Ending hunger? "The funding gap isn’t huge."

Recent News

Ruben G. Echeverría has worked on food, agriculture, and rural development for 40 years. He led CIAT for a decade and recently chaired the Global Commission on Sustainable Agricultural Intensification, CoSAI*. Ruben is now taking up a new challenge as Senior Advisor, Agricultural Development at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. We quizzed him on a range of matching topics! 

Syngenta Foundation: You recently read our strategy paper on climate-smart, resilient agriculture (CSRA). What were your first thoughts? 
Ruben G. Echeverría: You describe the challenges and way forward extremely well. Now comes the hard part: implementation! 

Where do you see the biggest opportunities to invest in CSRA? Is it in de-risking finance, e.g. via ADAPTA.EARTH? Or more in developing new inputs, scaling particular existing work, or something else?
Let me give you my own answer, rather than try to speak for a particular organization. I’m drawing here on two personal experiences. One was with CCAFS, the CGIAR research program on climate change, agriculture and food security. More recently, *CoSAI - the global commission that I chair - has generated important evidence.

I’ll talk more about CoSAI in a moment and turn first to CCAFS. The program is now ending after a great decade. The research has included de-risking finance and scaling up good practices for adaptation to climate change. One key focus has been on securing resilient livelihoods and value chains through early warning systems and adaptive safety nets. CCAFS also helped develop improved seed varieties more tolerant to drought and heat. Together with good agronomic practices, these elements enable the sustainable intensification of farming systems. 

How can international donors and implementers coordinate their activities more to drive transformational change? 
I’m a pragmatic optimist! Many international organizations are now getting behind a coherent menu of actions on climate-smart agriculture. The most recent examples come from UNFSS and COP26. There is a common set of principles, initiatives and recommendations that – if implemented – would drive transformational change. Ideally, funders and implementers of much-needed food systems transformations would agree on a small set of actions for the medium-term. These naturally need to take account of the widely varying situations in the ‘Global South’: key agreed actions must be adapted to local conditions. 

A good example of where donors and implementers can coordinate activities is the recently reformed One CGIAR. Here a more harmonized pool of funding can ensure that key ag research for development initiatives gets implemented. The recently agreed CGIAR strategy focuses precisely on transforming food, land, and water systems in a climate crisis. That aligns well with demands from international agencies, civil society, and governments in the Global South.

What could be a role here for the Syngenta Foundation?
You have a relatively small budget, but a great strategy and strong links with the private sector. So perhaps you could take a bit more risk than others? The Foundation could pioneer activities that entrepreneurs, governments, Development Banks, and others then scale up. 

Back to CoSAI, which you chaired. What are its most important findings? 
The Commission highlighted the importance of investment in innovation for sustainable agricultural intensification. We used a broad definition of that ‘innovation’: It includes institutional and policy changes as well as technology. CoSAI pointed out that very little investment in sustainable intensification is allocated to environmental and social issues. But we also showed that the funding gap to reach key SDG targets is not too large. The Commission additionally made a good start at identifying principles and metrics to monitor progress, and at key financial mechanisms and approaches to investing. 

The Syngenta Foundation strategy emphasizes that development finance has a clear role to play in delivering impact…
… by translating research outputs into development outcomes. Absolutely! CoSAI enables a much better understanding of the investment landscape for innovation and how changes can be made for our future food system. 

What did you find, in more detail?
At the moment, an estimated $60bn per year flows into innovation in the Global South. By far the largest investors are national governments and the private sector. CoSAI showed that only 7% of this sum explicitly targets environmental objectives. Only half of that small fraction goes to meeting social ones. It’s essential that investments get more smartly balanced, to nourish both people and the planet. 

You say the funding gap isn’t huge…
It’s not. Remember that figure of 60 billion. CoSAI commissioned a study on the investment required to achieve zero hunger, SDG2, at a planetary temperature rise below 1.5°C.  The gap is $15.2bn – less than two dollars per person worldwide. That would cover the investment in research, scaling climate-smart solutions, and improving water management. 

The challenge is a translation into action

And what happens now?
The challenge is a translation into action – as 2021 showed us all at UNFSS and COP26. CoSAI has developed three tools to support innovation investors. One is an evaluated kit of instruments that can ensure effective use and impact of innovation. The second is a list of key success factors that enable innovations to move through pathways to scale. Tool 3 is a collection of principles and metrics to guide innovation in sustainable agri-food systems. CoSAI has also done preliminary work on the evolution of Payment of Eco-systems Services into financial services in small-scale agri-food systems. 

How will you promote these so that they get adopted? 
The Commission includes key stakeholders. We expect members to continue advocating for the key recommendations in their own organizations. In addition, we have been working on handing over all the products we’ve generated to specific organizations. They can continue and improve on our findings. Furthermore, although CoSAI winds up at the end of 2021, the Secretariat continues in action until the end of March 2022. Its tasks are to make sure that all evidence gathered is fully available and to bridge to further organizations to continue the work.

You’re the first external person to be interviewed twice on our website. Which of the remarks you made seven years ago do you now see differently? 
None! I stand by all my earlier comments. Our first interview focused on the high promise of sustainable intensification in the tropics. We now have more knowledge available to make that promise a reality – the genomic and digital revolutions are two major examples. Combining those with a global focus on transforming food systems provides a much better context today than a few years ago. In addition, the private sector continues to drive at national, regional, and international levels. Together with an explosion of entrepreneurship from civil society, that gives me continued hope that my 2014 remarks are now coming to realization.

What do you do in your spare time? (Assuming you ever have any!)
Great question! I am always trying to create spare time, but I contradict myself by being as busy as ever! I had big leisure plans when I was ending my tenure as Director-General of CIAT in late 2019. But I then got into two great initiatives that I was very interested in leading. One was an FAO team in Latin America and the Caribbean developing a regional innovation framework. The second was CoSAI. Both these large activities are now ending, so I’d started to think again about things to do in my spare time. However, I am now taking up a great new challenge at the BMGF! But to answer more directly: Whenever I have some leisure time, I like to swim and take long walks.