The Role of Partnerships in Post 2015 Development Agenda

Joint event of the General Assembly and the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations:

“The role of partnerships in the implementation of the post 2015 development agenda”

9 – 10 April, 2014, New York

Mr Chair, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great honor to participate in the panel on scaling up partnership opportunities in food and nutritional security. Thank you so much for the invitation.

The International Panel on Climate Change has recently confirmed that all aspects of food security are affected by climate change, including food access, utilization and price stability. IPPC also clearly states that the impacts will be felt by countries on all levels of development. In other words – no country will escape the effects. The report has been described as the darkest report ever from the IPCC. If anybody has been in doubt – it should be a true wake up call.

Agriculture is probably facing its biggest challenge ever in its 13000 years of history. For the first time we are facing a truly global crises. We need to produce more food for a growing population at a time when yields from many staple crops seems to level out and weather patterns are drastically changing. We see heavier rain and more droughts in some parts of the world, melting ice and strangely cold weather other places. The weather is more unpredictable all around the globe. Climate change challenges agriculture’s ability to adapt and deal with new pests and diseases that unavoidably will follow the changing weather.

In brief we can say that our common challenge is:  We need to feed more people on less land, with less water and less energy under more unpredictable weather conditions.

We have to find game changers in the way we do agriculture. Nothing less.

Agronomy is important, but will not suffice. We need to develop a resilient agricultural system. A resilient agricultural system that can stand changing weather conditions, that can deal with new pests and diseases without catastrophic consequences, that does not contribute to further climate change, and which also produces not only sufficient food for our sister and brothers, but sufficient nutritious food for us all. In other words a resilient agricultural system is much more than a productive agricultural system – it cannot be measured only in tons per hectare.

Our best and most important tool to develop a resilient agricultural system is found in the natural diversity of crops and within crops. The biodiversity of crops offers opportunities. Crop diversity is a vital natural resource for humanity. It is a global common good that is far too little recognized and discussed.

Resilience requires options. Options require diversity.

In order to feed the world in the midst of all the challenges we have discussed, we have no choice but to go to the basic building blocs of agriculture and work systematically on adaptability and increased nutritional value.

We know resilience can be achieved, but it will require research – massive research.  If you are not a believer in scientific and technological progress, the future looks bleak. Luckily there are lots of believers. We need to get them organized! We need to challenge the best brains we have around the world and invest in people, knowledge, innovation and technology.

We do have good examples to learn from. Let me use rice as and example. After more than a decade of work, the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines has released a new rice variety that is substantially more tolerant to submergence than previous varieties. Rice likes water, of course, but not too much water. Too much water drowns it.

IRRI has also made progress on salinity tolerance. This is the result of thousands upon thousands of crosses with a weedy relative of rice found in the institute’s rice genebank, from which a single viable seed was rescued, which eventually led to material that can survive in what is basically sea water.  And yields increase substantially. It is great! We just need to do much, much more of this tedious work.

A resilient agricultural system is a system that can stand change. Let me use banana as an example. Banana started to be widely exported in the 1870s – it was an exotic treat. By the 1950s banana was popular among people far from the tropics. Suddenly the Panama disease struck. It is a soil fungus that swept through Central and South America. By the 1960s the variety Gros Michel was about to go out of cultivation. Just in time a variety called Cavendish was identified. Smaller and not quite the same as Gros Michel, but today this variety accounts for 95 percent of all export. Bananas are today the world’s most valuable fruit export wise. But – as we speak the export industry is again fighting for survival – on two fronts: from the Black Sigatota and from Foc Tropical Race 4. The challenge is to find a banana that is both resistant to the two diseases and commercially viable.

So what is lesson learnt? Well for the banana export industry, as for any other food producer including small holder farmers in north or south, it is that survival  in the long term require diversification. Or said in a different way: genetic uniformity of crops does make us more vulnerable. The historic examples are many.

Some people ask: Would not industry, particularly the seed industry, take care of this? The answer is clearly no. If we speak about a single resistance gene in a crop, it might be dealt with by the industry. Companies alone will not be able to create a global well functioning resilient agricultural system. However, their contribution should be understood and valued.

The challenges for agriculture are vast, but we do have a basic structure to build on in order to find solutions. We do have a functioning global partnership.

