World Food Prize: Seeking solutions to maximize Latin America and the Caribbean’s agricultural and biodiversity potential

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By Joaquin Lozano, CGIAR’s Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean

In the last week of October, CGIAR’s Latin America and the Caribbean Regional Directorate and CGIAR’s centers with headquarters in the Americas region—Alliance Bioversity-CIAT, CIMMYT, CIP and IFPRI—organized in Iowa, within the Norman E. Borlaug International Dialogue of the World Food Prize, the event Maximizing Latin America and the Caribbean´s Contributions to Global Agriculture and Biodiversity Solutions.

The basic assumption of the event—and of CGIAR’s line of work in the region—is, to put it plainly, that we need sort of a new Green Revolution, like the one that, between the 1960s and the 1980s, boosted the world’s and LAC’s agricultural production, improving global food security, helping to fight poverty, and saving millions of lives.

Over the years, several factors—above all, climate change—have come to threaten those gains, and we need to react to be able to feed a human population bound to surpass nine billion people before 2050.

LAC region is called to play a key role in achieving this objective due to its enormous agricultural and biodiversity potential. Despite being home to only 8.2% of the global population, the region produces 14% of the world’s food. It also holds significant natural resources, including the world’s largest reserve of arable soil and 30% of the planet’s biodiversity.

But these vast resources are under stress: the agricultural sector already uses 75% of freshwater and 33% of available land.

Joaquín Lozano, CGIAR’s Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean, during his introductory speech to the event ©WFPF/Rachel Mummey

The 1960s-1980s Green Revolution was possible thanks to the collaborative work of national and international agricultural research institutions. We must find a way to make that work again.

The situation in the region is not ideal. According to the IDB report Unlocking Innovation (2023), “Latin American and Caribbean countries continue to lag in allocating sufficient resources” to agricultural research.

Yet, there’s good news, too. According to another IDB report, Agricultural Research in Latin America and the Caribbean (2016), the region “is well placed to scale up its agricultural production and trade.”

To address those challenges and grab those opportunities, the region needs a comprehensive research and development agenda that brings together the capacities and resources of the private and public sector, international funders, and civil society to maximize LAC’s contributions to global food production and biodiversity preservation.

CGIAR’s LAC team has already started, alongside other partners and organizations, to try to figure out how to establish the foundations of this agenda. The Borlaug Dialogue event intended to be another step in that direction. For that, we asked some brilliant minds to come together so we could listen to their say on the matter.

Our panel, skillfully moderated by Bram Govaerts—CIMMYT’s Director General— included academia (Elsa Murano, Director of the Norman E. Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture and Development), international cooperation (Rob Bertram, Chief Scientist in USAID’s Bureau for Resilience and Food Security) and farmers’ (María Pilu Giraudo, Co-Founder of Rural Women’s Network) perspectives on the issue.

Bram Govaerts and Elsa Murano ©WFPF/Rachel Mummey

Elsa Murano pointed out the need to promote climate-smart agriculture and value chains that lift farmers out of poverty and hunger to overcome the damages caused by climate change. “Science and research have a key role to play in achieving that. But they need to be connected to farmers’ needs and focused on building farmers’ capacities, especially those of youth and women.

“We have to “take it to the farmers,” as Norman Borlaug used to say.”

Rob Bertram highlighted how LAC native crops like maize or potato are the foundation of food security all over the world. He added that the region has been the source of many innovations that substantially changed agricultural research across the globe –regional research institutions, openness to private sector investment, progressive regulatory systems, among others.

For him, agricultural innovations in LAC are called to keep playing a key role in finding solutions to global food security issues and paving the way for fruitful South-South Cooperation.

Pilu Giraudo said that Latin American farmers know of their global importance, but they also feel the burden of many challenges. “We know we’re called to be the world’s breadbasket, but we cannot make it alone.”

Rob Bertram and Pilu Giraudo ©WFPF/Rachel Mummey

“There are many local experiences of regenerative agriculture put in place by farmers, but we need science to validate, improve and share these local technologies. We have the right institutions—farmers’ organizations and research centers—in the region to achieve this, but we’re not working together in an organized way that enables taking advantage of all the region’s agricultural potential.”

In the lively Q&A session that followed the panelists’ first round of interventions, Bertram said that “tapping into the region’s rich biodiversity is critical for agricultural development, not only in LAC, but also in other regions.”

Bram Govaerts highlighted how South-South Cooperation and farmers’ involvement in scientific developments are the core principle of CGIAR’s work. “There are models like MasAgro, a CIMMYT-led project implemented in Mexico, that connect national agricultural research systems with farmers, promoting collaborative research with the support and active participation of local and international public and private sector partners.”

In that regard, Murano pointed out the need to connect extension services to agricultural research. “If not, information doesn’t go where it has to go.”

Bertram went even further, saying that the connection has also to include teaching and training. “This is a policy issue and a resource issue, and there’s a number of things preventing that to happen. But it’s great that people are talking of this already.”

Murano added: “It’s good that people are talking of this, but time for action has come.”

From left to right: Bram Govaerts, Aymé Muzo (CGIAR’s LAC team), Elsa Murano, Joaquín Lozano and Pilu Giraudo. ©CGIAR

Elsa is right: time for action has come. Somehow, CGIAR’s LAC team feels it is on a mission. We—and by “we” I mean all the relevant actors in the field of agricultural development in LAC—must find ways to maximize the region’s agricultural and biodiversity potential, for the future of our societies depends on it.

As I said, the Borlaug Dialogue event was just one step in that direction. You will be hearing from us as about the next developments.

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