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Is a Lack of Research and Development Making Ours a Hungry Planet?

By - Jun 4 2015

hungry planetLatin America has abundant natural resources that, given adequate technology, would allow for sustainable agricultural growth, the capacity to satisfy the world’s food security needs, and the boosting of low-income country economies. To paint a picture, a third of the world’s fresh water and over one fourth of its arable land are found in Latin America. Yet despite such natural wealth, a lack of investment in technological innovation continues to hinder Latin America’s ability to achieve the necessary sustainable agricultural intensification it needs to become the world’s next breadbasket. Given estimates that global food production will have to increase by 60% to feed the nine billion people who will inhabit the Earth by 2050, this is a hindrance that must be overcome now.

While it is clear that one of the most effective ways to develop agriculture is through investments in Research and Development (R&D), such spending in the region is still very scarce. According to the Agricultural Science and Technology Indicators’ latest publication (2012), total global public spending on agricultural R&D in 2008 totaled $31.7 billion, of which Brazil accounts for 4% while the combined spending of the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean accounts for only 6%. Though spending grew between 2000-2008, 86% of the region’s growth was driven by agricultural giants Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico, while smaller economies experienced much less growth, averaging 3-4% each. Countries such as El Salvador, Guatemala, and Paraguay — which are highly agriculturally dependent and among the region’s poorest— experienced a decrease in their agricultural research expenditure over the same period. While private investment in food and agricultural research amounted to $18.2 billion in 2008, most was carried out in developed countries with little to no benefit for lower-income countries.

Agricultural R&D funding is limited, as international support has declined over the past two decades and many R&D agencies have difficulty mobilizing the resources needed to operate. Furthermore, very few international organizations support agricultural development with a regional emphasis on Latin America. Overall, only 12% of all Official Development Assistance is invested in the region, a reality which is well reflected in low backing for its agricultural development.

Yet despite such limited investment, the region is regarded a prime opportunity for innovative agencies like the Regional Fund for Agricultural Research, or FONTAGRO, which was created in 1998 with the sponsorship of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA).

FONTAGRO is a unique cooperation mechanism for agricultural innovation in Latin America and the Caribbean and operates through regional platforms. Its mission is to contribute to technological innovations in family agriculture in its 15 member countries, promoting sustainable and equitable competitiveness and food security. Its member countries have contributed capital in excess of $100 million to the fund, which operates as an endowment whose proceeds, along with mobilized resources from diverse donors, are used to support agricultural R&D projects through a competitive process, which also mobilizes substantial investments from participants.

Furthermore, FONTAGRO’s added value resides in promoting South-South collaboration among developed and developing countries, scaling up best practices and promoting public-private synergies at regional levels. FONTAGRO’s model optimizes investment in R&D by more developed countries and promotes the use and exploitation of proved technologies in countries that wouldn’t otherwise have access to such innovations.

Recent external evaluations have noted that FONTAGRO has thus far generated 35 technologies, 15 of them new to the region and four with global implications, many of which are used by smallholder farmers. FONTAGRO-funded projects work primarily toward improving crop varieties (maize, potatoes, sweet potatoes, rice, wheat, and tropical fruits), climate change adaptation and mitigation, integrated pest management that results in reduction of pesticides, and integrated management of natural resources. Institutional arrangements have also been developed to strengthen value chains, promote access to markets and generate benefits to small farmers and other actors in value chains.

More economic support is needed for programs like FONTAGRO, which are leading examples of how South-South cooperation and adequate investment in agricultural R&D is vital to reaching the region’s potential to become the world’s global breadbasket. For information about financing and cooperation opportunities with FONTAGRO please visit www.fontagro.org

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