Photograph by Jim Richardson, Nat Geo Image Collection
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An initiative by an agriculture group, CGIAR, which connects researchers to investors, aims to improve the health of soil.
Photograph by Jim Richardson, Nat Geo Image Collection

Making the Link Between Agriculture, Hunger, and Climate

The CGIAR Consortium may be the biggest international agriculture force you’ve never heard of. It’s publicly funded to the tune of about $1 billion U.S. annually, and plays a major role in agriculture research and funding programs to end hunger, improve nutrition, and preserve the planet.

As the climate conference COP21 kicked off in Paris last week, I had a chance to catch up with CGIAR CEO Frank Rijsberman to talk about why he thinks agriculture needs a bigger forum in Paris and how CGIAR is reforming itself for a brave new world. Our chat has been edited for length and clarity.

Thanks for taking the time to talk with us. How’s Paris?

We’ve had a rather large number of world leaders show up.

Despite that, you say there’s not enough emphasis on the role of agriculture at COP21. Why, and what should be done differently?

Eighty percent of countries have put agriculture into their [climate change] strategy documents. The countries are much closer to talking about agriculture as a mitigation strategy than the conference is.

[The challenge is] there’s a very big gap between countries who want to talk about reducing emissions—the Brazils, etc., … and those who are talking about paying countries to reduce emissions.

That’s why we are excited to launch the soil initiative, because there are benefits [for all.] It’s potentially a very interesting bridge [to increasing our global focus on agriculture.]

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CGIAR Consortium CEO Frank Rijsberman. Courtesy CGIAR

The new soil initiative you mentioned—what’s that?

The new initiative, 4 Pour 1000 (4p1000,) looks at how to keep nutrients in the soil.

[Editor’s note about 4p1000: The name is a bit technical, but refers to a critical link between soil and climate change: If we can increase the amount of carbon captured in soil by 0.4 per year, scientists say, we can stop the annual rise in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. For more about the link between soil and climate, see The Brown Revolution: Why Healthy Soil Means Healthy People.]

We are losing soil through degradation. Twenty-five percent of all soil is in poor health. When we use fertilizer, plow in organic matter, add chemical fertilizer, burn stubble in the field, we get rid of that biomass and put it in the air. In southeast Asia, there is a massive area of peatland being burned… So far, we are doing a pretty poor job of soil management.

We need to do livestock management, use low-till methods. We are saying things that are not new, but these are best practices.

… Soil is devilishly complex… there are technical issues to do with measurement, so it’s been off the table [at the climate talks] so far. But with the French government’s leadership and momentum… hopefully it will show up in the list of approved solutions at the end of COP21. (For more on the conference, see Four Big Unresolved Questions in the Draft Climate Agreement.)

CGIAR has been part of a number of programs designed to reduce hunger, including a new effort to get drought-resistant beans to Ethiopia. How do these hunger programs keep up with modern times?

Reducing hunger and malnutrition, we’ve been working on this for the last 40 years. The focus has been on increasing the yields of staple crops. Now we’re focusing much more on nutrition and health, not only wheat and corn. And it’s not just having more beans, but beans with a higher [nutritional value.]

800 million people suffer from hunger, but 2 billion from malnutrition. We’ve been pushing hard over the last 10 years to address vitamins, the so-called “hidden hunger.” (See Why Micronutrient Deficiency is a Macro-Problem.)

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A girl in a farming village in Burkina Faso. Photograph by Jim Richards, NG Creative

And we’re also dealing with sustainable food systems. Not just food quantity, but food quality. We have been working on biofortification. [Rather than adding nutrients in the processing end,] it is much more sustainable if the crops actually have more iron in them, or they switch to an orange sweet potato instead of white.

What is the role of GMOs here?

GMOs are almost going away in the sense that 10 years ago or so, there was a long list of things that could only be done through GMOs, making crops disease-resistant, etc. As we learn much more about the biology, rapidly we’re finding that those same traits are often present in the rice collections we have or the wild relatives we have, so we don’t have to go to another species (see Can Preserving Crop Biodiversity Save the World?). We are getting much smarter in standard classical crop breeding.

…There is a change in the narrative. We are trying to link ourselves with health and nutrition. We’re into agriculture and environment.

How does CGIAR work with major agriculture companies?

We get funding through the public purse. We are independent from the big food companies. We should probably work a little bit more with them. If governments aren’t investing, then [supply] chains can break and stuff doesn’t get to farmers. We work through private seed companies.

We don’t really have a lot of pressure from food companies. We do have a lot of pressure from our investors—countries—to have outcomes. It changes politics.

Wait, there’s politics in food?

Not that long ago, we went to European parliaments to talk about the African food [challenges—war, drought, poverty.] They asked why they should be concerned, and we said, well, if they have nothing to eat and no employment, they might come here in a boat. That has very sadly come to pass, and now we’re dealing with the short-term consequences.

We need to look at the root causes, and invest more in agriculture.