cabi_plantwiseA CABI 'Plantwise' plant health clinic held on market day in the village of Wangigi, outside Nairobi. Plant doctors can help farmers understand how to tackle plant pests and diseases so that they can grow more and lose less. Photo by: Sven Torfinn / Panos Pictures / CABI

Article by Dyno Keatinge, Trevor Nicholls | 16 October 2014

Today is World Food Day, an important time to reflect on how well we tackle global hunger.

For those working in international development, food security is a complex problem to solve and one that goes beyond hunger alone. With the global population expected to reach 9 billion by 2050, people are asking how we can best address the nature and scale of the challenges that lie ahead. As a research and development-focused organization, the Association of International Research and Development Centers for Agriculture believes that science, technology and knowledge sharing can help provide answers.

With this in mind, here are five things we can do better to ensure food security.

1. Balance food and nutritional security.

Until recently, attention has been focused on investment in research of the traditional staple crops - maize, rice and wheat - to tackle hunger. But it is now widely accepted that we must go beyond calorie intake and look at the nutritional balance of the crops grown and consumed. A better balance between the research and development of staple crops and horticultural crops - fruit, legumes and vegetables - is the obvious key to alleviating malnutrition. Neglected or underutilized local varieties of fruit and vegetables often offer a good source of nutrition. We need to support farmers in growing new varieties and different crop mixes, giving them the information they need to manage the unfamiliar pests and diseases that may attack their plants. Animals, fish and poultry are also valuable sources of protein, vitamins and fatty acids. The development of a more diverse and competitive private seed sector, as well as capacity building efforts to help farmers improve soil health, are also crucial, since better quality seeds and soil lead to better quality produce.

2. Embrace new technology for knowledge transfer.

A greater commitment to understanding and improving knowledge transfer amongst rural farmers is urgently needed, as is a more effective approach to using modern ICT. Agricultural advice delivered by mobile phone is one of the most effective methods of sharing information. It takes advantage of the explosion in mobile technologies used in developing countries. Those working in development must embrace it. For example, agricultural advisory services delivered through voice messages can help overcome literacy and language barriers. Innovative provision of these services helps address the fact that there are too few extension workers to support the world's farmers. The knowledge delivered must cover the full food production cycle, from pre- to post-harvest - 40 percent of global food produced is lost to plant pests and diseases - and even beyond. Mobile technologies can be used to link smallholders to local and regional markets, where they can more easily generate regular incomes. Mobile services can also be expanded to include market information like what to charge per crop and how to access microfinance.

3. Take a balanced 'landscape' approach to agriculture.

As the Sustainable Development Goals take shape, we can see that certain goals focus on the environment, while others focus on food security. In most countries, however, it will not be possible to make a clean separation between the two. Finding a solution is difficult: Should farmers preserve their land for the sake of food production, or focus on generating income from tourism? Agriculture is a huge part of making landscapes profitable, but so too are other industries. How can people in developing countries achieve the right balance? AIRCA is committed to tackling these problems at the “landscape” level. This approach requires creating solutions that take into account the diversity of interactions among people and the environment, agricultural and nonagricultural systems, and other factors that represent the entire context of agriculture. It also takes into account the transnational aspects of landscapes where they cross national boundaries, making concerted efforts to find solutions to sustainable agriculture more pressing. As the implementation of the SDGs unfolds, finding this balance will become increasingly important.

4. Stop the spread of non-native invasive species.

The spread of non-native invasive species has been largely positioned as a threat to biodiversity, and has received relatively little attention in relation to food production. This is a mistake. The introduction of invasives poses a threat to agriculture: With no natural enemies to control them, non-native species like animals, insects and weeds can overrun vast areas of pastureland, infest crops, poison and kill livestock and, in some cases, force farmers from their land altogether. But we can take action. Preventing the arrival of invasive species in the first place is obviously important: Having better plant biosecurity and proper pest risk analysis is essential. Where invasive species have already been introduced, and are widespread, their control through natural, biological means can rectify the problem. By introducing invasive species' natural enemies - for example, the co-evolved fungi or insects that attack them - their spread can be controlled. Invasive species cost the world economy around $1 trillion every year and must be tackled at an international level if we are to address food security effectively.

5. Create careers in agriculture for young people and women.

Supporting young people and women in agriculture is not a new challenge, but does need reinvigorated attention. In developing countries, many young people are leaving villages to work in cities, believing there is no future in farming and that there are better prospects in urban areas, yet quite the opposite is true. By 2050, global food demand is predicted to grow by 60 percent based on 2005 levels. Nurturing young people's careers in agriculture so that they become part of an effective, efficient and sustainable food production system is a much needed part of safeguarding long-term food security. Supporting women is also central to safeguarding food production. The challenge is finding the means to get the right information to women, as in some cultures they are not always as easy to reach as men. Creating an environment that lets them put information into practice and establish livelihoods in agriculture is important. For this reason, tackling food security must be seen in a much wider context and be treated in a truly concerted manner.

The red thread linking these five issues is the need to put research, technology and knowledge at the heart of creating food and nutritional security. The scientific approach can help frame and structure ways to evaluate or test the impact of interventions.

On World Food Day, and as the SDGs near their completion, global awareness of world hunger and malnutrition is growing and so too is the need to think about - and take action to tackle - the challenges that may lie ahead.

AIRCA is a nine-member alliance of agricultural research centers across the globe focused on increasing global food security by supporting smallholder agriculture within healthy, sustainable and climate-smart landscapes. The combined expertise of AIRCA centers cover a large spectrum of the research for development continuum including agro-biodiversity, agroforestry, integrated pest management, drought-tolerant crops, natural resource management and the conservation and use of underutilized species.

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