The Vast Army Fighting Hunger Around the Globe

By Marshall L. Matz, as published in Agri-Pulse

When it comes to agriculture research, no organization is as important to our farmers as is USDA and the Agriculture Research Service (ARS). ARS works with our land grant universities to support US farmers and ranchers. Our unique system of research and extension is a major reason for our global leadership when it comes to agriculture. It is why we are so very efficient in the production of safe and wholesome food at the lowest price of any country in history. In a very real sense, it is agriculture that drives our consumer economy.    

Beyond USDA, however, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) is of increasing importance on the global front.  CGIAR is a group of 15 independent, international, non-profit agricultural research organizations throughout the world working with governments and other key stakeholders. The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (known by its Spanish acronym CIMMYT for Centro Internacional de Mejoramiento de Maíz y Trigo) may be the best of known of the research centers in the US given its focus on wheat and corn. CIMMYT is where Dr. Norman Borlaug did his pioneering research that launched the Green Revolution.  

CGIAR is the largest global partnership addressing agricultural research for development. CGIAR Research Centers work on the ground with farmers in developing countries alongside partners, including national and regional research institutes, academic institutions, development organizations and the private sector. The 2016 CGIAR Annual Report demonstrates the pivotal role that CGIAR’s 15 Research Centers collectively play in reducing poverty, enhancing food and nutrition security and improving natural resources and ecosystem services.  

In 2017, CGIAR embarked on a new program of innovative research programs, with a renewed emphasis on nutrition and health, climate change, soils and degraded land, food systems waste, food safety and the global stewardship of genetic resources. The portfolio is designed to contribute significantly to CGIAR’s Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 targets: 150 million fewer hungry people, 100 million fewer poor people – at least 50 percent of whom are women – and 190 million hectares of less degraded land.

CGIAR creates improved plant varieties and develops publicly available genetic improvements in crops, livestock, fish and trees to strengthen nutrition, livelihoods and resilience in the global food system. In 2016, 111 improved maize varieties were released; 61 wheat varieties; and 49 rice varieties.

CIMMYT grew out of a pilot program sponsored by the Mexican government and the Rockefeller Foundation in the 1940s and 1950s aimed at raising farm productivity in Mexico. The wheat specialist in that program, Norman Borlaug, worked with Edgar McFadden, from South Dakota State, and with Mexican researchers and farmers to develop hardier, short-stemmed wheat varieties that resisted devastating rust diseases and yielded much more grain than traditional varieties.

The new wheat lines were bred and selected at various Mexican locations in a range of climate conditions, which meant they were adaptable to a range of farm settings. The higher yielding varieties helped Mexico attain self-sufficiency in wheat production in the 1950s. The varieties were then taken to India and Pakistan in the 1960s to stave off famine, soon bringing those countries record harvests. This led to the widespread adoption of improved varieties and farming practices, which became known as the “Green Revolution.” CIMMYT was formally launched as an international organization in 1966. Borlaug, who worked at CIMMYT as a wheat scientist and research leader until 1979, received the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize because, more than any other single person, he helped to provide bread for a hungry world. He remained a distinguished consultant for the center until his death in 2009.

Edgar McFadden does not always get the attention he deserves. McFadden achieved breakthroughs in wheat genetics in South Dakota and Texas focusing on stem rust, a disease that threatened the nation’s wheat crop. The variety was named, appropriately enough, “Hope Wheat.” McFadden began a career with the USDA Bureau of Plant Industry and later worked with Norman Borlaug during the Rockefeller Foundation wheat improvement program in Mexico from 1944 to 1955. (View the 1948 letter from Edgar McFadden to Dr. Norman Borlaug, here.)

The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) is the one CGIAR research center located in the United States. Based in Washington, IFPRI provides research-based policy solutions to sustainably reduce poverty and end hunger and malnutrition in developing countries. Established in 1975, IFPRI currently has more than 600 employees working in over 50 countries. The other CGIAR research centers are located in Africa, Asia, Lebanon and Rome. They focus on rice, livestock, fish and forest research.

As noted by Julie Borlaug: "The combined efforts of  USDA, our land grant universities and the CGIAR system of research and training have led to some of the most innovative and life changing advancements in agriculture over the past 60-plus years.  My grandfather’s Green Revolution stands as an example of this powerful collaboration even today. As my grandfather stated in his 1970 Nobel Peace Prize lecture, 'I am acutely conscious of the fact that I am but one member of that vast army and so I want to share not only the present honor but also the future obligations with all my companions in arms, for the Green Revolution has not yet been won. It is true that the tide of the battle against hunger has changed for the better during the past three years. But tides have a way of flowing and then ebbing again. We may be at high tide now, but ebb tide could soon set in if we become complacent and relax our efforts.'"

"The partnership of USDA, our land grants and CGIAR, working with the other stakeholders, is quite extraordinary and holds great promise for the future," Julie Borlaug continued.  "It is a legacy we must continue to honor and support in order to meet the challenge of global food security." 

Marshall Matz specializes in agriculture, nutrition and global food security at OFW Law in Washington, D.C.  He is on the Boards of the World Food Program---USA and the Congressional Hunger Center.

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