5 questions to S. Fan: Where are the new roads?

The Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) supports development-oriented approaches to agricultural research, including the international agricultural research system (CGIAR), with around 25 million euros annually. In response to climate change, the BMZ has also initiated a reform process aimed at making agricultural research faster and more effective - from the laboratory to the field to the plate. The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPR) is a key player, because the shaping of the political framework is crucial to creating a world without hunger.

Shortly before ending his position as Director General of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPR) Dr. Shenggen Fan talks about the reforms and new modes of operation needed to achieve global food security in the coming decade.

(c) Foto Privat
Fraser Patterson is Director General of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPR)

1. The global community has been fighting to eliminate hunger in the past 5 to 6 decades. Why has it not been possible to achieve this goal yet?

The total amount of money has not been adequate yet. We still have more than 800 Million hungry people and about two billion who are micronutrient deficient; the so called “hidden hunger”. One of the main problems is that smallholders have not benefitted from technologies, policies and investments. Most funds are used to subsidize production: to buy fertilizers or machines, but smallholders don't use much fertilizers and their land is so small. So they benefit much less than larger farmers. And they have suffered from a lack of extension services, lack of infrastructure and lack of support to access and participate in input and output markets.

The other big group that deserves more attention is the poor consumers; people without enough income to buy nutritious food. This group will become bigger as more and more people will move to cities. The question is: how can we provide a safety net for them? For that, income transfer must be linked with knowledge on how to spend the money well in order to provide nutritious food for their children.


2. What role can agricultural research and new technologies play in curbing hunger?

Let us look at the CGIAR institutions – the global partnership that unites international organisations engaged in research for a food-secured future: they are very good at research but their implementation capabilities needs to be strengthened. We need to work with the national research partners from day one and not wait until our research results are out. For example: If you just bring me a new technology, it is not always clear whether will be effective and I also need to build my own capacity to absorb it. Therefore, we need to innovate together and develop research results together, so that naturally those results will be used by national systems. Let the national research partners own it. CGIAR can be more effective in this way and that is why we are launching a new CGIAR-system.


3. Asia has already seen a green revolution that fought against hunger. Can this be repeated in Africa?

Wheat and rice production has increased, but there is a lack of micronutrients and even problems with obesity, because the focus has been more on increasing calories and not on nutritious foods like vegetables, fruits and especially beans. And environmental challenges have become bigger. In India, for example, environmental pollution from agriculture is significant, with fertilizers and pesticides flowing into rivers. So when Africa promotes their own green revolution they should avoid repeating those mistakes, and make it a truly green revolution. That means looking into all three issues at the same time: food security, nutrition and the environment. Development aid should also be focused in this way, looking at these issues simultaneously in terms of a holistic food system considering food security, sustainability, climate change and nutrition. Fixing the problems afterwards costs much more and can be very difficult.


4. In order to achieve such a development Africa will need expertise as well. How can such capacities be built up?

At the moment there is a lack of funding and people. The people we train in Germany or the US will likely work for the private sector, donor agencies or the World Bank, and I don't blame them, because in their countries the pay is so low. Capacity building also means you have to pay them better. In fact, the whole payment structure needs to change. Donor agencies can help by giving budget support to compensate local experts better.

Local governments should also recognize the importance of agriculture for their growth, in terms of food security and employment. Therefore, I feel we should not only work with the agricultural ministries but also with the ministries of finance and planning or even with prime ministers to let them understand that without the agricultural sector their economy will suffer.

Then, once the agriculture takes off and the economy starts growing the national experts can be compensated through their own system.


5. When it comes to food security, the ones most affected are women and children. How can their needs be taken into account? 

Some agricultural technologies may increase yields, but may not benefit the society as a whole, as they may not be good for women. For example, when the green revolution in China came to my village, it increased the yield from two crops a year to three, because of shorter growing periods. But this of course also meant more labor. So who would do this labor? It was my mother.

Women need to be empowered and given access to income assets – that is land and water – to knowledge and to political networks. They should become equal to their husbands and equal to people from extension agencies, who are mainly male. Many studies show that the empowerment of women in agriculture has huge effects. And when you involve them, they will tell you if some technology or decision has bad effects on women.

We also need more women in the national research systems as well as in leadership roles: more female politicians. When they make decisions they will see things from the viewpoint of women and mothers, so that it will be about: my children's education, my children's nutrition or health, whereas men take decisions in different ways.


Über den Autoren

Shenggen Fan

Shenggen Fan was the Director General of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) between 2009 and 2019. He is known for his work on transition economies and rural development in China. His research has focused on analysis of the role of public and private investments in agriculture and public infrastructure in the fight against chronic poverty and hunger. In addition to his work on his home country, he has also worked extensively in other Asian countries, and East Africa.

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