Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) is an influential conglomerate of agriculture research organisations located around the world. The 12 research centres of the organisation aim to help its national partners in different countries to develop innovations and technologies that help farmers to improve their productivity and livelihoods.
The network was originally built up around four international agricultural research centres, IRRI (International Rice Research Institute) included, which had contributed notably to the 'Green Revolution' in some parts of the world. As the 'revolution' successfully enabled farmers to increase yield, some new concerns have arisen.
Temina Lalani-Shariff, the organisation's regional director for South Asia, during her recent visit to Bangladesh, sat for an interview with The Business Standard. She talked about sustainability, resilience, farmers' health and other issues regarding current agricultural practices.
How is CGIAR helping the farmers through scientific research and innovation in agriculture?
When we talk about innovations and technology for farmers I think it ends up sounding like we're creating these new otherworldly things; in fact that's not the case at all, farmers have been creating new technologies and new innovations in the way that they develop seeds over generations, over different seasons, and they figure out which are the better seeds that may yield a better product.
So what we do is we actually work with farmers and researchers to carry on that tradition but to also scale it at a bigger rate. Because of climate change, we're looking at what are the rice varieties that can help a farmer grow rice that can survive a drought or a flood and we're doing the same thing with wheat, pulses and with other basic products. So we are looking at what are the challenges that farmers are facing today, how to respond to those challenges, and we do the innovations that can help them to respond better.
In the past, Bangladeshi farmers had developed and preserved thousands of rice varieties that could face the challenge of different natural hazards. But in recent times, we see farmers cultivating only a handful of rice varieties like BRRI Dhan 28 or BRRI Dhan 29, losing the stock of the local varieties and falling victim to erratic climate patterns in the process. For example, we have deep water Amon rice varieties that can survive in the flood, but most farmers do not have access to these seeds anymore. Do you think CGIAR or its subsidiaries' work are at all helping preserve those local seeds?
Yes, farmers have only been planting two or three different varieties of rice or wheat and at the same time they are only using one or two varieties of fertiliser, and all of this creates sort of a monoculture in our farming. This is one of the biggest issues that we're facing right now in the face of climate change, in the face of the global food price crisis and the Ukraine war.
We have to have resilient food systems. So how do you create those? You create those through diversification. So exactly what you're saying, we need to be encouraging our farmers to diversify the number of different seed varieties, and have to encourage them to look at a variety of different fertiliser options- there are bio-fertilisers, there are alternate ranges of fertilisers that farmers could be using that might actually be getting them the same results or better results. This way, when one option is unavailable, they can use a different option, and this becomes a key part of becoming a resilient food system.
With CGIAR what we can do as an organisation is that we can access innovations that have perhaps worked in Africa, that could be adopted to Bangladesh; we can bring in innovations that have worked in Nepal that might work in Bangladesh; so we can certainly help our national researchers to bring in those innovations.
Also, there may be innovations here that have worked, in the polders for example, we could then help export this variety to another part of the world.
But in terms of how do we get these innovations to farmers in Bangladesh, we need to be working more closely with the national researchers and also with private sector agribusiness and we have to be developing more public private partnerships with agribusinesses in order to be able to scale these innovations, get them into the hands of farmers much much faster so that farmers can actually take advantage of this and Bangladesh is actually able to build a much more resilient food system.
Our farmers are already over-reliant on the private sector agri-businesses. Having lost the seeds they had a few decades ago, they just buy the seeds from the dealers. Private seed companies can, and are already increasing the prices of the seeds. Since most of these seeds cannot be replanted after the first harvest, farmers have no way but to buy them again in the next season. In fact, the top 10 seed companies control half the world's commercial seed market. So, the use of science in inventing sterile new hybrid or genetically modified varieties are also making them totally dependent on the agro-companies, isn't it?
Well I think that's where it becomes really important to increase competition in that sector because the more we can create robust value chains that are able to respond to needs then we're able to create a more robust agricultural economy that can actually respond to the needs of farmers and it's a more demand-responsive opportunity.
In Bangladesh, excessive use of chemical fertilisers has rendered most of the soil very infertile. Only 8% soil in Bangladesh, according to a study, is in the category of fertile and the rest is in very low or low or medium fertility range. What is happening here is that the farmers are not adding organic matter - traditional cow dung or plant residues - to the soil anymore, thinking the fertilisers can do it all, but the environment in which soil organisms live and thrive are actually being destroyed. But we don't see many programmes or initiatives to make farmers aware of the looming disaster, so how do you think this 'scientific' approach to increased yield is sustainable?
It's interesting because I think in the early part of the 1970s and 1980s when CG was first formed, productivity was the primary goal. While productivity still remains a concern for most farmers, it's not the be all and end all anymore because we are producing enough food. I think the thing we need to focus on now is producing that food sustainably and producing a diversity of food that allows us to actually increase our nutrition security.
So this is actually one of the projects that we're going to be working on through the CG- the research programmes we've brought into Bangladesh specifically but also across South Asia, which is transforming every food system, looking at the issue of diversification of farms while ensuring that food is produced in a sustainable manner.
