Delivering on Norman Borlaug's call to action

by Andrew Youn, One Acre Fund, and Tony Kalm, CGIAR Fund | Rahim Kanani Media Group, Inc
Wednesday, 15 October 2014 03:59 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Shortly before passing away in September 2009, Norman Borlaug famously implored the world to “take it to the farmer.”

What an incredible call to action.

Today, Borlaug’s vision statement rings true as perhaps the most important imperative of the human race. As the world population skyrockets to 9 billion people by 2050, we face three global challenges: feeding everybody, employing everybody, and doing so in an environmentally sustainable way. The farmer stands at the nexus of these three critical global imperatives: global agriculture is the number one employer of people; it is our source of food; and it affects the greatest land territory of any human activity.

Making our farms more productive is the keystone for a wealthier, healthier, and more sustainable world.

Unfortunately, today, we are failing Borlaug’s vision to “take it to the farmer.” Fertilizer, for example, is the most basic of agricultural technologies. It was first mass-produced by Carl Bosch 101 years ago – the year before Borlaug was born. Yet fertilizer has reached insignificant adoption in Sub-Saharan Africa. In agriculture, two primary barriers make distribution challenging. First, product distribution is difficult in rural areas that span vast physical distances. Second, rural areas operate in a total “market void.” Even where improved seed and fertilizer are available, less than 10% of farmers have access to credit, rendering the technologies unaffordable. And in the absence of training, farm inputs are largely ineffective. These multiple barriers make it difficult for a new intervention to succeed.

We can and must bridge the gap between science and the farmer. There are many proven solutions that significantly improve physical distribution of technology, availability of credit to make it more affordable, and training to make it usable. The successful distribution of technology results in a 2x or better increase in farm profitability, making the difference between failure and prosperity. Our agriculture community needs to substantially increase the resources and attention that we give to these distribution solutions. Secondly, in the scientific community, we need to orient more of our research towards delivery – including more market testing with real farmers when we first trial technologies, and smoother linkages with the actors that will commercialize our technologies.

Today, the Borlaug Dialogue begins in Des Moines, Iowa, where global leaders of all stripes will come together to tackle the greatest challenge in human history: how to sustainably feed and employ 9 billion people by 2050. One of the most important discussions to take place this week is titled Bridging Discovery, Development and Delivery in Our Global Food System—hosted by the Alliance to End Hunger. The theme of this discussion is intimately tied to whether or not we, as a community of scientists, technologists, policymakers, farmers and advocates, can come together to solve this problem collaboratively.

When Borlaug uttered his imperative—“take it to the farmer”—we think that he intended this as a vision statement to guide us through humanity’s greatest challenges. It is an imperative that we redouble our efforts to fund science and innovation that boosts crop yields, makes crops pest-resistant, and adapts to climate change. Equally imperative is that we redouble our efforts to fund the integrated delivery that will place these technologies in the hands of the farmer. 500 million smallholder farmers depend on this collaborative approach. The time to act is now.

Andrew Youn is founder and executive director of One Acre Fund.  Tony Kalm is deputy head of the CGIAR Fund.  He was the inaugural leader of One Acre Fund USA, and currently sits on the One Acre Fund board of directors.  Tony and Andrew shared the Schwab Foundation Award for Social Entrepreneurship.

As the 2014 Borlaug Dialogue takes place October 15-17 in Des Moines, Iowa, the World Food Prize Foundation and CGIAR Fund are co-hosting an online, high-level op-ed series titled The Greatest Challenge in Human History: Sustainably Feeding 9 Billion People By 2050. This will highlight how agricultural research and development are not only tied to food security and nutrition, but that they are also central to achieving many of the forthcoming UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Read more: 

How can we sustainably feed 9 billion people by 2050? - Kenneth Quinn, World Food Prize Foundation and Jonathan Wadsworth, CGIAR

The future of food and farming depends on climate action today - Jose Graziano da Silva, FAO, Kanayo F. Nwanze, International Fund for Agricultural Development and Ertharin Cousin, WFP

Progressing crop research to impact at scale -  Marco Ferroni, Syngenta For Sustainable Agriculture

The face of hunger is not partisan - Rajiv Shah, USAID

Elevating civil society from advisers to partners for a food secure world  - Tony Hall,  Alliance to End Hunger

New wheat breeds can help avert food security disaster - Sanjaya Rajaram, 2014 World Food Prize Laureate

Rising to "the greatest challenge in human history" - Jose Graziano da Silva, FAO 

Achieving zero hunger with help from smallholder farmers - Ertharin Cousin, WFP 

Tending the future - Pamela Anderson, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

Sustained investment in global agricultural research key to feeding 9 bln people sustainably - Gebisa Ejeta, Purdue University

Africa will feed 9 billion by 2050 - Pedro A. Sanchez, Earth Institute, Columbia University