Representatives of the European Union (EU) visited CIAT headquarters yesterday, getting a glimpse of how Colombia can transition to a post-conflict era through productive, profitable and sustainable agriculture.

The prospect of an imminent end to the country’s long-running civil war means there are new opportunities for farmers across the country to sustainably increase production and access high-value markets at home and abroad.

The EU is committed to supporting Colombia’s transition to peace, as the country awaits the outcome of negotiations in Havana, Cuba, next month, which could end its five-decade long civil war.

“All eyes are on Colombia at this truly historic moment in its history,” said CIAT’s Ruben Echeverria prior to the event. “We are all extremely hopeful; peace represents the chance of a lifetime to kick-start rural development. For CIAT and our partners here and in Europe, it means we have the opportunity to reach many more farmers with new scientific innovations that can help them improve the profitability, productivity and sustainability of their farms.”

All eyes are on Colombia at this truly historic moment in its history. We are all extremely hopeful; peace represents the chance of a lifetime to kick-start rural development in the country.

Ruben G. Echeverría

Director-General, CIAT

European Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development, Phil Hogan, led the delegation, and was joined by Ana Paula Zacarías (Embassador for the EU in Colombia) and Dilian Francisca Toro (Governor of Valle Del Cauca).

Following a greeting and overview of the work of CIAT, they set off on a whistlestop tour of CIAT to see what some of the centre’s innovations look in real life.

Green Cows
The first stop was an example of one of CIAT’s specialities, climate-smart agriculture; in this case, a silvo-pastoral system. Here, improved forage grasses for cattle are combined with trees to provide nutrients, shade, stabilize the soil, and boost carbon sequestration. Here’s what CIAT’s Tropical Forages Program leader Michael Peters has to say about it:

Under the right conditions, these systems could allow farmers to sustainably produce up to three times more beef from their land. They’re already showing promising results in trials with University of Cauca in Patía, in Colombia’s southwestern Cauca Department – an area long destabilised by war.

Silvo-pastoral systems are also the basis of recent plans submitted by Colombia to the United Nations to achieve enormous reductions in greenhouse gas emissions associated with livestock production. If implemented it could make Colombia a regional pioneer in sustainable livestock production. The prospect of peace in the country will help in the effort to introduce these systems and achieve the country’s target.

The Rambo Root
Next, one of the world’s most promising food and industrial crops: cassava. Admittedly, this wrinkly root is not particularly well-known to Europeans, but it’s one of the world’s safest bets against climate change, taking heat, drought and poor soils in its stride. It really is the Rambo of root crops.

New markets are opening up for cassava all the time. Its high starch content means that it is also being used in everything from baking to beer-making to the production of paper and glue. Cassava production in Colombia is spread across the country, particularly in areas affected by the civil war. The prospect of peace now gives farmers in these areas the opportunity to introduce higher yielding, better adapted varieties with the kind of starch quality demanded by industrial markets at home and abroad – including in Europe.

The Iron Irony
Next, an enduring favourite in Colombia and across the world: beans. Among a host of useful characteristics, some of the bean varieties bred by CIAT and its partners at HarvestPlus contain higher levels of iron. Many of these have already been adapted to conditions in different parts of Africa and released widely as part of an effort to tackle iron deficiency, particularly in woman and girls. The irony is that iron deficiency still exists in parts of Colombia – particularly in rural areas affected by the civil war. The prospect of peace in Colombia means more of these “biofortified” beans can reach those who need them.

Banking on biodiversity
The final stop was the CIAT genebank, the driving force behind the centre’s crop breeding programmes. It’s the largest plant repository in Latin America, with over 67,000 varieties of cassava, bean and forages conserved, bred and studied there.

The Government of Colombia recently pledged $10m to support the establishment of a new centre for crop biodiversity at CIAT, which includes building a new kind of genebank. This will be dedicated to conserving key crops and designed to draw attention to their important role in sustainable development and the world’s food supply. The next challenge will be for CIAT’s global community of donors and supporters to match this commitment to the future of crop science.

Total number of samples in CIAT's genebank

The visit ended with a tree planting ceremony and questions from the press.

Commissoner Hogan said: “I’m very happy to be in CIAT and see for the first time all the work that has been carried out with such a forward-looking perspective. A key challenge will be to disseminate that knowledge among farmers, not only in the Department of Valle but also in other regions of Colombia, to help them achieve better crops, improved technologies, and increased incomes.”

“CIAT is an extraordinary international organization with a renowned research track record of many years, with local and global impact,” said Governor Toro. “It can further the work being undertaken in terms of rural development. CIAT is already a part of these productive partnerships that are coming together under the Colombia Siembra plan [Colombia Sows], which is supported by the EU. It is taking a close look at reality to see how we can leverage more businesses, more trade relations, and how we can help rural development in a post-conflict scenario.”

At the end of the tour, Dr Echeverría said: “We’re delighted to have had the opportunity to share our optimism about the future of sustainable agriculture and rural development in Colombia,” said Dr Echeverría at the end of the tour.

“Our visitors got a glimpse of just a few of the promising opportunities; there are of course many more. Now we’re all hoping to hear good news from the peace talks in Cuba next month.”

I’m very happy to be in CIAT and see for the first time all the work that has been carried out with such a forward-looking perspective. A key challenge will be to disseminate that knowledge among farmers, not only in the Department of Valle but also in other regions of Colombia, to help them achieve better crops, improved technologies, and increased incomes.

Phil Hogan

European Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development

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