At this year’s Global Conference on Agricultural Research for Development (GCARD3), Mark Holderness, Executive Secretary of the Global Forum on Agricultural Research, closed the 5th – 8th April meeting in Johannesburg, South Africa, themed: “No one left behind,” by noting: not if we go together. For the first time, science and society have come together to align national and international objectives across a set of themes, he reflected.

But time is not really on our side, he said. “When we look at the future challenges of feeding this world in a fair and equitable way, where – if we don’t cap emissions within 15 years – we will lose entire ecosystems: If it’s not us, who? If not now, when?”

As this article by Frank Rijsberman, CEO of the CGIAR Consortium and a keynote speaker at GCARD3 outlines, this might be our “last shot”. Organized around five key topics of concern, participants discussed key challenges facing the global agricultural community to find consensus in tackling them, including:

Scaling up: from research to demonstrating impact

CIAT’s Director General Dr. Ruben Echeverria, said that to reach the CGIAR target of bringing 100 million people out of poverty by 2030, scaling up for impact is critical. “To do that, we need to go beyond the research plot.” But that entails a key challenge: how to scale up without losing site-specific recommendations required for agricultural development?

One way is for research and development sectors to work in partnership, participants agreed. This involves working with development communities and the private sector – to take research findings to farmers, and make improved agricultural technology available for farming communities more quickly than is possible by one sector alone.

Take, for example, “white gold” beans in Ethiopia. In less than a decade, the beans – used to make baked beans – have been transformed from a crop hardly grown by farmers to a cash crop today worth more than US$90 million annually in exports. Driven by the private sector, this success illustrates successful partnerships throughout the value-chain and across sectors.

Showcasing results and demonstrating impact

For greatest impact, agricultural research-for-development also needs to be demand-driven, said Juan Lucas Restrepo, CIAT Board Chair and Chair of the Global Forum on Agricultural Research (GFAR). A range of interested parties, from extension workers, farmers and the private sector, all need to be involved in driving the agenda.

Take The Nairobi Water Fund, the first of its kind in Africa, launched last year. Big downstream water users – like CocaCola and East African Breweries – contribute to a fund used to pay upstream watershed “keepers,” like farmers, to manage and keep the Tana River watershed clean and reduce soil erosion. This approach has already worked in Ecuador, where The Nature Conservancy’s Water Fund started with US$ 21,000 and is today worth more than US$10 million, bringing together farmers, companies and researchers.

Keeping science relevant and future-focused:

Responding to existing and future challenges requires planning. For example, CIAT’s recent study, “Timescales of transformational climate change adaptation in sub-Saharan African agriculture,” outlines how research organizations can work with donors and policymakers to take critical decisions in good time.

The study projects how climate change is set to alter the face of agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa, outlining when policy changes need to happen to protect food production and farmer livelihoods. Responses involve plans to develop more resilient crop varieties, for example. But developing, testing and releasing new crop varieties can take 15-20 years, so research and funding priorities need to be set much sooner.

Robin Buruchara, CIAT’s Director for Africa and Director of the Pan-Africa Bean Research Alliance (PABRA), said developing effective short-term responses to climate change is also critical. “So, for example, we need to look at drought-tolerant varieties enabling farmers to grow food, despite drought or increased temperatures,” he said.

Ensuring better rural futures and sustaining the business of farming:

Participants noted that involving women and youth in the business of farming is essential for delivering more nutritious food to more people in future. This entails analyzing market demand to shape the kind of research needed, and involving women and youth in agricultural strategies.

In Rwanda, for example – one of the most densely populated countries in Africa – more climbing beans, which can double or triple production on less land by virtue of the fact that they climb upwards, have been put into the hands of farmers, particularly women, ensuring more nutritious food can be grown on less land.

Summing up a pledge agreed by the 500 delegates to integrate international and national priority setting and work in partnership, Mark Holderness said: “It’s down to all of us to go away and deliver.” Our ability to mine minerals from the earth is finite he reflected, and the energy sector may dwindle. “But the need for food will never go away.”

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