Ismail Serageldin


Remarks Delivered at the 33rd Annual Meeting of the Association for International Agriculture and Rural Development (AIARD)

 09/06/1997 | 33rd Annual Meeting of the Association for International Agriculture and Rural Development (AIARD), Washington, DC



It is a privilege to be with you today and to share my views on the rural development imperative.



We live in a world of plenty, of dazzling scientific advances and technological breakthroughs. Adventures in cyberspace are at hand. Yet, our times are marred by conflict, violence, debilitating economic uncertainties and tragic poverty.




In the forty seven "least developed" countries of the world, 10 percent of the world’s population subsists on less than 0.5 percent of the world’s income. Some 40,000 people die from hunger related causes every day. Over a billion people are compelled to live on less than a dollar a day.



Our environment and ecosystems are under siege:


The marine fisheries of the world are grossly over exploited. The soils are rapidly eroding in many parts of the world. Water is becoming scarcer as underground aquifers are drawn down faster than their natural recharge rate, and pollution reduces the usability of the available freshwater. Deforestation is still continuing at the rate of some 25 million hectares per year. The global challenges of desertification and climate change and potential loss of biodiversity demand redoubled efforts.


To this stock of problems, we're adding a slew of new challenges due to population growth that is averaging 90 million persons a year. Some 95 percent of this growth will be in the poorest countries.


The challenges faced by agriculture (including forestry and fisheries) are perhaps typical of those faced by many developing countries. They include:

  • degradation of the natural resource base;
  • increasing scarcity of water for irrigation during the dry season partly because of dwindling watersheds;
  • unsustainable farming practices particularly in fragile, hilly lands resulting in high level of soil erosion;
  • urbanization; encroachment into prime agricultural lands;
  • inadequate infrastructure that is vital to agricultural production/postproduction (rural roads, irrigation systems, post-harvest facilities, etc.);
  • overfishing in traditional fishing grounds;
  • illegal and unsustainable fishing practices/methods; destruction of coral reefs;
  • pollution particularly of inland bodies of water;
  • need for participatory coastal resource management (involving the fishing community, local government, etc); and
  • the urgent need for a renewed human resource development program.

The stakes ahead are enormous, and agricultural research stands at the heart of an effective response to the challenges we confront. For agriculture is not only the means of producing food for the billions of humans on the planet, it is the key interface between humans and the natural environment. In the developing countries, where 80 percent of the population live, agriculture accounts for about 70 percent of the land used, and 80 percent of the water. If agriculture is not intensified, in an environmentally appropriate fashion, then the sheer expansion of the population and its requirements will lead to the destruction of the forests from slash and burn farming of poor, small holders who eke out a meager living. The hillsides will be further colonized, and the soil further degraded and eroded. More water will be lost, and more will go hungry as they become environmental refugees. This will be our legacy if we do not transform agriculture.


The transformation of agriculture is not going to happen without a sustained and continuing investment in agricultural research at the international and the national level. Moreover, overcoming the challenges that lie ahead requires what I have been preaching as the seven keys to the puzzle of understanding and tackling the intertwined problems of food security, poverty reduction, and environmental conservation. We should agree that it is:



  • Not just about production, but also access for the poor;



  • Not just about output, but also process of production;



  • Not just about technology, but also policy;



  • Not just about global issues, but also national circumstances;



  • Not just about national balances, but also household conditions;



  • Not just about rural poverty, but also the urban poor who should command our attention; and



  • Not only the amount of food produced, but also the nutritional content of food.



All these dimensions make the issues of food security part of a bigger whole where science-driven policies must come together, for the reinvigoration of the rural world, and the transformation and intensification of agriculture all centered on the productivity and well being of the small-holder farmer.


Science is the instrument through which the CGIAR System confronts these challenges. That is our commitment and our strength. Science offers us a vast array of options and in choosing from among the options we seek to give life and form to a clearly articulated vision. The defining terms of our vision are: liberation of the deprived and disadvantaged from hunger and poverty; responsible and creative management of natural resources; wide application of people-centered policies for sustainable development; and respect for the views of all.


Protecting the Environment


Protecting the environment is, therefore, an integral component of agricultural transformation. Experience, including the experience of the green revolution, has taught us that to neglect the environmental aspects of development is to court a new set of problems. Another set of inequities, deriving from an imbalance between societal needs and nature’s protection, will dominate the development agenda. These could even overshadow and neutralize the progress achieved. The integration of the environmental dimension as a component of development is therefore not an option but a necessity.



