Could the French ‘Salon de l’Agriculture’ Promote Rural Innovation in the South?

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The CGIAR Consortium, representing the world’s largest global agriculture research partnership aimed at reducing rural poverty and hunger in developing countries, was officially granted International Organization status on Friday March 2, 2012, in Paris, France.

Coincidentally, the ‘Salon de l’Agriculture’ is also taking place in Paris this week with over 650,000 people visiting this major annual agricultural fair. This is the week when French people hear the most about their farmers—the week where the candidates of the presidential elections (to be held in May) are mingling among cows, pigs, and sheep claiming their attachment to a strong French agricultural sector. French farmers represent only 2 percent of the active population but, given that the majority of France’s 36,000 communes are rural, and the economic and social importance of the agribusiness sector and the gastronomic culture, they have a strong political weight.

This is a stark contrast to sub-Saharan Africa and other developing countries, where over 70 percent of the population relies on smallholder agriculture, yet this sector is underdeveloped and underfunded and smallholder farmers are in dire need of support. Since the Maputo Declaration in 2003 where the African Union asked African governments to invest at least 10 percent of their budget in agriculture, many are still below this target.  Over one billion people are hungry and most live on smallholdings of less than one hectare. And the situation may worsen in the coming years as there will be 2.4 billion more people to feed by 2050, half of whom will be living in Africa.

Could the French example of supporting a model of ‘agriculture familiale’ convince the governments of developing countries to invest more in their smallholder farmers? Everyone talks about the economic crisis, but the global food security crisis could also be an important field of agricultural innovation and agroecological development especially in the South.

In his annual letter this year Bill Gates highlighted the need to do more in this area and spoke fervently about the importance of technology in his speech in Rome last week. But to do make a difference, leaders of the developed and developing countries have to invest in agricultural research to drive innovation adapted to the needs of millions of smallholders farmers. And the new CGIAR has a strong role to coordinate this global research effort and ensure true impact on the ground.

Over the past four decades, CGIAR has proven that investing in agricultural research has a cost-effective impact on the fight against hunger and malnutrition. In the late eighties, CGIAR’s research on how to biologically control the cassava mealy bug, a pest which was destroying harvests in sub-Saharan Africa, saved at least 20 million lives for a total cost of only US$20 million. In other words, for every dollar invested, a life was saved.

Since 2010, the CGIAR has been undergoing a major reform to ensure that their research delivers clear impacts like this. With the Consortium becoming an International Organization from today, this not only endorses the strategic reform, but by facilitating fundraising and co-ordination it will catalyze the impact-oriented research essential to the lives of millions of smallholder farmers.

“Achieving International Organization status and recognition is a major step towards enabling the reformed CGIAR to deliver research resulting in real impact—improved food security, health and nutrition alongside sustainable management of natural resources,”  said Mr. Carlos Perez del Castillo, CGIAR Consortium Board Chair, who was present at the signature in Paris.

By Jerome Bossuet

Danielle Nierenberg
Danielle Nierenberg, an expert on livestock and sustainability, currently serves as Project Director of State of World 2011 for the Worldwatch Institute, a Washington, DC-based environmental think tank. Her knowledge of factory farming and its global spread and sustainable agriculture has been cited widely in the New York Times Magazine, the International Herald Tribune, the Washington Post, and
other publications.

Danielle worked for two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Dominican Republic. She is currently traveling across Africa looking at innovations that are working to alleviate hunger and poverty and blogging everyday at Worldwatch Institute's Nourishing the Planet. She has a regular column with the Mail & Guardian, the Kansas City Star, and the Huffington Post and her writing was been featured in newspapers across Africa including the Cape Town Argus, the Zambia Daily Mail, Coast Week (Kenya), and other African publications. She holds an M.S. in agriculture, food, and environment from Tufts University and a B.A. in environmental policy from Monmouth College.
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