The world's agricultural scientists have done life-saving work in university laboratories, global research centres and government agencies.
Millions of people across the developing world are alive today because of advances that have conquered deadly pathogens, kept pests at bay, boosted yields, and squeezed more food out of less land and water.
That's the good news. Yet despite tremendous innovations and progress in agricultural research over the past half century, more than one billion people remain undernourished in a modern world because the benefits have been spread unevenly, often failing to reach the billion poor people who depend on agriculture for their livelihoods.
So while the world has rightly learned to look to science for answers, the solutions we have in hand today are taking far too long to help poor farmers. And those most in need of help have little opportunity to direct research agendas.
Science faces rapidly growing demands to help farmers produce more food in the face of expanding populations, shifting dietary demands, land and water shortages and climate change.
We need to double food supply by 2050. To do that in ways that are environmentally sustainable while bringing people out of poverty, we must reshape and rethink the very architecture of the agricultural system.
Global action needed
That is why hundreds of scientists, political leaders, farmers, innovators and civil society representatives will travel to Montpellier, France, at the end of this week (28 March) for the first Global Conference on Agricultural Research for Development (GCARD).
Our goal is to launch a global transformation in the way agricultural research is done — to develop robust partnerships among those who have knowledge and those who need it.
Time is of the essence. Food prices have risen 30–40 per cent in the past three years and the cost of cereals to the neediest countries is projected to rise substantially. The last food crisis, two years ago, sparked food riots in several African countries including Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Côte d'Ivoire, Egypt, Madagascar and Senegal.
Africa's farmers are not alone in needing scientists' help. Some 642 million people go hungry in Asia and a quarter of rural households in Eastern Europe have too little land or too few animals to provide a living, yet farmers rarely have another source of income. They too need help making their fields more productive.
We, the GCARD participants, have been asked by the G8 to formulate an environmentally sustainable plan to help science meet the enormous challenges of doubling world food supply by 2050 and lifting a billion people out of poverty and hunger.
The changes we are calling for will create a system that communicates knowledge to farmers and lets them influence researchers' choices about what problems to study and which solutions to pursue.
GCARD will bring together individuals who are generating and using agricultural knowledge, whether in great laboratories or rural villages. We hope their perspectives and experiences will inform donor policies and help align research priorities as closely as possible to the needs of farmers in developing countries.
The conference is a key step towards the vision G8 leaders embraced in their L'Aquila Joint Statement on Global Food Security last July, which tasked the Global Forum on Agricultural Research with building up research capacity at the local, national and regional level in the poorest regions of the world.
Consensus is key
Our ambitions are synergistic with the reforms being carried out by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), an alliance comprising some 8,000 researchers in 100 countries. Both aim to ensure research results reach farmers, and help alleviate poverty and hunger.
It is clear that food insecurity and poverty issues, not the funding cycles of governments and donors, need to drive the strategic frameworks both of national agricultural research systems and of the CGIAR.
Meeting the enormous challenges of sustainably boosting food production in the face of climate change and massive population growth will largely depend on innovation by agricultural researchers and the national governments and donors that support them. The key for getting a new system to work is to agree a new set of priorities and research architecture from which to mobilize action and deliver results to farmers.
GCARD will lay the groundwork for this consensus. Once this difficult task is done, the agricultural scientists, who valiantly fight the front-line battle against hunger, will need support from policymakers and donors to ensure their knowledge is transferred from the lab into action for farmers in the fields.
Monty Jones, 2004 World Food Prize Laureate, is the incoming chair of the Global Forum on Agricultural Research (GFAR) and executive director of the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA).