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Enhancing food security: innovations and knowledge that bring money

Aug 07,2015

Tackling the multidimensional problem of food insecurity with a holistic and integrated policy approach

Global food security is one of the most eminent challenges that the world faces today. At Expo Milano 2015, global food security is the overarching policy agenda which leaders and experts across the world are addressing by proposing and sharing innovative and sustainable solutions.  The FAO estimates that globally, 795 million people are chronically undernourished. This problem is particularly prevalent in the dry areas, home to 2.5 billion people, of which 16 percent live in chronic poverty, unable to meet their daily nutritional needs.

Developing countries in the dry areas face several challenges to enhance food production because of fragile agro-ecosystems. Not only land but water and groundwater resources in particular are under pressure and are rapidly declining in both amount and quality. There is a direct relationship between access to water and level of food and feed security. Water poverty explains 43% of the food insecurity. The gap between domestic production and demand in many developing countries is growing wider because of degradation of natural resources, particularly the already scarce water resources; serious climate change implications; low investment in science and technology; and lack of an enabling policy environment.

Given the complex nature of food security, the challenge for scientists and policy makers is to meet human food and nutritional needs sustainably. This requires a strategy to produce more food with less water. For this, water use efficiency and productivity, which is currently very low for major crops in most of the agricultural systems, needs to be increased.

Despite the complexity and the magnitude of the challenge, ICARDA’s research and experiences of nearly 38 years show that scientific innovation is the key to raising agricultural productivity, while protecting our natural resources. There are techniques for improving agriculture productivity and water efficiency in chronically dry regions. Through sustainable intensification of agricultural production systems food production can be enhanced worldwide and particularly in the dry areas, where food insecurity and poverty are rampant.

Examples from ICARDA’s collaborative projects demonstrate how research for development in the drylands -- along with indigenous knowledge - can offer technically viable and economically feasible long-term solutions to combat food insecurity while enhancing economic growth, alleviating poverty and using natural resources sustainably. There are practical and sustainable solutions available which can help farmers contend with drought and the harsh environments, thus invigorating their livelihoods.

Scientific research has led to the adoptions of innovations like the micro-catchment water harvesting technique using the Vallerani plow which ICARDA’s scientists have further upgraded with an inexpensive auto laser-guiding technology.  This new system has tripled the water-harvesting capacity, improved efficiency and precision and substantially reduced the cost of creating micro-catchments – increasing water efficiency, a key contributing factor to food security. This is one of ICARDA’s recent collaborative initiative with Jordan’s National Center for Agricultural Research and Extension (NCARE) which is reversing and preventing land degradation and desertification across the Jordanian Badia improving food security by addressing the challenge of desertification.

ICARDA scientists have also developed a raised-bed and grain drill combination machine for irrigated areas to reduce water applied by farmers and increase productivity. The raised-bed package which saves an average of 20% of applied water, increases yield by 30% and reduces overall farming cost by about 20%, has been widely adopted in Egypt and demand is increasing in many areas in Africa. ICARDA is working with the private sector to produce this machine at a lower cost.

Our researchers are also breeding crops for drought tolerance and water use efficiency, for example synthetic wheat, which is tolerant to excessive drought, and durum wheat genotypes which display drought tolerance under rainfed and supplemental irrigation conditions. There are distinct and proven economic benefits of these improved varieties. The kabuli chickpea, ‘Gokce’, developed by ICARDA and Turkish national scientists, withstood severe drought in Turkey and produced a good yield when most other crops failed in 2007. With a yield advantage of 300 kg/ha over other varieties, this variety provided an additional USD 165 million to Turkish farmers, in 2007 alone.

Overall, it is evident that the multidimensional problem of food insecurity requires a holistic and integrated policy approach. Given a rapidly growing population, increased agricultural consumption and prevalent poverty and conflict in the dry areas along with climate change, natural resource degradation and fragile ecosystems, food security is both a challenge as well as an opportunity to combat the numerous challenges faced by people living in the drylands. Discussion and promotion complimented with dissemination of appropriate innovations and techniques is essential. Adoption of these techniques demonstrates that knowledge and innovation can truly bring money to the poorest households, support farmers’ livelihoods and most importantly, increase food security. For all this to be sustainable, there is an urgent need to increase investment in agricultural research and development in the dry areas.

Dr. Mahmoud Solh,

Director General, ICARDA