This year, more than one billion people will be hungry-- the highest number ever in human history. As the spectre of hunger and poverty continue to rear its ugly head, national and international research organizations are seeking ways to fight back as they embark on ways to ease the plight of the world’s hungry and poor. In order to get some answers, in line with this year’s World Food Day celebrated on October 16th, with the theme of feeding the world in times of crisis, CATHERINE NJUGUNA interviewed Dr. PETER HARTMANN, the Director General of International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA).
Q: Why has food security remained elusive in Africa?
A: That is a tough question. Poverty is the main reason many are hungry in Africa. Poverty and hunger are complex issues with political and economic dimensions.
The farmers are mostly small holder and subsistence, and lack access to micro-credits and farming inputs such as fertilizers, good seeds and pesticides, and markets.
Over 70 percent depend on rain fed agriculture which is risky.
In some countries the ‘food basket’ is too dependent on a few crops. Cereal dependent countries are often on the famine lists, whereas cultures that have more complex diets have more protection.
If one crop fails, they can consume more of the others. But poverty is not the only reason.
Conflicts contribute greatly to food insecurity. Bad governance, where the countries have not invested adequately in agriculture and infrastructure also contributes, as did the policies imposed on Africa by international financial institutions in the 80’s and 90’s.
Q: Do you think the current food crisis will get better or worse?
A: The crisis created by rising food prices has cooled down but everyone knows this is just temporary. It will emerge again as economies recover from this recession.
However, the food crisis can be turned into opportunities for a food secure future. It has led to renewed interest in agriculture and is an opportunity for African countries to reenergize their agricultural sectors.
Countries need to diversify their food systems and to trade more regionally and be less depended on food imports. Countries worse hit by the food crisis were those heavily dependent on internationally trade commodities such as rice, maize, and wheat.
While prices for these commodities increased, prices for African commodities such as cassava, cowpea, yams and so on, remained more or less stable.
The most effective way to end hunger and poverty is by increasing investments in the agricultural sector to improve productivity, diversify food systems, and intensify food processing and regional trade for wealth generation.
We need not to re-invent the wheel, technologies and know how they exist; instead they need to be put into practice.
Q: Can research resolve the food crisis in the short and long term?
A: Approaches to address food availability, accessibility and utilization should be grounded on science and facts generated through research. Research provides those facts and so does relevant technologies.
In the short term, working on markets to stimulate production and reduce food prices is necessary.
In the longer terms, consumers in some countries need to be helped to learn to diversify their diets so they and the country is less dependent on just a few crops.
Q: Do you think agricultural research in Africa has improved over the years?
A: Yes, definitely. As an example, IITA used to provide three out of every four varieties of yams to Ghana. Today, we provide only one out of every four.
Ghana produces the rest. This exciting picture is repeated across many countries.
Many African leaders are increasingly supporting agriculture. Nigeria now funds its agricultural research institutions very well.
Investment in agricultural research offers long-term returns to the people that are often higher than those of the stock market.
Q: What is IITA doing to address food insecurity in sub-Saharan Africa?
A: To address food insecurity, IITA focuses its efforts on some of the most important food crops of sub-Saharan Africa.
These include maize, cowpeas, cassava, yams, soybeans, bananas and plantains and on systems that boost food production.
We develop technologies to help increase food production to meet demands.
But increasing production has to be done with care; it can be harmful to farmers because it often leads to lower prices, so we seek ways for them to create wealth from their crop by helping to ensure the extra yield finds its way to markets either raw or processed, to create alternative markets, which also reduces post-harvest losses.
Q: What has been the impact of IITA on food security in the region?
A: Working with our national and international partners, we have released hundreds of varieties of food crops that are higher-yielding and resistant to pests and diseases.
Recently, we released in West Africa soybean that is resistant to the deadly Asian soybean rust that can wipe out as much as 80 percent of infested crop. Our cassava, cow pea and soybean varieties boost farmers’ yields by three fold. We have developed ways to process and utilize these crops.
We have cost-effective ways to deal with pests and diseases that ruin farmer’s crops. A bio-pesticide IITA developed with our partners is successful in averting locust invasions.
We also contribute to building African capacity. In partnership with governments and donors, we have trained thousands of graduate students in agricultural research. Local scientists understand their problems and solutions better than anyone else.
Q: A lot of technologies remain “on the shelf”. How does IITA ensure that its research finds its way to intended beneficiaries?
A: This is very true, of course, if a technology is no good, it is best it remains on the shelf, however even good ones remain on the shelf.
In the old days we found our technologies sitting on shelves for years. It was clear that just developing technologies is not enough.
For the technologies to work, they themselves need help! So we changed our approach to minimize this waste. Now we take technologies we generate and help them along with good approaches and advocacy.
By working with a broad set of partners - farmers, national agricultural research systems, NGOs, and the private sector, the technologies are adopted faster.
Q: What challenges do IITA and other research institutions face in carrying out your work?
A: Challenges are many. Crop pests and diseases keep coming in many different shapes and forms. Market circumstances change. Research to tackle these challenges is expensive and time consuming. Getting funds is tough as many other needs – wars, refugees and natural disasters, compete for the same funds. Research is a long term undertaking and some supporters have shorter planning horizons. Still we are grateful for the support we have been getting for over forty years.
Q: What are your hopes and aspirations for Africa?
A: Africa can be more than food self-sufficient. If we can protect what farmers grow, and protect Africa’s harvest from spoilage, the Continent should never need to ask for food aid outside the African continent. We are inspired by this possibility.
The author is in charge of communication at IITA.