A Powerful Voice for Climate-Smart Agriculture in the Tropics

Posted by on December 12th, 2014 | 0 Comments »
Dr. Ruben Echevarria, Director General of CIAT and Dr. Margaret Zeigler, at the Clinton Foundation Future of the Americas Meeting, December 11, 2014

Dr. Ruben Echeverria, Director General of CIAT and Dr. Margaret Zeigler, at the Clinton Foundation Future of the Americas Meeting, December 11, 2014

An Interview by Margaret Zeigler, Executive Director of the Global Harvest Initiative, with Ruben Echeverria, Director General of CIAT

With hundreds of millions of smallholder farmers producing food and other agricultural products in the tropics, there is an urgent need to help them adapt to a changing climate, which is already impacting food production systems and farmer livelihoods.  In this interview, Dr. Ruben Echeverria, Director General of the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), shares a vision of how cutting-edge research and focused programs make farming more resilient, sustainable, and profitable.

Margaret: Having worked in agricultural development for over 30 years, what do you think are some of the greatest food security challenges in the world’s tropical regions?

Ruben: Parts of the humid tropics have the potential to become future breadbaskets for the world.  They are where some 70 percent of the world’s poor people now live, and they contain most of the world’s biodiversity. Climate change poses a serious threat for these smallholder farmers, who already face significant challenges from poor soils, volatile rainfall patterns, lack of knowledge on best cultivation practices, and lack of investment in new technologies that can help them. We need to forge stronger policies and better institutions to preserve and manage biodiversity in the tropics, and to invigorate public research on agriculture and the environment in these countries.

Margaret:  What are some specific areas where you have seen success in the tropical zones where CIAT works?

Ruben: CIAT has helped achieve major improvements in the productivity of rice, cassava, beans, and forages for livestock. For example, some 80 percent of the rice grown all the way from Uruguay at the tip of South America to Mexico can be attributed to CIAT’s rice research program. The program works closely with FLAR (Latin American Fund for Irrigated Rice), which is among the first public-private partnerships set up by the CGIAR institutions. FLAR’s members represent 17 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. Through better collaboration across the Americas, the Fund has made major advances in improving yields, nutrition, quality, and the environmental sustainability of rice production.

Photo credit: Reuters

Photo credit: Reuters

Margaret:  How can national governments lead the way to support their farmers as they face climate change in the tropical zones? 

Ruben: While research institutions always need to have improved crop germplasm and methods to conduct agricultural research, what we really need are the right policies for market participation and growth. This requires stronger local institutions like national agricultural research systems (NARS).  International centers like CIAT are helping to build human and institutional capacity at these NARS, and one of the best examples is happening right now in Colombia. After 45 years of civil war, Colombia is now making agriculture a priority by strengthening farmers associations in coffee, sugarcane and oil palm.  Other areas of focus will be expanding as well.

Margaret: How did you become interested in international agriculture?

Ruben: During the early 1970s while I was attending high school in Uruguay, where I grew up, I remember reading a report published by FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) that discussed how population growth would dramatically challenge our ability to feed the planet. It sparked a lifelong interest in agriculture, food security and economics that led to studies in agronomy and agricultural economics.

I was able to attend an exchange program in the U.S. sponsored by Partners of the Americas, where I studied at the University of Minnesota and lived and worked on a family farm, just south of the Twin Cities. I had a great experience with this family farm operation, working on crop and dairy production. At that time, this work was even more labor intensive than today, and I have very strong memories of rising at 5:00 am to milk and feed the cows! This work and study experience prepared me well for future positions with the Ministry of Agriculture in Uruguay, where we focused on extension programs to support family farmers.

I later received a World Bank scholarship to earn a M.Sc. and Ph.D. in Agriculture and Applied Economics from the University of Minnesota. It was during this time that I had the great privilege to study under Dr. Vernon Ruttan, a world-renowned agricultural economist. He really made an impact on me, and I began seeking opportunities to apply my experience and skills to global agricultural development, particularly for smallholder farmers.

Margaret:  What was your path to the CGIAR and CIAT?

Ruben: After receiving my Ph.D. at Minnesota, I worked at a research center in the Hague, Netherlands, called ISNAR (The International Service for National Agricultural Research). ISNAR was a member of the global network of international agricultural research institutions called CGIAR. The mandate of ISNAR was to strengthen the capacity of developing country agriculture by building the capacity of their National Agricultural Research Systems (NARS) and organizations.  I was able to work eventually at the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) as Director of Agriculture and Rural Development, and then as Executive Director of the Science Council of the CGIAR, which was then hosted at FAO in Rome.

As many readers know, the food price crisis that occurred between 2007-2008 created impetus for major new initiatives in agriculture around the world.  In 2009, the CGIAR Secretariat offered me the opportunity to lead CIAT as Director General, and we have been working since then on exciting new initiatives in tropical agriculture, not only in Latin America, but in many countries across Africa and Asia, to improve beans, rice, cassava, tropical forage for livestock, and to conserve soils and genetic diversity.

Margaret:  Can you share how CIAT helps address agriculture challenges such as climate change?

Seed packets stored in CIAT Germplasm Bank

Seed packets stored in CIAT Germplasm Bank

Ruben: Currently, CIAT works with more than 500 partners, including national agricultural research and extension organizations, advanced research institutes, universities, international organizations, private companies, NGOs, government ministries, and farmers associations.

We are working with the private sector to enhance livestock productivity through better tropical forages. CIAT manages a germplasm bank, which includes one of the greatest and most diverse tropical forage collections in the world, containing over 23,000 samples of legumes and grasses from over 72 countries. We are working with a private sector company now to improve forage grasses that will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions from livestock in addition to boosting milk and meat production.

CIAT won the Big Data Climate Challenge award recently, which we received from the United Nations for our work in using weather and rice production data to provide advisory services for farmers.  Our research team worked with the Colombian Rice Growers Federation (Fedarroz) and Colombian Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology, and Environmental Studies (IDEAM) to analyze climate and rice production patterns in selected regions of Colombia. On this basis, we provided rice growers with specific recommendations that helped them optimize their production practices and avoid the worst impacts of climate variability. We will be expanding our work on data analysis in the coming years to help smallholder farmers better combat the impacts of climate change.

Margaret: What does the future hold for CIAT?  What are some of your institutional innovations in the CIAT pipeline?

Ruben: One of the most exciting models that we are now ramping up is our new Pacific Agribusiness Park (Parque BioPacifico).  The Park serves as an incubator for competitive enterprises based on the agricultural sciences, where over 1,400 researchers are already working to promote innovation and public-private partnerships that make agriculture more competitive and productive.  This is a brand new research and applied agriculture facility covering over 1,000 hectares in Cali, and we hope that many new partners will come and visit to learn about joining in our mission of improving tropical agriculture, particularly for smallholder farmers across Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Here we will be solving problems along the entire agricultural value chain, from crop production and post-harvest handling to human nutrition and food safety.

CIAT Aerial

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