Conservation of biodiversity is an important aspect of the environmental component of development. Genetic resources for food and agriculture, including those which underpin global forest and aquatic harvests, lie at the heart of the poverty, food security and environment nexus. They contain the key to solving many of the most pressing issues confronting humanity today: the burgeoning human population, widespread destruction and degradation of the environment, and persistent poverty. The wise and sustainable use of genetic resources is fundamental to meeting these challenges, yet these resources themselves may be more threatened today than at any period since the dawn of agriculture.


In spite of, or perhaps because of, the growing recognition of the importance of genetic resources, global systems relating to their conservation and sustainable use are in a state of transition. Discussions and negotiations are taking place in many national and international fora, and the world community is struggling with extremely complex and difficult issues which can be resolved only with vision, goodwill, candor and a shared sense of commitment.


Meanwhile, should there be a significant effort to establish the global environmental effects of agricultural practices? Agriculture has a huge effect on the global environment in terms of land and water use. Is it also having an impact on climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution of international waters? Should there be an effort to establish what is the likely long term effect of a small but cumulative effect over many years?


These complex issues cannot be ignored, for their resolution are at the heart of development.


Partnerships that Empower


Clearly, the challenges of today and tomorrow are so complex that they require the mobilization of the talents, resources and abilities of all the actors, from the public and the private sectors, local, national and international agencies, and the civil society. What is involved is not simply a distribution or redistribution of responsibilities but an empowerment of all those engaged in the enterprise. How does one bring all the elements together in an equitable whole? How does one find a non-bureaucratic forum to enable them to share ideas and help shape the agenda? Steps to do just that have already been taken. The Global Forum, which took place in Washington last October as part of International Centers Week, was the start of this dream of a common commitment by one and all for the better future of humanity and of our planet.



At the recently-concluded Mid-Term Meeting of the CGIAR, the instruments for further development of the global agricultural research system were set in place. These are based on need for the emerging global system to have a shared vision in which the programs of each segment benefit from the successful work of the others. This will give substance to real research partnerships in the battles against poverty, hunger, environmental degradation, and inequity.


Let us remind ourselves that the form of agricultural research to which we aspire is not for Southern countries alone. Still less is it something conceived of and promoted by the North for the South. It affects both the North and South. In this process it is absolutely essential to increase cooperation among all those involved. The evolution of a "global system" is manifest. However, in this area, as in others, we must ensure that this "globalization" of research does not translate into a few groups dominating a world where the vast majority are relegated to being consumers of the "cast offs" of a few. In short, this system must be participatory, open and inclusive, and built from the ground up. This is the only way in which diversity can be taken into account, particularly biological and cultural diversity which give the world its beauty, and offer the world opportunities for multifaceted development.


Farmers play a central role in this diversity. Agricultural research, if it is to be relevant and realistic, must be built in collaboration with farmers and farmers' organizations, and must be sensitive to the economic, social, and conceptual framework within which farming communities make decisions. The era of research which produces technological innovations without reference to the needs of producers is over.


The Power of Science



Science, as I have said, is the foundation on which the CGIAR will help to build a new agriculture. Let us lay that foundation with compassion and care, with full awareness that the structures we build on it will open their doors to the weak and the vulnerable. It is up to us to try to ensure that we harness the power of science for the full benefit of humanity.


There is a central core of universal values that any truly modern society must possess, and these are very much the values that science promotes: rationality, creativity, the search for truth, adherence to codes of behavior, and a certain constructive subversiveness. Science requires the challenge of the established order; the right to be heard however outlandish the assertion, subject only to the test of rigorous method. Science advances only by this process of constructive subversiveness. It is accepted by the senior scientist and his or her aspiring, inquiring, junior colleagues. And in many ways we must extend the privilege of questioning the status quo and seeking the solutions from the scientist at her lab bench to the farm family in the hinterland. Both must participate in this process of productive


The vision of partnership between the farmer in the field with her practical wisdom honed through the centuries and the scientist exploring the cutting edge of contemporary knowledge in the laboratory is one that is not alien to true scientific values. We must see science as an integral part of our culture, that informs our world view and affects our behavior. Science has the capacity to capture the imagination and to move the emotions. Science promotes fundamental ethical values in society. Indeed "those who think that science is ethically neutral confuse the findings of science, which are, with the activity of science, which is not" (Bronowski).


Agricultural science can open the doors to pervasive, societal change. For all of us, whatever our calling or specialty, depend on agricultural science. We are all the guests of the green plants around us.


The Contribution of Biotechnology



As we seek to build and strengthen a scientific foundation for human progress, biotechnology could be the most exciting and the most significant application of science to combating hunger and poverty in our time.


