Director-General  QU Dongyu

World Food Forum: FAO Director-General urges agricultural development researchers to promote and share their work more to boost impact where it is needed


Rome –  Science and data-based solutions must be the foundation of agricultural development projects, and those who work on them should make their cases more forcefully, QU Dongyu, Director-General of the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO), said Wednesday during the World Food Forum

“Take your knowledge to policy makers,” the Director-General told participants in a special “Investments in agricultural research for development: Are we on the right track?” session.  

“Governments have the solid power but we have to advise them,” he said. The event was part of the World Food Forum’s Science and Innovation Forum.

Qu urged the private sector, which carries out the bulk of research investment, to have more social responsibility and be more open with its findings. And he strongly advocated “holistic” approaches and included social sciences along the natural sciences in his toolkit, noting that he has named FAO’s first Chief Economist and Chief Scientist, respectively. 

Qu also pointed to fertilizers, and their efficient use, as a key arena for applying scientific insights, noting the urgency and benefits were significant in developed and developing countries alike. Science is essential for finding solutions for the world’s agrifood systems in the short, middle and long term, he said. 

Investments in agricultural research remains extremely low, with only between 34 and 72 cents being spent on it for every 100 U.S. dollars of agricultural GDP. Moreover, a handful of high-income countries are responsible for most of such spending. 

Increasing agricultural research investments in low-income countries and assuring that its funding bases are stable are priorities, according to the Director-General. They can be fostered by stronger partnerships, in particular with the CGIAR. 

Pursuing productivity

The session features interventions from various senior luminaries in the agricultural research arena. 

Rob Bertram, Chief Scientist in USAID‘s Bureau for Resilience and Food Security, gave a keynote presentation highlighting how total factor productivity (TFP) has taken off in developing countries, a positive shift as it means that more food is being produced without using more land. However, he warned, sub-Saharan Africa is still lagging, with most of the output gains in the region coming from using more land rather than increasing yields. “This is not sustainable. It is not poverty reducing. It doesn’t make food cheaper. It doesn’t make farmers or consumers better off,” Bertram said. 

He showcased impressive TFP gains in Bangladesh and, over a slightly later time frame, Ethiopia. Fertilizer use efficiency improvements have been key and can be replicated through solutions tailored to local conditions and integrated with a soil health approach. “Organic and inorganic go together,” he said. “Let’s not tell people what to do. Let’s give them options.”

The FAO Director-General welcomed those remarks, adding that science and data are the only path forward. “Tell the people the truth,” he said. “Realism, not idealism.”

It can take decades for the fruit of agricultural research to find its way into the hands of farmers, which underscores the need for sustained public support, observed Philip Pardey, Director of the International Science and Technology Practice and Policy Center. Also, as it is harder to transfer technology and research outputs in the agricultural sector than in other sectors, more of that investment needs to be local, especially where most needed, he added. 

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