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Camilla Toulmin

Camilla Toulmin calls for sustained funding and support for agriculture (IIED)
Camilla Toulmin calls for sustained funding and support for agriculture

Maintaining the momentum

Camilla Toulmin is the director of the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED).

A major consequence of the food price crisis of 2007-8 has been renewed recognition of the importance of food production, by people in government, business and society at large. This is symbolic of a wider recognition that we are not masters of the universe and that finance and money are not the only things that really matter. The crisis has brought us down to earth with a jolt, showing us that there are some fundamental things that we have to get right, and if we don't the consequences will be harsh.

For example, for some countries in the Gulf there was a real sense of shock that having lots of money does not guarantee you access to food, since during the food price crisis, global grain markets more or less ground to a halt. We have all experienced a wake up call and the All Party Parliamentary Group of Food and Agriculture's report is one amongst a number of voices that are making that wake up call both louder and clearer.

Western donors have been criticised for taking their 'eye off the ball' in recent decades, as far as agriculture is concerned. But governments are also to blame. There has been a tendency to forget that agriculture is a hugely important sector for large numbers of people in many parts of the developing world. Governments in these countries need to support and fund agriculture as well. But many of them still have their 'eyes off the ball'. Very few have, for instance, met the pledges made at the African Union meeting of 2003 in Maputo to allocate ten percent of government expenditure to agriculture.

Most observers now understand that only publicly-funded science is likely to address some of the priorities of poorer people in poorer regions, and that we therefore need renewed commitment in this area. We are not talking about huge amounts of money. It is tens and hundreds of millions rather than billions that are required to support the process of research and application, through working with farmers in those parts of the world that are never going to be of real interest to the corporate sector.

But in terms of funding and support for agriculture, we know that returns on investment, particularly for agricultural research and delivery, involve a 15 or 20 year pipeline. It takes a considerable amount of time to translate investment in science and research into a set of practical outputs that can be delivered in farmers' fields. Where there have been gaps in funding over the years, those gaps cannot be filled instantaneously. So it's really a question of establishing what the priorities should be and then backing that up with consistent, long-term support.

The Green Revolution of 50 years ago shows what can be achieved through a mix of science, technology, policy and institutions. Improved management of irrigation water, for example, resulted from a change in institutions and economics; improved supply chains for credit, fertilisers and other associated inputs - that went with the new hybrid seeds - were another key factor.

We now acknowledge that the Green Revolution has run out of steam and needs some kind of renewal. This needs to combine a stronger focus on social, economic and environmental issues, together with the best of what science can produce. We need to find ways to grow more food in a more sustainable fashion and feed a population that is likely to reach 9 billion by 2050. That is partly a scientific challenge but just as much a political and economic challenge as well.

The question really is, to what extent are we going to follow through on what we have learned over the last 18 months about the fragility of our systems to ensure food security, especially for the world's poorest people? Or in a year's time will we have moved onto something else that briefly flashes across our screens? I hope that there is now sufficient momentum behind the whole food security agenda to ensure a steady rebuilding of interest and resources, such that we can feed the global population, whatever that might be in 20 or 30 years' time, in a way that is also sustainable.

Date published: March 2010


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