The promise of biotechnology has been tantalizingly just beyond reach for a number of years. Yet it seems increasingly likely that as the genome mapping programs of a number of crops are getting more advanced, and a greater number of genes are identified with particular functions, the possibilities of a major biotechnology breakthrough in the next ten years is increasingly probable. A major breakthrough could be as simple as the solution to one major disease in a globally important food crop. Major breakthroughs could also be biotechnology methods to facilitate identifying genes, determining how genes work, etc.


The opportunities for producing transgenic varieties are endless. Plants and animals that use water more efficiently, grow in highly adverse conditions, resist pests and diseases, and use fewer inputs have enormous potential to contribute to the sustainability of agricultural production systems and are representative of the range of possibilities which may develop through biotechnology. Biotechnology also has great potential in livestock and fish production, and in the modification of biological control agents.


However, the research agenda must also address areas of concern with biotechnology.


The biotechnology revolution has brought with it changes of great magnitude:



  • in the past, science and technology development were public-sector driven and application was private-sector driven; today the world of biotechnology has shifted to one that is private-sector driven both in development and application;




  • patenting of both process and product has become a reality, and is an unavoidable consequence of private investment in biotechnology;




  • access to new technology is increasingly restricted and under the auspices of international agreements such as the World Trade Organization and TRIPS; and




  • new case law is developing in the application of and access to technology in the private sector.



Not all countries, nor all researchers within countries, nor all private firms, have equal opportunity and resources to tap the potential of biotechnology. The enormous investment in this powerful technology, particularly by the private sector of the North, has rapidly widened the science gap, which already existed between the North and the South, and has introduced much more complexity in the search for ways to close that gap.


The private sector exploits opportunities which do not lead to the production of public goods or address the special needs of local ecosystems. The result is that poorly endowed regions of the world, whose problems have proved intractable with conventional agricultural research approaches, may not be able to avail themselves of the potential for biotechnological solutions. Likewise, the needs of the poorest people in the world may go ignored because of the inability of their research institutions to access and use those solutions. So we need to find imaginative ways to construct new, substantial, and equitable partnerships between those who have the greatest needs and those who have the capacity and the resources to meet those needs.


The correct balance has to be established on weighing the benefits against the risks of biotechnology. Not everything that is technically feasible is ethically desirable. Understanding technology’s potential and risk involves science and economics. The ethical issues have many complexities. We cannot accept the notion that deprivation should forever be imprinted on the genes of the poor and destitute - that the misery of inequity is their inevitable destiny. The ethical dimension of depriving them of the advantages that biotechnology (with adequate safeguards) can bring must be weighed against ethical concerns about tinkering with nature through biotechnology. Both sets of issues need to be boldly confronted.

The CGIAR is doing this. We decided at our Mid-Term Meeting to move ahead to increase the conduct of biotechnology research carried out by the centers, and to create two specialist panels to review biotechnology issues and to deal comprehensively with intellectual property rights issues respectively.


Conclusion: Into the Future



My friends:


We know that the task of agricultural research is never done. As long as there are mouths to feed, there will be a need for more research, more knowledge, more new technologies, more efforts to produce sustainably for the future.


For that role to be fulfilled in all its dimensions, the CGIAR must continue to collaborate both in traditional areas of research, and in grasping the creative opportunities for accelerated progress provided by biotechnology. We must do this together, and in full accord with others in both South and North.


The challenge now is to create an overall system that promotes interaction in which the real beneficiaries will be the impoverished. The construction of such a system requires consciousness of how our actions affect each other and the habitat which sustains us all. So there is much to do in the years ahead; much to seek; much to accomplish and no time to lose.


In the few minutes that I have been speaking to you:



  • $25 billion was traded;



  • 6,000 people were added to the world’s population;



  • 900 people died of hunger related causes; and



  • 1,500 hectares of forest were lost.



The time for action is now!


Thank you.

grows, fueled by the integration of the world economies, a revolution in computers, telecommunications, and the non-stop activities of capital markets that transact over 1.2 trillion dollars a day -- enough to buy and sell the whole USA GNP in a week. Equally global, are the increasing inequities between societies and within societies. The top 20 percent of the world population consumes 83 percent of the world’s income, while the remaining 80 percent live on 17 percent. A generation ago, that top 20 percent was thirty times as rich as the bottom 20 percent. Today they are sixty times as rich, and yet they find it difficult to provide 0.3 percent of their GNP for Official Development Assistance (ODA). The rich so often turn their backs on the poor. And poverty is a global phenomenon. There are rich people in poor countries and poor people in rich countries. But poverty remains pervasive and enormously more acute in the South.

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