• Agricultural research in South Asia has benefitted from the Green Revolution work at the CGIAR international agricultural centres.
  • Climate change is exposing the agricultural systems in these countries to new threats and challenges.
  • The reinvented CGIAR can offer greater support to deal with these challenges, argues its South Asia director in this commentary.
  • The views expressed are that of the author.

As the seat of the Green Revolution, South Asia has both contributed to and benefitted enormously from the progress of global agricultural science and research. Evidence indicates that agricultural innovation, including the work of  CGIAR, has played a key role in reducing infant mortality in the region, preventing up to six million deaths yearly by 2000.

Since then, CGIAR – the world’s largest publicly funded agricultural research organization – has continued to play a pivotal role in developing the capabilities of national research institutes. Its various research centers have worked closely with the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), Bangladesh’s Ministry of Agriculture, the Nepal Agricultural Research Council (NARC), the Pakistan Agricultural Research Council (PARC), and the farmers they serve in turn.

But the world, its climate, and its research needs have evolved dramatically since the mid-20th century.

Surviving the Anthropocene and its increasingly complex challenges requires a new kind of agricultural science based on reimagined partnerships that can stand the test of time.

For many parts of South Asia, this will mean finding ways to overcome an increasingly erratic monsoon season, with some areas facing water shortages while others face flooding, causing significant disruption to long-term growing patterns for staple crops, such as rice.

A woman with a goat while the first monsoon rains approach in India. Photo by C. de Bode/CGIAR

Need for innovation across countries

To achieve this, CGIAR is also evolving so that it can continue to be the scientific partner of choice for national research institutes and governments. Today, national institutes are well-equipped to develop many of the innovations needed to address food and nutrition insecurity in a changing climate. The critical challenge ahead of us will be achieving impact at a great enough scale to end hunger, poverty and inequality across South Asia by 2030 and reach the climate goals of each country.

This is where the new iteration of CGIAR comes in. By better integrating our 11 research centers around the world under an integrated structure with a common vision, CGIAR can offer efficiencies while maximizing impact across countries and commodities.

In particular, a reinvented CGIAR can offer greater flexibility and leadership in three key areas to accelerate the region’s agricultural development and its multiplier benefits for livelihoods, health and climate action.

Read more: Addressing challenges in food systems with climate-smart agriculture

Firstly, a reformed “One CGIAR” can support a greater capacity to translate and adapt the key technologies needed to address the climate challenges facing South Asia’s food systems. These reforms will allow CGIAR to effectively pull together innovations across commodities, sectors, and regions.

For instance, developing and scaling new varieties of direct-seeded rice that need little to no puddling and no transplanting will both reduce the methane emissions associated with production and buffer rice harvests against unpredictable rains while also reducing the drudgery rice farmers face.

This work is already taking place across borders, with early trials in India, Nepal and Bangladesh, as well as Mozambique and Tanzania, contributing to a shared evidence base that boosts the resilience and adaptative capacity of all.

Image shows a man watering his farm
CGIAR has worked with several farmers across India, Nepal and Bangladesh to boost individual farmer resilience. Photo by C. de Bode/CGIAR

Importance of a global outlook

A global approach is also increasingly important for pest management as climate change increases the spread of crop pests and diseases. Although the caterpillar Fall Armyworm arrived in India as recently as 2018, CGIAR has been on the frontlines, supporting countries around the world to manage this threat, for decades. Scientists at CGIAR’s International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) have worked closely with Kenyan farmers to develop integrated pest management plans to combat this highly resistant pest while also developing more fall armyworm-tolerant varieties of maize to protect farmers’ livelihoods and the food they provide for millions. Learning from these efforts, CGIAR has assisted South Asian countries in developing novel ways to monitor and fight back against fall armyworms based on an existing blueprint.

Going forwards, CGIAR is also facilitating the availability and exchange of improved varieties of seed for higher production and enhanced food security for different national contexts through the Seeds Without Borders Initiative. This work will accelerate the sharing of seeds between similar agroecologies throughout South Asia to increase farmers’ access to much-needed improved varieties.

CGIAR has significant experience in bringing innovations and solutions to scale in a range of different agroecologies and environments. For example, our years of work in the mountainous regions of Central and West Asia, North Africa, and transboundary regions like the Hindu Kush Himalayas offer learnings to support the development of agriculture in the mountainous zones of South Asia.

