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Katherine Sierra, chair of the CGIAR

Confronting the challenges of change

Katherine Sierra is vice president for the Sustainable Development Network at the World Bank. She was recently unanimously endorsed as the ninth chair of the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). Ms Sierra is the first woman to hold this position.

At the AGM 2006 in Washington, Ms Sierra outlined her vision for the CGIAR.

The CGIAR has a very long and successful history of providing agricultural science for the benefit of poor people across the world, and that remains our core mission. Looking ahead there are a key global and regional challenges, ranging from population growth to climate change, that we need to address effectively. People today are already being affected by changes in weather. Drought and floods impact on the livelihoods of millions of people in the developing world. We need to determine how CGIAR research can best help people adapt to a more uncertain future.

Katherine Sierra is vice president for Sustainable Development at the World Bank (Chas Geer)

Facing the challenges

Other critical issues include pest control and disease. Avian flu, which the world has been grappling with for the last couple of years, has had a major impact on livelihoods. FAO has estimated that the economic cost to the affected countries is around US$10 billion. This disease could potentially have a serious impact on human health resulting in further losses to GDP. How can we as scientists get ahead of the curve to understand this problem and help to avert it? A new virulent rust disease known as UG99, if left unchecked, could severely threaten wheat harvests. It is not just a developing country problem; it has a global connotation and it could affect us all by causing massive losses of wheat, pushing up global grain prices and possibly leading to serious food shortages. Again, this is where researchers in the CGIAR, working with other researchers in the developed and developing world may be able to make a difference.

Agriculture is critical for poverty alleviation and growth, especially in the poorest countries. But we need a level playing field. People need fair markets and fair access to those markets. However, when we look at subsidies and we compare that to the amount of investment going into agriculture, there's a mismatch. Very large subsidies go to the OECD countries for agriculture, and yet very small investment goes towards infrastructure, marketing mechanisms, and research and development that poor people need to get their goods to the market.

Looking beyond the MDGs

The eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are essential to reducing hunger and poverty, particularly in rural areas. But if we look at research and its application, it goes beyond the MDG targets of 2015. We need to be looking at 2020, 2030, 2050, and that is why these issues: climate change, achieving a level playing field, are beyond the horizon of the MDGs. We therefore need to do today's job of reducing poverty but we also need to be looking ahead to identify future trends, since with science, we know it takes a long time to get the results that we need.

Building partnerships for change

There is much that we can and must do. We know, however, that the CGIAR cannot be all things to all people. But it can always be relevant, dynamic and efficient. And all this has to be achieved through partnerships, through coalition building. We are one part of the overall puzzle. At the annual general meeting, we have brought together scientists from around the world who are interested in these issues, together with the private sector and civil society organisations, who are going to be critical in the pathway between research and application of results, whether it is farmers' organisations, those working with women or people thinking about new technologies. They all have to be part of this.

It is all about establishing a common platform for a common humanity. We have one world to share and we can either take care of it and prosper, or if we fail, then we will have nothing to share at all. The aim of the CGIAR is to really husband the resources, to provide research which extends the benefits to others and does it for the benefits of all people.

Date published: January 2007


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