Gordon Conway

In his keynote address at the World Food Prize Symposium in Des Moines, Iowa, on October 15, 1999, Gordon Conway, President of the Rockefeller Foundation, called for major research investment in agriculture and natural resources. His comments echoed the following conclusions from his book, reprinted with permission.

Poor people have to make trade-offs between immediate consumption and longer term sustainability. At the heart of these trade-offs is security, not just of food, but of income, health, status, freedom of belief and expression, and peace of mind.

• Hunger kills. Three-quarters of a billion people—15% of the world’s population—eat too little or too poorly. The poorest, most oppressed, least educated, hardest working members of the world’s poor are women. Women and the young and the old are the most vulnerable to hunger and disease. Many people in developing countries die of starvation in famines. But far more die of common infections—diarrhea, measles, respiratory infections, malaria—that overwhelm malnourished bodies. Seventeen million children under five die each year, a third from underlying undernutrition. Forty million children get too little vitamin A, half a million of them go blind each year, many later die. All live with damaged immune systems.

• Poverty causes hunger. Poverty is the main cause of hunger in developing countries. Nearly half the people in sub-Saharan Africa live with hunger. Many survive by eating every second or third day. A living wage is beyond the reach of 1.3 billion people in the world who live on less than a dollar a day. These people—one of every three people living in developing countries—lack the materials, assets or wages needed to make or buy their daily food. The poorest people live in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. The poorest of the poor live in the country. Poor people in cities can, if needed, borrow, beg or steal food or the means to buy it. Poor people in rural international areas can’t do that, most don’t even own their own land; they have little to give or take, lend or borrow. When the crops fall or the rains don’t come, they are the first to starve.

• Biotechnology and ecology are key to reducing hunger and poverty. We will have to exploit biology and ecology to spark a “doubly green revolution” that conserves the environment while producing more food. Tools of cellular and molecular biology, known generally as biotechnology, allow us to manipulate living organisms to grow more food. These tools are transforming medical care in rich countries; we are just beginning to realize their potential in breeding better plants and animals in poor countries. Modern ecology allows us to grow more with less environmental stress. Recent development of powerful hypotheses and mathematical models in ecological sciences is helping to show us how to design agricultural technologies that will conserve rather than use up natural resources.

• Technologies aren’t enough. We’re entering a new phase of agricultural development, where we need to minimize hard trade-offs among more farm productivity, stability, sustainability and equity. To do that, research will have to embrace a widening span of disciplines across the natural and social sciences, including new methods of interdisciplinary analysis. Social scientists are going to be as important as biologists in this enterprise because, as Michael Lipton puts it, “there is a limit to technical cures for social pathologies.” Social scientists will help inject the needs of poor people into research agendas and keep them there. Social scientists will ensure that the impacts of agricultural research products are fair as well as big.

• Farmers must be involved in solutions to their problems. Creating an enduring agriculture for millions of farmers still hoeing and ploughing by hand and oxen will depend on the formation of new kinds of partnerships. These will build the expertise and views of farmers into the research process—from the design of an experiment in the lab to the use of a new technology on farmer fields. New farmer-participatory research, new attitudes and new ways of working are dissolving top-down ways of doing research. Experts find themselves listening as much as talking, experiencing the hardships faced by poor people and changing their minds about the kinds of research and technologies that are needed to reduce those hardships.

• Poverty and hunger affect us all. Political stability in the world will erode further unless developing countries are helped to produce enough food, work and shelter for their growing populations. Extreme poverty and hunger, however remote in industrialized countries, affect us all. Now is not the time to sit back and congratulate ourselves on the Green Revolution and what it has achieved over the past 30 years. The next 30 years will test whether we can harness the power of science and technology to provide this and following generations of poor people with enough to eat.

by Gordon Conway is President, The Rockefeller Foundation, 420 5th Ave., New York, NY 10018-2702. The comments above—reprinted with permission of the International Livestock Research Institute, Nairobi, Kenya—were taken from his book, The Doubly Green Revolution: Food for All in the 21st Century, copyright Penquin Books, U.K., 1997 and Cornell University Press, U.S.,1999.