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Innovation in Food Systems and Farming – a Story of the First Bellagio Center Convening

Can meetings change the world? Fifty years ago, a series of meetings convened at The Bellagio Center in Lake Como, Italy, set out to solve the world’s growing food crisis, in the belief that scientists working on agricultural innovation and development organizations working on the hunger frontlines, along with governments and foundations, could come together to propose a more sustainable path forward. These discussions ultimately set in motion the creation of what is now the world’s largest agricultural research network, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).

CGIAR’s centers of innovation have developed and implemented dozens of groundbreaking innovations, including the International Rice Research Institute’s (IRRI) high-yielding rice variety that sparked the Green Revolution in Asia.

CGIAR’s research centers comprise a robust global infrastructure that builds local technical capacity and helps countries become more food secure.

The Rockefeller Archive Center—whose extensive archival records include documentation of the scientific and institutional investments that led to and sustained the CGIAR, including the records of the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations—tapped its extensive network to bring together an unprecedented group of experts, including agricultural scientists, policymakers, funders, technology entrepreneurs, academics, government advisors and diplomats, leaders and founders of several CGIAR institutes, a World Food Prize Laureate, and a former Rockefeller Foundation president. And in contrast to the meetings in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the participants represented a diversity of geographic affiliation, ethnicity, and gender that is critically important to understanding and shaping food systems policy in the 21st century.

One of many such discussions touched on the work of tech-for-good venture Digital Green, which uses data analytics and other innovations to boost agricultural productivity and nutrition for millions of farmers across 17,000 villages across Africa and South Asia. Digital Green partners with grassroots organizations to explore community-level needs and aspirations to ensure that its digital tools are fit for purpose and locally appropriate. Participants noted that local knowledge and indigenous stakeholder input are as relevant to the development of ‘physical’ agricultural technologies, such as fortified seeds, as they are to Digital Green’s work on data analytics and digital networks.

Other significant findings and recommendations drawn from the proceedings focused on recognizing and accounting for evolving roles and capacities in countries where CGIAR institutes exist especially in developing contexts. For example, opportunities for some countries to step into combined donor-beneficiary stakeholder roles, for more tailored support to research institutions with varied research capacities, and for a sharper focus on supporting localized advocacy at the national level. Participants also identified key areas where CGIAR’s existing evaluative standards may need to evolve, particularly when assessing impact on climate, environmental health, biodiversity, and social justice issues.

These and other outcomes from the meeting are being synthesized and amplified to a wide range of key stakeholder audiences, including in an op-ed in the Washington Post and in forthcoming articles and books. In addition, IRRI and the Rockefeller Archive Center are exploring ways to safeguard and make accessible IRRI’s substantial institutional records. And the RAC will designate a cluster of awards focused on agricultural development and food systems, particularly on topics related to the CGIAR, as a part of its competitive annual research stipend program.

CGIAR’s original mission—to end hunger—has grown to encompass transforming the world’s food, land, and water systems in the context of a climate crisis.

Meeting the dual challenges of the escalating climate and biodiversity crises will require more multidisciplinary research than ever before, as well as an organizational model that reimagines how partnerships, knowledge, assets, and CGIAR’s global presence can be leveraged for maximum impact.

The One CGIAR reform is a response to these challenges: a multi-faceted organizational reform that aims to boost the speed and impact of efforts to increase global food security; leverage scientific expertise to deliver innovations in genetics, aquaculture, biodiversity, and nutrition; expand new work on market dynamics and support for micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises; and strengthen the social justice components of food security, including pro-poor policies, gender equity, and environmental and climate justice.

Participants reflected on the fact that the need for a renewed CGIAR mission and the need for governance reform arose simultaneously, presenting a historic opportunity to link critical learnings to action strategies that promote more inclusive capacity building across the board, including in the scientific, environmental, social justice, and governance realms. As one participant succinctly noted, “there are two types of hunger: the hunger for food and the hunger for social justice. The call of the 21st century is to address both, to unify the campaign.”

So yes, meetings can and do change the world: the outcomes from this gathering will endeavor to help shape the development of sustainable and resilient food, land, and water systems that enable good health, improved livelihoods, and greater social equality for people and the planet.

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