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Delhi Sustainable Development Summit 2002
Ensuring sustainable livelihoods:

challenges for governments, corporates, and civil society at Rio+10
8 - 11 February 2002, New Delhi

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8 Feb. 2002 9 Feb. 2002 10 Feb. 2002 11 Feb. 2002
DSDS 2002: Plenary session 7, 10 February 2002

Food security and basic human needs
John Skerritt
Deputy Director, Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research
, Australia


Agricultural R&D partnerships for sustainable livelihoods

Food security is still very important in many parts of the developing world. Populations continue to increase rapidly in developing Asian countries, and yet the improvements in cereal yield obtained by the introduction of modern varieties and management practices during the ‘Green Revolution’ are tapering off. Recently, there has been an increased attention of international donor agencies and development banks to poverty alleviation. The definition of poverty is now often broadened to include, as well as access to resources, aspects of ‘well-being’, including access to health and education, the presence of accountable government and civil society institutions and freedom from vulnerability to natural disasters or economic shocks. However, it was economic growth that was central to reduction in poverty in East Asia in recent decades. Rural development is central to poverty alleviation in developing countries, since most of the poor are based in rural areas. Growth in the agricultural sector is usually a precursor to national economic growth, although for major impacts on poverty reduction to occur, productivity in the agricultural sector must also increase, the growth should be labour-intensive, and markets liberalised.

Agricultural R&D does have an important role in poverty alleviation, usually with solid rates of return on the initial investment made in the research. Impact assessment studies carried out in several developing countries by the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research have consistently demonstrated that three most valuable interventions to reduce rural poverty are agricultural R&D, education and road construction. Well-adopted results of agricultural research (in the presence of an enabling policy environment) are crucial to increase productivity and returns to farmers. Much of the research needed to reduce poverty is of a ‘public goods nature’, and so will not be undertaken by the private sector. By their nature, most research activities indirectly (rather than directly) target poverty-affected groups, but these indirect activities potentially benefit more people in the medium-long term. A major impact of agricultural R&D on poverty has been by the lowering of food prices through increases in productivity and smoothing of seasonal food supplies (through interventions such as irrigation, introduction of short-season varieties, and better post-harvest storage and processing methods). Agricultural research for poverty alleviation purposes must often also address the sustainability of production in marginal and fragile environments, as attempts to increase production from these environments can sometimes involve unsustainable practices.

Hazell and Haddad, from the International Food Policy Research Institute, have recently suggested that the priorities for reducing poverty through Agricultural R&D should encompass research aimed at: increased staple food production; increased production in less-favoured lands; agricultural diversification by smallholders; increasing employment and income generation for landless workers; enhancing food nutrition and safety, and empowering the poor through R&D – through a range of approaches including farmer participation, using scale-neutral technologies and encouraging private sector involvement in agriculture in poor areas.

How then, can poverty in developing countries be addressed through R&D collaborations with developed countries such as Australia? Surprisingly, many of the priorities for Australian agriculture are not very different from those in developing countries such as India! These include the need to continue to increase production efficiency through new crop germplasm, new crop management tools, and intensification of production where resources permit. This is underpinned by an increased emphasis on sustainability - to manage low natural soil fertility, and increase water use efficiency, in part through better management of surface water resources. Dryland and irrigation-induced salinity, along with inappropriate native vegetation clearing are significant threats to the sustainability of agriculture in Australia. In addition, farmers are learning how to better manage seasonal climatic variability, which is significant in many parts of Australia and India. Other current priorities in Australian agriculture include addressing market-driven quality requirements, increased commercialisation, maintaining quarantine security and developing an innovation culture.

The Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) is part of the Australian Government aid effort, and acts as a facilitator, funder and manager of international agricultural R&D projects. India is an important partner of ACIAR's, and since the early 1980s we have completed 30 projects. We have 22 active projects and about 10 currently under development. Partners include ICAR and CSIR institutes, Universities and selected NGOs in several parts of India. Collaborations are on agricultural production and natural resource management problems that are common to both countries. Priorities for cooperation include

  • Utilization of low-grade feeds for milk production

  • Breeding of meat sheep

  • Wool and leather processing and effluent management

  • Genetic improvement of broad-acre crops

  • Constraints to production in dryland cropping, such as drought, waterlogging and weeds

  • Sustainable plantation management and utilisation of Australian trees for reforestation and agroforestry

  • Characterisation of insect threats to stored durable products

  • Detection and management of natural and man-made contaminants in foods

  • Policy research underpinning trade and market access

  • Water conservation through on-farm soil and crop management

  • Better policy and institutional frameworks for water resource management

  • Management of nutrient inputs or nutrient deficiencies in low fertility soils

  • Broad-scale issues including degradation of arid rangelands and seasonal climate forecasting

Three case studies will be described which draw out the benefits of agricultural R&D, and the partnership model, for fostering sustainable livelihoods. These include projects on sustainable dryland agriculture, managing the threat of weeds and on improved, low-cost cattle and buffalo nutrition. Australian collaboration in agricultural R&D with India is driven by both altruism and enlightened self-interest. There are the aid objectives of poverty alleviation, food security and sustainable livelihoods, and developing the prosperity of both countries and of the region will contribute to world peace. But ACIAR's activities are unusual for aid projects in that many seek mutual benefits from the technological or policy research for both the developing country partner and Australia. In addition, there are indirect benefits for Australian organisations through potential access to new markets and training opportunities.