An important element is the National Agricultural Research Systems, but let me now dwell with the international mechanisms. First of all we have the International Treaty on Plant Genetic resources for Food and Agriculture ratified by 132 countries. The Treaty establishes both a system for access & exchange of germplasm and a benefit sharing mechanism. Since no country is self-sufficient in genetic resources, the Treaty is important for us all. Even a country like the US has in its national genebanks less than 10 percent of the total material found in the world’s genebanks. A country like Brazil, the second most important producer of soybeans in the world, only holds 10% of the world’s soybean genetic resources, which originated in Asia.

Breeders need germplasm from multiple sources and countries to breed new varieties. Success in crop breeding is highly dependent on functioning multilateralism.

This International Treaty de facto places crop seeds in the multilateral system and the public sphere. It ensures that any institution in any country – small or large – can access these fundamental building blocs for agriculture. This is the guarantee for us being able to develop plants for smallholder farmers that are sufficiently locally adapted. We cannot have a global system where only multinational companies – that can pay their way – have access to genetic material.

The International Treaty is fundamental for a future, resilient agricultural system.

Operating under the Treaty, we have the consortium of 15 publicly and internationally managed genebanks, research and breeding centers – the CGIAR. They focus on the most important crops for food security – rice, maize and wheat, but also on aspects of Agriculture for Nutrition and Health, and indeed on Agriculture and Climate Change.

This system needs to evolve and respond to new challenges. But the structure is there. It is based on partnerships and its achievements are ready to be scaled up. They actually desperately need to be scaled up. Without massive breeding efforts having their basis in the public sphere, it is hard to see how we will be able to produce enough nutritious food and ensure resilient agricultural systems.

In this basic structure to develop a resilient agricultural system, we also find the organization I am heading, the Global Crop Diversity Trust. We have been set up as “an essential element of the funding strategy of the International Treaty”. The organization helps establish a cost-effective, rational, global system for the conservation and availability of the diversity of the most important crops for food security.  We were also established to fund the system of crop genebanks from an endowment fund. The reasoning behind the endowment fund is that crop diversity is too important to be left to uncertainty.

An endowment fund is one solution to financing global common goods. It is not easy to raise, but once it is done, resources will be available in a long term perspective.

To date, primarily governments have provided grant funds to our endowment. We are working on and do expect more private grant funding in the future, whether from corporations, industry associations, foundations, high-net-worth individuals, or the general public.

It is conceivable that some private contributors may provide long-term concessional investments instead of grants.  Investors such as sovereign wealth funds and pension funds could make a low-yielding deposit to the endowment fund.  This would allow the Crop Trust to draw annual income from these funds while they are invested in the endowment.  Giving up the annual returns, rather than the base capital, could be an attractive way for socially responsible private investors to contribute to the greater good of food security.

Let me also mention public-public partnerships (not the public – private partnerships that we speak about most often). With traditional donors of development assistance reducing their aid budgets, the new development partners from middle-income countries are rapidly gaining in importance. To facilitate contributions from middle-income countries, funds could come in the form of long-term concessional loans rather than outright grants.  This would make it easier financially and also politically for emerging market countries to support international organizations. At the end of maturity of the long-term loans, the creditor country could convert the loan into a grant contribution – depending on its financial situation at that time.

New partnerships in financing for development is required and we should have expectations to private sector in this context. But let me conclude not by discussing money, but rather by bringing up a topic that has the potential to really become a game changer in food and nutritional security, namely the world of tools emerging from the combination of progress in biology and in big data. As big data is revolutionizing many aspects of our daily lives – be it personalized medicine, online encyclopedias or e-commerce – big data approaches, and in particular the analysis of the accumulating terabytes of genomic data, can also be used in the field of genetic resources.

By combining the knowledge we have of where plants grow, information about their physical characteristics, and the sequencing data of the plants’ DNA, we should be able to speed up breeding processes, adapt plants faster to new conditions and provide the quantum leap which is required in food production.

If you are looking for a second green revolution – this is probably where you will find it. A revolution, which will benefit smallholder farmers because it builds on locally adapted varieties and their related wild species, and the information and knowledge associated with them. It will also provide the crops and varieties that allow the agricultural system to be more resilient – and hence secure livelihoods.

Ladies and gentlemen,

It is hard to imagine a more fundamental job for the global community than making sure we have enough nutritious food for our sisters and brothers.

It is challenging, but it is doable. There are partnership structures within the sector that surely can be built on. It requires leadership and systematic approaches to further develop and scale up them up. Let’s just do it – we have no time to lose.

Thank you,



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