. Society’s desire for more animal protein requires focusing on animal health and feed resiliency to enhance food production, processing, and distribution of livestock products. Many of these positive effects will only occur through proper education and providing the tools for small animal holders to succeed.

Lorne Babiuk – Canada
Vice-President Research
University of Alberta

With support from Canada’s IDRC and Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada through the Canadian International Food Security Research Fund, Lorne Babiuk is working with South African researchers to develop inexpensive, easy-to-use vaccines to combat a host of livestock diseases in sub-Saharan Africa. Babiuk is the 2012 laureate of the Canada Gairdner Wightman Award, which he received “for his extraordinary national and international leadership in vaccine development and research on human and veterinary infectious disease control.” He was recently named one of five Killam Prize awardees in recognition of outstanding career achievements.


Every family farm a bio-fortified farm

Achieving the goal of food and nutrition security for all and forever will involve taking the evergreen revolution path of food production, leading to an increase in productivity in perpetuity without ecological harm. Also, this will require the adoption of the goal “every family farm a bio-fortified farm,” where appropriate agricultural remedies will be applied to the prevailing nutritional maladies.

Professor M S Swaminathan – India
M S Swaminathan Research Foundation

Acclaimed by TIME Magazine as one of the 20 most influential Asians of the 20th century, Professor M S Swaminathan is considered the father of the Green Revolution that staved off famine in India 40 years ago. He was the inaugural World Food Prize laureate in 1987. IDRC has long supported Professor Swaminathan’s pursuit of bringing information and communication technologies to India’s rural poor. With support from Canada’s IDRC and Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada through the Canadian International Food Security Research Fund, the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation is leading two major collaborations with Canadian researchers in India. The Foundation is working with McGill University and the University of Agricultural Sciences in Dharwad, India, to develop a simple grain mill that boosts production and eases women’s workload. With the University of Alberta, the Foundation is working to reduce malnutrition in India’s agricultural hotspots by improving farm productivity through the promotion of traditional crops. It is also working to enhance economic opportunities for women and promote exchanges of information among farmers to improve agricultural practice.


Equal treatment

Farmers, whatever the size of their holdings, are entrepreneurs just like urban business people. They deserve equal treatment by having adequate infrastructure (energy, transportation, irrigation, and telecommunication). They also deserve the same kinds of market incentives and credit facilities available to their urban counterparts. In fact, agriculture is more complex than factory production and so farmers face even greater risks. Given equal treatment, farmers will fulfill their potential as worthy contributors to the economy and will serve as role models for the next generation to consider agriculture as a rewarding entrepreneurial activity and not an economic dead end.

Calestous Juma – Kenya
John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University

Multiple international award-winner Calestous Juma teaches international development practices at Harvard University’s Kennedy School, where he is the Director of the Science, Technology, and Globalization Project. Juma received support from IDRC early in his career, which allowed him to pursue graduate studies. He is an internationally recognized authority in the application of science and technology to sustainable development worldwide


From farm to table

Small-farm families are major stakeholders in getting food from the field to the table in developing countries. While women in farm families perform much of the labour, their potential as a source of family income remains underexploited. Post-harvest losses for small farmers can run as high as 40%–60% of their produce. Many small farmers are unable to get enough produce to markets, which would otherwise provide them with income for their hard work.By educating women about post-harvest technology, providing them with readily accessible agro-banking resources, and exposing them to the advantages of collective farming, the issues of post-harvest losses and meeting market demand could be addressed. Post-harvest technologies, such as grain dehullers and packaging systems, and tapping into the full potential input of women in small farm systems would contribute positively toward achieving a better quality of life for small-farm families.

Shanthi Wilson Wijeratnam – Sri Lanka
Industrial Technology Institute

With support from IDRC, Shanthi Wilson has been working with scientists at the Nanotechnology Center, Tamil Nadu Agricultural University in India, and the University of Guelph in Canada, to develop a packaging system that would increase post-harvest shelf-life of soft fruits like mangoes and improve farmer incomes. In the 1980s, IDRC supported Wilson’s research on food processing and post-harvest technologies. Her efforts saw the introduction of slatted wooden crates that reduced spoilage of tomatoes and mangoes during transport, and transfer of the technology to small-scale mango and tomato processing industries.


Scientific Ingenuity

It is easy to be overwhelmed when considering the factors at play when tackling food security: the role of women, access to land, quality of the soil, availability of extension services, the changing climate, availability of technology, credit, insurance, and so on. All may be part of the solution to what is a highly context-dependent issue. To help small-scale farmers succeed, we need the ingenuity and discipline of scientists to continue to ask – and answer – the most important questions, and apply their research results for the benefit of many. The Green Revolution worked, but at a cost to the environment and with sectors of the population that continue to be out of reach. Our challenge is to take up the learning of these past experiments and target multiple Green Revolutions. Only when all have been reached can we say we have answered th question.

Jean Lebel – Canada
International Development Research Centre

A pioneering environmental health specialist, Jean Lebel managed IDRC-supported research that contributed to the elimination of DDT in malaria control strategies in Mexico and eight countries in Central America. With a career at IDRC spanning more than 16 years, Lebel has also led the Agriculture and Environment program area at IDRC. He received the first Prix Reconnaissance from the Faculty of Sciences at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) for his work on protecting ecosystems and human health in developing countries.


Published: 17 Oct 2013

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