Making crop improvement work for national programmes

As you read this, 800 million of your fellow humans are struggling to obtain enough food to get through the day.

Food security is one of the grand challenges facing our world, and donors know this: each year they spend billions of dollars on agricultural research initiatives in developing countries in the fight to end hunger.

But do these well-meaning efforts have the unintended consequence of imposing solutions from the top down?

It’s no secret that agricultural research for development has historically operated in this way.

International experts develop and implement ideas, technologies and products for people and places they often don’t have deep knowledge or understanding of, without enough contribution from local actors at the inception stages.

Donors may make decisions based on their goals and missions that don’t always reflect local needs.

National partners often implement crop improvement visions developed thousands of miles away.

The result? National agricultural research systems are overwhelmed with an influx of experts, ideas, projects and directives, with little breathing room to assess possibilities and offer meaningful input about what they really need to drive change in their countries.

Are we limiting our effectiveness by not taking enough time to stop, listen and give these programs more space to set their own priorities?

National agricultural research institutes (NARIs) play a central role in the research and development of agricultural products that could help their countries attain food security.

At NARIs around the globe, plant breeders are working to optimize crop varieties that will provide higher yields, contain more nutrients, adapt to a chaotic climate, taste better and possess countless other desirable traits demanded by their communities.

NARIs sit in the middle of the U.S. Government Global Food Security Strategy’s core goals, which are to boost economic growth, promote resilience and improve human nutrition.

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But more often than not, NARIs lack the agency to map out their long-term visions, despite generous support from donors.

This is problematic, because we know that change is more sustainable when it comes from within.

Transformative solutions start with the people most committed to and invested in growing the very food they need for food security: the farmers, processors and consumers in the countries where they work.

Some of these solutions could be very simple and contextual, emerging from thoughtful research conducted by NARI research teams.

Yet, caught up in the latest science, sexy technology and voices of prominent experts, these ideas may never see the light of day.

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At the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Crop Improvement, we want to seed a change that makes the science work for NARIs, and not the other way around.

We are committed to empowering researchers at the NARIs where they work to come together to find sustainable solutions to the problems they face.

Based in Cornell University’s Department of Global Development, the project is a five-year, $25 million United States Agency for International Development (USAID) investment supporting crop improvement programs in East and West Africa, South Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean.

We work together to harness the leading science, technology and innovation to make healthy food more accessible, reliable and responsive to the needs and preferences of target countries.

As scientists, we believe we must work from the ground up — from the soil to the food on the table and from local breeders to the entire population.

Our goal is to support NARIs in developing and implementing localized crop improvement tools, technologies and methods.

Firstly, we are using our technical expertise to curate and discover tools, technologies and methods that hold promise to improve the effectiveness of crop improvement for NARIs.

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Secondly, we are opening funding calls for NARIs to work with us to cocreate and adapt these tools to make them work toward their visions and goals.

Last but not least, we are working with NARIs to redefine impact so it doesn’t solely mean productivity increases, but rather a positive change for men, women, youth and children, as well as meaningful improvements in nutrition and resilience.

We are choosing to open our funding opportunities in areas where Feed the Future works.

We are only accepting applications led by NARIs and are structuring a cocreation process to support all potential applicants in putting forward the best possible proposal.

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In doing so, we hope to position NARIs to be in the driving seat for grants that will help them fulfill their own vision.

We are really looking forward to putting out the call in Spring 2021, as there are so many NARIs that we would be honored to work with.

We can’t talk about food without talking about the social, economic and environmental factors that heavily influence food security.

At the Innovation Lab, we are committed to gender equality, youth, nutrition and inclusion.

We will award projects that seek to address gender- and youth-based constraints through crop improvement, prioritize activities that show potential for economic inclusion for women and youth and include traits to address malnutrition and increase resilience.

To ensure follow-through, we are requiring team members to have relevant gender expertise, and we are allocating funding for crosscutting research.

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We are committed to a long-term vision that allows NARIs to thrive. We work with NARIs not only in technical areas but also in operational (financial management and monitoring and evaluation) and policy (enabling environment) areas.

We build training opportunities for early-career researchers so they can earn plant breeding degrees at partner institutions while getting specialized training in leadership development and entrepreneurship.

Lastly, we leverage existing curricula with Makerere University in Uganda and the Gender-Responsive Researchers Equipped for Agricultural Transformation (GREAT) program to ensure that NARIs’ efforts prioritize gender equality, youth involvement and diversity.

Read also Women are creating Food Security in the informal settlements of Nairobi, Kenya

Eyes wide open to the challenges and pitfalls that await us, we remain optimistic in this endeavor.

Stay up-to-date as we launch our vision at and walk hand-in-hand with our national partners on the journey to self-reliance.

This article was originally published in the Chicago Council on Global Affairs blog series “Breaking Ground,” which explores how food systems innovation and agricultural research and development can empower farmers and feed the world.

This was written by Hale Ann Tufan, associate director of the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Crop Improvement.

Photo Credit: Yara Ghana

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