"Agricultural research unties the Gordian knot"

2020 was heralded as the decisive year for progress on achieving SDG2 by 2030. For the agricultural research organization CGIAR, reaching SDG2 meant reforming. Following the initial announcement in June 2020, the official launch of the new One CGIAR system is planned for the online Climate Adaptation Summit hosted by the Netherlands in January 2021. worldwithouthunger.org spoke with Jürgen Vögele, Vice President for Sustainable Development at the World Bank, and Chair of the CGIAR System Council prior to the launch about the progress made so far and strategies for SDG2.

Poor environmental conditions require good adaptation © Rainer Kwiotek
Poor environmental conditions require good adaptation © Rainer Kwiotek

Jürgen Vögele

Jürgen Vögele assumed the position of Vice President for Sustainable Development at the World Bank on April 1, 2020. Prior to this appointment, Dr. Vögele was Global Director of the World Bank's Climate Change Group and Senior Director of the World Bank's Agriculture and Food Global Practice. He chairs the CGIAR System Council Board, which oversees agricultural research programs to address poverty, food and nutrition security, and improve natural resource management around the world. Since joining the World Bank in 1991, Dr. Vögele has served in a variety of roles. He holds a PhD in agricultural economics and a master's degree in agricultural engineering from the University of Hohenheim, in Germany.

 

In October, Germany hosted the launch of the CERES2030 study, which found that zero hunger can be reached by 2030, if financial investments are scaled up. What lessons has One CGIAR learnt in 2020 about what is needed to reach SDG2 by the end of the current decade?

 

We need a broad approach to SDG2. CGIAR is working across all 5 SDG sub-targets. This means our selected impact areas focus on universal nutrition – affordable, safe, diverse food – as much as zero hunger; on small-scale farmers’ incomes and purchasing power; and on the environmental foundations of food security. This includes substantial research on water, and addressing both wild biodiversity and agrobiodiversity, including maintenance of the world’s network of regional gene banks for crops and their wild relatives.

 

For CGIAR, the CERES2030 study was both a reminder and validation. A reminder that a portfolio approach to food systems research is required. And a validation of CGIAR’s efforts through targeted research – delivering benefits through partnerships focused around knowledge and empowerment, innovations that can be easily implemented from fields to markets, and policy recommendations that are supported by science.

 

That said, as CERES2030 noted, evidence-based policy and interventions are only as good as the evidence base available. Investments in research and innovation, through public institutions like CGIAR, are well positioned to deliver the results we need on SDG2.

 

2020 has had a huge impact on many fields of progress, with SDG2 thrown back by years. What effort is needed on the part of agricultural research to catch up?

 

Agricultural research and innovation to transform our food system is the only way to cut the Gordian knot entangling food security, climate emissions, biodiversity collapse and human health.

 

We need to pay more attention to uncertainty and risk management. 

What set of risk management strategies do any poor producers or consumers need to make the most of good times and weather bad ones? It will be a mix of the well-known technical solutions – for example, smart farming practices, access to high quality inputs, digital information and advisory services – and institutional and socio-economic solutions, for example, micro-finance and insurance, ability to travel and send remittances, and safety net programs like income support. Risk management is now central to the new CGIAR research and innovation strategy.

 

While effects of COVID-19 on food systems have been diverse, small-scale farmers have generally shown resilience, apart from some disruptions to input supply. The major problem has been getting produce to market – the disruptions to transport, movement and markets, especially informal markets. CGIAR is therefore moving towards a more explicit food systems approach beyond agricultural production research.

 

In June 2020, Marco Ferroni said research is a given in the healthcare sector. Has the search for a COVID-19 vaccine and mainstream acknowledgement of science and its achievements prompted a rethink in terms of the importance and acceptance of agricultural research too?

 

One CGIAR will more clearly focus more on innovation systems – science is only useful when in people’s hands and actively put to use. We need to incorporate science in strategic partnerships for change, not as a stand-alone, independent enterprise. CGIAR research addresses a major market failure: undertaking research that is commercially unattractive for large agri-business, but which delivers impact for hundreds of millions of the world’s poorest households, and on the great challenges of our time: climate change, biodiversity collapse and human health. In this sense CGIAR research is a quintessential public good.

 

We hope a positive outcome from the pandemic is a re-engagement with the power of science for transformation. Not just around ‘silver bullet’ solutions like vaccines, but broader systemic approaches that deal with causes as well as symptoms. CGIAR is championing a One Health approach for advancing humanity’s responses to zoonoses like COVID-19 and health problems, i.e. to address human, animal, plant and environmental health together, not isolated. We know that reducing deforestation would decrease the likelihood of transmission of zoonoses from wild animals to humans – environmental health is critical to reducing the likelihood of future pandemics.

 

The global effort to fighting COVID-19 also needs a systems approach. Nutrition plays an important role in vaccine efficacy. As many parts of society continue to be bombarded with competing views and information, science is becoming the most trusted currency for many, from the public to policy makers.

 

As you say, climate change is a decisive issue for SDG2. What is One CGIAR doing in the field of climate adaptation and getting knowledge and innovations faster to smallholder farmers who need them urgently?

 

We believe the scale of agricultural research through CGIAR needs to at least double over the next ten years if the world is to meet the urgent challenges posed by climate change, according to a report by the Global Commission on Adaptation.

 

We need to pay more attention to downstream parts of food supply systems.
 

And as the global food system comes under increasing pressure, research is needed to boost productivity, reduce emissions, and manage climate-related risks and shocks in agriculture – particularly among small-scale farmers.

 

It is important to remember that small-scale farmers in the tropics and subtropics will be exposed to some of the worst impacts of climate change: rising sea levels and coastal inundation and salinization in the big river deltas of Asia and the small island states of the Pacific; considerably shorter growing seasons in southern Africa and parts of eastern Africa; high temperatures combined with increased weather variation in parts of West and South Asia, and West and North Africa.

 

One example is a new World Bank grant of US$60 million for CGIAR to help strengthen the capacity of African countries to build resilience in their agricultural sectors to the threat posed by climate change. The initiative will support research and capacity-building activities carried out by CGIAR Centers and African partner organizations. The goal is to improve access to climate information and advisory services, and validated climate-smart agriculture technologies in some of the poorest countries throughout Africa.

 

Examples include:

  • Breeding climate-smart varieties of crops – for heat, drought, saline intrusion, waterlogging, nitrogen use efficiency, and stress from pests and diseases;
  • Climate-smart management practices – techniques and technologies that increase performance and efficiency in face of uncertainty for crops and livestock, including irrigation, soil management, and fertilizer use;
  • Climate risk management – strategies and services such as insurance or advisories;
  • Policies and institutions – supporting decision-making for enhancing resilience and low emissions development;
  • Food systems focus – including production, loss, waste, quality and consumption.

 

In June 2020, CGIAR introduced a system reform to become a unified One CGIAR. What did this involve and what progress has been made ahead of the 11th CGIAR System Council Meeting on 16 and 17 December 2020.

 

CGIAR moved from operating as separate legal entities, each focused on its own specific strategy and mandate, to agreeing that it would operate under a common 2030 research and innovation strategy. This will bring more focus on how the breadth of CGIAR’s research expertise is deployed to tackle the most pressing global needs.

 

CGIAR also agreed that it needed to fundamentally transform its operating structure – from 15 separate leadership teams to a globally mandated Executive Management Team. With a single institutional operating structure, our science capability is the core focus around which other support services are arranged.

 

One CGIAR also signals a commitment to more effective and close collaboration with our highly valued country, regional and global partners as one partnership, instead of with up to 15 separately focused conversations on what CGIAR can achieve.

 

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