March 12, 2020 | By Hale Tufan

Field Notes - The Beauty of the Bottom Up: Making Crop Improvement Work for National Programs

The Chicago Council is pleased to launch a new blog series, “Breaking Ground,” to explore how food systems innovation and agricultural research and development can empower farmers and feed the world.A special subsection of our series, “Field Notes,” features voices from Feed the Future Innovation Labs and CGIAR centers

As you read this, 800 million of your fellow humans are struggling to obtain enough food to get through the day. Food security is one of the grand challenges facing our world, and donors know this: each year they spend billions of dollars on agricultural research initiatives in developing countries in the fight to end hunger. Yet do these well-meaning efforts have the unintended consequence of imposing solutions from the top down?

It is no secret that agricultural research for development has historically operated in this way. International experts develop and implement ideas, technologies and products for people and places they often don’t have deep knowledge or understanding of, without enough contribution from local actors at the inception stages. Donors may make decisions based on their goals and missions, that may not always reflect local needs. National partners often implement the crop improvement visions developed thousands of miles away. The result? National agricultural research systems are overwhelmed with an influx of experts, ideas, projects and directives, with little breathing room to assess possibilities and offer meaningful input about what they really need to drive change in their countries.

Are we limiting our effectiveness by not taking enough time to stop, listen and give these programs more space to set their own priorities?

National Agricultural Research Institutes (NARIs) play a central role in research and development of agricultural products that would help their countries attain food security. At NARIs around the globe, plant breeders are working to optimize crop varieties that will provide higher yields for men and women farmers, contain more nutrients, adapt to a chaotic climate, taste better, and possess countless other desirable traits demanded by the people in their communities. NARIs sit at the middle of the U.S. Government Global Food Security Strategy’s core goals, which are to boost economic growth, promote resilience and improve human nutrition. But more often than not, NARIs lack the agency to map out their long-term visions, despite generous support from donors.

This is problematic, because we know that change is more sustainable when it comes from within. Transformative solutions start with the people most committed to and invested in growing the very food they need for food security: the farmers, processors and consumers in the countries where we work. Some of these solutions could be very simple and contextual, emerging from thoughtful research conducted by NARI research teams. Yet, caught up in the latest science, sexy technology and voices of prominent experts, these ideas may never see the light of day.

At the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Crop Improvement, we want to seed a change that makes the science work for NARIs, and not the NARIs work for science. We are committed to empowering researchers at the NARIs where they work to come together to find sustainable solutions to the problems they face. Based in Cornell’s Department of Global Development, the project is a 5-year, $25 million USAID investment supporting crop improvement programs in East and West Africa, South Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean as we work together to harness the leading science, technology and innovation to make healthy food more accessible, reliable, and responsive to the needs and preferences of target countries. As scientists, we believe we must work from the ground up – from the soil to the food on the table and from local breeders to the entire population.  

Our goal is to support NARIs in developing and implementing localized crop improvement tools, technologies and methods. First, we are using our technical expertise to curate and discover tools, technologies and methods that hold promise to improve effectiveness of crop improvement for NARIs. Second, we are opening funding calls for NARIs to work with us to co-create and adapt these tools to make them work for their visions and goals. Last but not least, we are working with NARIs to redefine impact so that it does not solely mean productivity increases, but rather a positive change for men, women, youth and children, and meaningful improvements in nutrition and resilience.

We are choosing to open our funding opportunities in areas where Feed the Future works. We don’t want to cherry pick who will benefit from this Innovation Lab. We are only accepting applications led by NARIs and we are structuring a co-creation process to support all potential applicants to put forward the best possible proposal. In doing so, we hope to position NARIs to be in the driving seat for grants that will help them fulfill their own vision. We are really looking forward to putting out the call in Spring 2020, as there are so many NARIs that we would be honored to work with.

We can’t talk about food without talking about the social, economic and environmental factors that heavily influence food security. At the Innovation Lab, we are committed to gender equality, youth, nutrition and inclusion. We will award projects that seek to address gender- and youth-based constraints through crop improvement, prioritize activities that show potential for economic inclusion for women and youth, and include traits to address malnutrition and increase resilience. To ensure follow through, we are requiring team members to have relevant gender expertise, and we are allocating funding for cross-cutting research.

We are committed to a long-term vision that allows NARIs to thrive. We work with NARIs not only on technical areas, but also on operational (financial management and monitoring and evaluation) and policy (enabling environment). We build training opportunities for early-career researchers so that they can earn plant breeding degrees at partner institutions while getting specialized training in leadership development and entrepreneurship. Lastly, we leverage existing curricula with Makerere University in Uganda and the Gender-responsive Researchers Equipped for Agricultural Transformation (GREAT) to ensure that NARIs efforts prioritize gender equality, youth involvement and diversity.

Eyes wide open to the challenges and pitfalls that await us, we remain optimistic in this endeavor.

Stay up to date as we launch our vision at and walk hand-in-hand with our national partners in the journey to self-reliance.

The Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Crop Improvement collaborates with local scientists around the globe to develop resilient crop varieties preferred by the farmers and people in the countries we support. Our mission is to end hunger and build together a more prosperous world. We support scientists where they are to produce more healthful food that can withstand growing pressures from disease, pests and climate change. Our Innovation Lab harnesses the leading science, technology and innovation to breed crops that are more accessible, reliable, and responsive to the needs and preferences of everyone around the globe.


Read our previous posts in the Breaking Ground series:

Field Notes - Resilience+: How & Why Risk Management Innovations Reduce Poverty and Spur Agricultural Growth

Guest Commentary - A European perspective on the journey to a regenerative agriculture system…

Field Notes - Brokering Research Crucial for Climate-Proofing Drylands

Field Notes - Food Safety Research is Foundational to Food Security

Field Notes - Reducing Post-Harvest Losses in Nigeria's Aquaculture Sector Contributes to Sustainable Development

Guest Commentary - The Critical Role of Women in Transforming the Food System

Guest Commentary - Adopting Conserving Agricultural Practices: A Farmer's Perspective

Guest Commentary - Investing in Innovation: Food, Agriculture and Forestry in Southeast Asia

Field Notes - To Meat or Not to Meat: Balancing Global Viewpoints in Battles over Food

Field Notes - Boosting Nutrition and Sustainability through Superfoods in Local Food Systems

Guest Commentary - Envisioning the Future of Food in Times of Change

Field Notes: Biocontrol of the Fall Armyworm - Long-term Resilience for Small-scalle Farmers


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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| By Roger Thurow

Our New Gordian Knot

Fifty years ago Dr. Norman Borlaug recieved the Nobel Peace Prize for cutting the "Goridan knot" of population and food production. Now the planet faces another seemingly intractable problem: how to nourish the planet while preserving the planet.