Read more: Transformative adaptation: Ways to improve India’s long-term food security

Secondly, national research institutes can also take advantage of more thorough systems-based research that better addresses trade-offs and overlaps across food, land and water systems.

CGIAR’s climate-smart villages, such as those in Punjab-Haryana, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, and Karnataka states in India, offer an early model for more integrated, systems-based research that tests a range of innovations addressing weather, water, crop, environment, and market factors.

These projects allow researchers and community members to test multiple solutions in parallel to better understand and navigate trade-offs for different aspects of food systems transformation while avoiding the dangers of maladaptation. As a result, farmers in these villages were able to adopt complementary tools and techniques such as nutrient management and no-till farming, which increased rice and wheat yields in Haryana by up 60% and reduced emissions by 88%.

Image shows a tractor on a farm
Yatin Kumar, farmer and solar power water seller in India. Photo by C. de Bode/CGIAR

Sustainable agro-ecologies for building climate resilience

Building on this rich volume of research, CGIAR’s Regional Integrated Initiative, Transforming Agrifood Systems in South Asia (TAFSSA), combines efforts in South Asia to achieve more productive and environmentally sound agrifood systems that also support equitable access to sustainable, healthy diets.

TAFSSA focuses on improving the ways in which existing research is shared across the region while also aiming to build the resilience of farmers and markets and increase the diversity of production to include more nutritious foods. It also seeks to tackle critical gender and social inclusion challenges that may have been neglected by more traditional agricultural research processes.

In doing so, this initiative supports efforts to build the equitable food systems transformation required in the face of pressing climate change concerns while developing a more holistic research approach that accounts for the full scale of the food system.

Finally, a reformed CGIAR offers greater convening power to build more effective networks and partnerships to face future challenges.

Bangladesh, for example, has made a national commitment to food systems transformation and is already developing more heat-resistant varieties of staple crops like wheat and rice, which can directly respond to increasingly higher temperatures.

Read more: Equitable benefit sharing of digitised genetic information to span across discussions at COP15

Subcontinental cooperation is essential

However, governments alone have limited capacity to reach the necessary scale throughout the value chain, which includes seed companies and distributors, extension services and farmer groups. At a multi-stakeholder event in July 2022, CGIAR convened a meeting among government and civil society partners to discuss joint actions toward more concerted food system transformation in the country.

As a single, streamlined entity, CGIAR is better placed to work with partners across multiple crops and regions and is now convening discussions with 11 countries across Southeast Asia to develop a shared agricultural strategy. In the face of rising climate challenges, South Asia can now also take advantage of this convening power to build stronger and more resilient food systems throughout the region. As in Southeast Asia and Africa, this is a means to access upstream capacity sharing, quicker innovation cycles and greater technology scaling to benefit researchers, entrepreneurs and farmers across the sector.

While our early history focused on providing technical support, research and innovations to meet the most urgent needs at that time, CGIAR’s transition is now focused on how we can best serve countries in accessing the best knowledge and solutions from across the globe that they need to meet the increasingly complex challenge of transforming food systems at scale in a climate crisis.

Image shows an aerial shot of people handling crop plants
Developing more heat-resistant varieties of staple crops like wheat and rice, which can directly respond to increasingly higher temperatures, will be crucial. Photo by C. de Bode/CGIAR

Until now, much of CGIAR’s work in convening stakeholders, scaling systems-based research, and adapting technologies for local challenges, has been largely informal and ad hoc focused on specific commodities or agricultural verticals.

Part of our evolving relationship with national research institutes is establishing an ongoing dialogue to ensure that CGIAR’s science and research are systematic, comprehensive and demand-led, guided by the priorities of its country partners and their specific contexts.

As the region most affected by climate-related disasters, South Asia’s food systems are a critical frontier, and in their new form, CGIAR stands ready to unlock the full force of its science and innovation to strengthen the subcontinent’s resilience.

Temina Lalani-Shariff is the Regional Director of South Asia at CGIAR


Banner image: Yatin Kumar, a farmer and solar power water seller, preparing lunch. Photo by C. de Bode/CGIAR

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