Speaking of nutrition and health, according to Bangladesh National Institute of Cancer Research and Hospital, 64% of all male cancer patients in 2017 were farmers and it was 60% back in 2015. Every year, the prevalence rate is rising, and we see a similar situation in India. Health experts suspect that this might be caused by the prolonged exposure to these chemical fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides. So even in terms of health security, this approach to agriculture does not seem to be working very well. Is CG concerned about this?
We're very concerned about it. Even beyond those that are struggling with cancer, if you look at the average age of farmers in South Asia right now - it's 57 years and it's only rising, it's not coming down. The farmers that are farming today are not being replaced by youngsters and what we're seeing is that they're leaving the farms in droves and they're not able to come back. So one of the things that the CG is working very hard on is figuring out ways to make farming easier or reducing the drudgery of working in a farm and making it much more entrepreneurial in order to make it appealing to young people so that they can come in and start to run farms in a different way, in a way that's sustainable, in a way that actually affords them a better livelihood.
In 2002, CGIAR's NGO Committee (NGO-C) decided to freeze its relationship with the CGIAR, over the inclusion of Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture - an organisation established by multinational agrochemical company Syngenta - as a member in the CGIAR, and due to its failure to act on the GM contamination of Maize at the crop's centre of diversity in Mexico. Critics say the organisation since then is controlled by the biotech companies who are making a fortune developing and selling chemical herbicides, pesticides and seeds. In fact, the current Chair of CGIAR System Board, Marco Ferroni, was the Executive Director of the Syngenta Foundation from 2007 to 2017. How would you react to this criticism?
This has actually been a long held misunderstanding of the CG. Syngenta does not formally sit on IRRI's board or on any of the boards of the CGIAR. I think what you may be referring to is the fact that Syngenta at one point did donate a project and a set of seeds to CGIAR and they did look at them to take this forward, and this was actually a very strong decision I think, because they recognised that this was not something that the private sector should be doing.
This was a humanitarian effort to raise the micronutrient levels in parts of the world that needed it and this is a reference to micronutrient rich crops, mostly in rice, and in fact if you look at parts of the world in South Asia, in Southeast Asia, one of the issues that we continue to face is an issue of micronutrient deficiencies. So these are deficiencies in vitamin A, in zinc, in iron, and these are the nutrient deficiencies that we find in young children under five and in lactating mothers or pregnant women and these are really very vulnerable populations.
So the ability to supplement their food source with a micronutrient-rich crop or micronutrient-rich food becomes really important because researchers demonstrate that children who grow up with micronutrient deficiencies are less able to cope in school, their functional capacities are reduced and that has a long-term effect on the economies of countries like Bangladesh. So it becomes really important for us to be able to think about nutrition security as much as we think about food security particularly for these vulnerable populations.
Agriculture is essentially a monoculture because you stop other species of plants and cultivate your crop. In recent decades, we have seen a focus on mostly rice-based agriculture in Bangladesh. Maybe CG is also thinking biofortification is key to addressing micronutrients deficiencies. But don't we need more fruits and more vegetables in our diet? Are we going to produce more rice with micronutrients that rice is not naturally supposed to carry?
It's a really good question and I think we have to be careful not to think of this as a zero-sum game. This isn't an either or. And precisely to your point, at CG in our new research strategy we're no longer talking about singular crops, we're no longer talking about the singular science that we have to do for individual crops that still exists. I mean that's what we've built on a 50-60 year history of working in Bangladesh, in South Asia, and so that singular crop science still exists, but what's becoming more and more apparent and what has prompted this move on the part of CG is this recognition that we need to start to think from a systems perspective and we need to start to do research and develop innovations from a systems perspective and not just the food systems perspective, we need to look at food, land and water systems and how they work together and how does one innovation that we introduce into the land system then have an impact or can positively or negatively benefit other food, the other systems. And so exactly to your point that no, we do not necessarily need to grow more rice.
In fact I would argue that we need to start to diversify that plot of land the farmer is growing on, so that we're growing rice plus fish plus ducks plus the leafy green vegetables plus fruit. The more we can diversify that plot of land the more it increases his livelihood. Also, if you've got a diversified crop, if you've got a diversified farm, your susceptibility to climate change issues reduces.
Unfortunately, what we see in Bangladesh is exactly the opposite of what you are saying. The CG's website says its mission is - promoting diversity, the environmental protection, preservation of farmers' health, etc. Being a very influential agricultural research and advocacy conglomerate, how would you evaluate the success of CG in terms of assuring these?
I think what we have done is we've responded to the issue of the time. In the 1960s and 1970s when Bangladeshi children under the age of five were starving, it was important to increase the amount of rice that a farmer could produce on a hectare of land. Today it's still important to address the food security issue but we have another issue on top of that, which is around climate change and actually being able to assure that farmers can make it through a season and harvest their crop. CG is now responding to that concern and shifting the entire way that we do business, and the entire way that we do our research, in order to respond to that concern. So I would argue that it's not an issue of failure or success I think it's about shifting onto the times.
So when are we going to see any change in the current practices?
(Laughing) Well, change will take time. But our hope is the Transforming Agrifood Systems in South Asia [Tafssa] project, it runs for three years, our hope is that in that time we will be able to bring a certain number of innovations to a number of farmers, create a certain number of public private partnerships and be able to scale these innovations.