“We can help the world make up ground on the SDGs”

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The global public research organization CGIAR is completely reforming the way in which it works. ‘One CGIAR’ is intended to bring many advantages. But what does this all mean in practice – for employees, beneficiaries, and partners? We asked Kundhavi Kadiresan, CGIAR’s Managing Director of Global Engagement and Innovation. 

Kundhavi was kind enough to give us so much of her time that we’ve divided the interview in two. This is the first section; the second is available here. You'll find more about her in person further down this page. 

Syngenta Foundation: What do you see as the most imminent challenges in agriculture?
Kundhavi Kadiresan: Agriculture is both a driver and a victim of climate change and biodiversity loss, so those are key issues. Feeding the world is essential, but it has to be done in a way that keeps all people and the planet healthy. To achieve that, while also contending with new and extreme climatic conditions, food systems urgently need to transform. 

What will be the biggest differences between the new ‘One CGIAR’ and the old CGIAR?
Before talking about differences, it’s worth reflecting on CGIAR’s expertise. Few organizations can claim such breadth and depth. We have 10,000 staff in more than 100 countries. They include agricultural scientists, agronomists, policymakers, and experts on climate change, fisheries, livestock, forests, water, gender, and nutrition. They are carrying out cutting-edge research to inform policies at the highest level.

But you are clearly looking to get even better? 
Yes. ‘One CGIAR’ is a dynamic reformulation of CGIAR’s partnerships, knowledge, assets, and global presence. Our aim is to transform the institution to be better integrated and better positioned to tackle interconnected global challenges. This means, for example, unifying the governance and management of our global network of Research Centers. It also requires delivering more stable and longer-term funding for vital agricultural research. We are now shifting to a multi-year funding program. We are seeking to double overall funding. That will enable us to maximize our impact and offer even greater returns on investment.

In 2020, CGIAR launched a ten-year Research and Innovation Strategy. What does this set out to do? 
The new strategy is part of our evolution towards a more integrated and long-term way of working. It builds on 50 years of collaboration with partners to scale up solutions that deliver impact. Those solutions continue to support low-income producers and consumers and lift hundreds of millions of people out of hunger and poverty. So far, we have achieved a ten-fold return on investment – or put another way, a benefit-cost ratio of 10:1. With a new set of research initiatives, co-developed with partners and funders, we are ensuring that CGIAR remains highly able to address global challenges.

The strategy’s three Action Areas focus on systems transformation, resilient agrifood systems, and genetic innovations. We’re addressing these through integrated technological and institutional innovations, capacity development, and policy engagement. By doubling investment and channeling it into these areas, we believe that CGIAR can help the world make up ground towards delivering the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. That effort includes contributing to ending hunger, lifting at least 500 million people out of extreme poverty, and turning agriculture and forest systems into a net carbon sink.

CGIAR’s strategy to 2030 includes developing “a new research modality”. What will that mean in practice? 
We’re putting a clear focus on impact. This is structured around five Impact Areas: nutrition, poverty, gender, climate, and environment. A primary vehicle for delivering research and innovation here will be large CGIAR Initiatives. We unveiled these during the UN Food Systems Pre-Summit in July. Each of the initiatives will seek to generate impacts across all five Impact Areas, drawing on resources from across CGIAR. The Initiatives will be delivered through three-year investment plans for each Action Area.

To deliver impact at scale, we recognize that solutions need to come from coordinated action across the private, public, and civil society spheres. CGIAR is reformulating its partnership model to better respond to partners’ needs, manage trade-offs, and accelerate specific opportunities for change. The demands of regions, countries, and landscapes will help shape those partnerships with governments, NARS, IFIs, RBAs, the private sector, CSOs, and communities*.

* The abbreviations stand for National Agricultural Research Systems (NARS), International Finance Institutions (IFIs), Rome-based Agencies (RBAs), and Civil Society Organizations (CSOs). 

Part 2 of this interview will appear on our news page shortly. 

Kundhavi Kadiresan in person

What brought you from FAO to CGIAR?  
Throughout my career, I’ve worked with prominent global organizations that unite policy, knowledge, and funding, from the World Bank to the FAO, one of the oldest UN agencies. CGIAR is the world’s largest publicly-funded agricultural research network, and one I knew well from my earlier roles. It is unique for its research and innovation, two essential elements for addressing the enormous, complex, and interconnected challenges every country is facing. Being involved in CGIAR’s reform agenda to become ‘One CGIAR’ is a great opportunity to make a difference. It is exciting and challenging to help the organization move away from siloed science (targeting specific crops, forests, fish, or livestock) towards systems-level research. The issues of climate change, biodiversity, and food and nutrition security are all interlinked; our work needs to be so as well. 

What is your advice to young women contemplating a career in your field?
Whatever your background, global development is a hugely important sector. The climate crisis is at the forefront of threats to providing good nutrition for all while staying within environmental limits. We cannot slow down climate change without transforming the way we produce, consume, and dispose of food. We cannot end global hunger without more sustainable and resilient environmental management. And as I say in the main interview: The pandemic has reaffirmed the crucial role of science in tackling the world’s greatest challenges.

CGIAR is acutely aware of the need for more women and girls to enter into agricultural science and research. We also want our innovations, policies, and technologies to benefit female farmers, fishers, herders, and workers across the food value chain. Our GENDER Platform addresses an important research gap: the specific barriers women face in relation to food, nutrition, and economic security. The entire world stands to benefit from women’s contributions at every level.

Young women can look up to female leaders in this field. They include Shakuntala Thilsted, the 2021 World Food Prize (WFP) Laureate. She continues to produce groundbreaking research, critical insights and landmark innovations for holistic, nutrition-sensitive approaches to aquaculture and food systems. Two of many other examples are Jan Lowe and Maria Andrade, WFP Laureates in 2016. Their pioneering work to breed and disseminate orange-fleshed sweet potato built a bridge from agriculture to nutrition and health. They helped to forge a new alliance among agronomists, plant breeders, nutritionists and public health experts. That changed the way the whole international development community works.

You need to have passion, compassion, and hard work to pursue a career in science-based development. My advice would be to find the courage to try out new ideas and new roles, and not to get stuck in one job. The lessons you learn and the experiences you have can contribute wherever you go next.