The pleasures and pains of choosing one idea that is re-imagining agriculture in the Senegal Basin


    It’s not just those who work in agriculture, like me, who recognise the vital role that scientific research will play in tackling one of the foremost challenges of our time: how to feed a growing population in a way that puts the farmer first while using fewer resources to ensure that the planet can sustain us.

    When I was asked for the second time to be one of the judges of Olam’s Prize for Innovation in Food Security, I was once again humbled by the incredible responsibility bestowed upon me and my fellow judges (Guido Gryseels, Prof Andre Charrier, Prof Berhanu Abegaz). One of the many entries we received could have a momentous impact on the future of food as we know it.

    The process of picking our winner was far from an easy one. As the panel read through entry after entry, the variety and ingenuity of topics was awe inspiring from seed genetics and plant psychology to modern irrigation and mechanisation. Some detailed improvements on simple farming techniques while others included state-of-the-art digital technology that could represent the biggest advancements in ag tech in decades. But we had to ask ourselves, how would this research most benefit today’s agricultural dynamics?

    As you can imagine, tensions ran pretty high amongst the judges. A group of people who are all deeply passionate about the interconnected and complex issues in our agricultural system, locked in a room together and asked to pick only one potentially revolutionary idea.

    My personal approach to the decision process was to think of how one of these research projects could be of immediate benefit to Africa. I have worked on the continent for 7 years and was on the lookout for an innovation that could tackle core issues like poverty and famine, while also keeping sustainability in mind. Other judges had different priorities based on their respective expertise including a deep focus on science or the environment  (ranging from water conservation to new sources of energy).

    As crunch time loomed, we had to narrow down the criteria to three specific areas: the level of innovation of the research, its future impact on food production and its potential scalability. While there were many strong candidates genetic scientist Dr Bassi and his team at ICARDA impressed us all across every front with their game-changing discovery. ‘Heat tolerant’ durum wheat (used to make couscous and pasta) that can not only withstand temperatures of up to 40 degrees Celsius but also generate an extra USD$210m in additional income for farmers in the Senegal Basin and produce 600,000 tonnes of new food – that’s 175 servings of pasta per person per year in the region! And its potential doesn’t stop there. In a world of rising temperatures, Dr Bassi’s research could be adapted for regions beyond Africa.

    There’s no doubt that being on the judging panel of the Olam Prize for Innovation in Food Security was both inspiring and educational. And more importantly, it really does show the important role research has to play in re-imagining global agriculture so it works better, for everyone.

    The 2017 Olam Prize Winner for Innovation in Food Security will be featured on a panel at the 8th International BCFN Forum on Food and Nutrition on the 4th of December in Milan, Italy. The Prize is run in partnership with the international scientific organisation, Agropolis Fondation and the winner receives an unrestricted US$50,000 grant for the scaling up of research. Watch an animation explaining the 2017 winner’s research.

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