Rikin: We were in the room at the Bellagio Center that overlooked Lake Cuomo—it was a beautiful setting. And Selcuk started by providing a reflection of the history of CGIAR—its inception and its evolution over the last 50 years. And it was really inspiring for me. I could see the parallels between what CGIAR has been doing, more on the upstream research of crop breeding and agronomic practice development, with what we are trying to do around digital tools and data that can enable and power these small scale farmers. And in some ways data ends up being a really critical fulcrum, right?
Selcuk: To see it used in the fashion that is being used by Digital Green, being able to reach two and a half million people, that’s really staggering. Because there are critics of CGIAR who claim, “Well, you came up with new varieties of wheat and rice, but at the same time they destroyed the environment.” Now, I think if CGIAR had been much more cognizant, with listening technologies, it would have been different.
Rikin: Totally agree. And I think there’s so many parallels between what CGIAR has worked on when it comes to physical, agricultural technology development—like improved seeds, which have contributed to significant gains in productivity around the world but which also, as you say, may have had some intervening effects too. The same is true when it comes to digital technologies.
Selcuk: I was just thinking today about some technologies that CGIAR comes up with—for example, fortifying crops by adding vitamin A, zinc, etc. That’s not because there’s demand coming from farmers. People like the rice that they’re eating, you know? It’s like a supply trying to create a demand for itself. How can that be made acceptable? How will a farmer react to something coming from the top-down like golden rice, or some other type of wheat, or maize?
Rikin: Did all farmers want to have access to WhatsApp five years ago? Probably not, but mobile phones and data connectivity expanded, and farmers downloaded WhatsApp, and they’ve connected with each other. It’s similar for the development of new varieties of biofortified rice and the like. I’d say that what’s important is to think how we make sure that these solutions are not just being developed in isolation, and that there’s a process of testing, and feedback being gathered, and input being provided by the farmers. That’s what data and digital tools can enable, efficiently, at scale. It used to be that you had to just run a couple of on-farm trials on a research station, and you might be able to produce a variety that could scale globally, but now—especially with climate change—we need to be a lot more nuanced, and also really understand the sociocultural aspirations of these communities.
Selcuk: That’s very true. But I was struck, Rikin, by all the reforms taking place in CGIAR at the moment. How did you feel about where CGIAR is headed?
Rikin: CGIAR seems to be trying to take more of a systems approach to agriculture—which is a really positive thing, because farming is done in a system. I think the challenge is in how much of this is centralized in CGIAR, versus how much of it is localized into the national systems that have been the hallmark of CGIAR’s work. They’ve really spurred the development of these agricultural research centers in India, in Africa, and in so many other parts of the world. How does CGIAR continue to build that capacity, while also trying to take this newer systems view?
Selcuk: I agree. We have 15 centers, with 15 center directors, and for years many developing countries have been saying, “Can’t you just organize yourself so that we have only one voice coming from CGIAR rather than 15 different voices?” I think that integration effort is laudable, but at the same time I also feel that there’s resistance coming from the decentralized nature of the system. The centers have been autonomous for so many years that they really don’t want to be ordered what to do.
Rikin: I think what they’ve mostly been focused on so far has been the internal dynamics around CGIAR and the individual centers, but then there’s also the rest of the world—national centers, the AgTech landscape, and organizations like ourselves. How do those go hand-in-hand with what CGIAR is trying to bring together?
Selcuk: Yeah. They seem to want to get the house in order first, before trying to tackle how the house interacts with others. Perhaps it would be clearer if they had a clear research agenda, but we heard at the meeting that there are something like 33 projects—that seems to be far too many for people to really rally around. I left the meeting thinking that there’s a lot of things to be done. This may not be the end of the reform processes in CGIAR, but, nevertheless, another side of me thinks, “Well, this is a system that has survived for 50 years through this reform or that reform, and this crisis and that crisis. It will overcome this one too.”
Rikin: I’ve also been in touch with folks at CGIAR who are working on its digital strategy to see how they can think about linking this upstream work with the downstream better, and I’ve been in touch with some of the others who were participating in the Bellagio conference to see if there might be some tangible joint efforts that we could do to show how it’s actually possible to bring these physical and digital technology worlds closer together.
Selcuk: One of the things that came up for me is that I had written a book about the first 40 years of CGIAR, but after Bellagio I thought, “Well, maybe it might be useful to update that and and bring it to 50,” because there are so many new issues. That was one of the conclusions I reached—and also to learn more about Rikin’s work. My son and grandchildren live in San Francisco, so next time I visit I’ll go knock on Rikin’s door.
Rikin: And I look forward to seeing you, and your grandchildren as well.
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