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‘Livestock is the Cinderella of agricultural development’–An interview with Jimmy Smith

Jimmy Smith interview on Syngenta Foundation website

A lengthy interview with ILRI’s new director general Jimmy Smith is the leading post on the home page of the Syngenta Foundation website in Nov 2011 (image credit: Syngenta Foundation; credit for photo of Jimmy Smith: ILRI/Apollo Habtamu).

‘Jimmy Smith is the new Director General of [the International Livestock Research Institute] in Nairobi. He recently talked to the Syngenta Foundation about smallholders, livestock research and animal diseases. A further topic was BecA, the biosciences center that the Foundation supports at ILRI.

Syngenta Foundation
‘How do you view the global importance of livestock?

Jimmy Smith
‘The world is at an interesting stage with regard to food and nutritional security! There is much concern about how farmers can feed two billion more people in 2050. And unfortunately we’re not starting from zero. We already have a billion who are hungry and poor. So we’re really talking about nourishing three billion more people. Livestock plays a very important role. It is also a major economic factor: globally, animal agriculture accounts for 40% of farm GDP. Over a billion people depend on livestock, directly or indirectly, for their livelihoods.

‘What do you see as the current great strengths of the International Livestock Research Institute?
‘ILRI has a huge capacity to help. We have been working to understand the circumstances in which people who live in poverty exist, trying to diagnose what will help them to emerge from poverty, including policy and technology. We have a strong cadre of scientists with a very important agenda. I hope ILRI will make a strong contribution to global food security. We’ve done so in the past, and will continue to do so.

‘What have been the key changes since you last worked there?
‘Just over ten years ago, when I was at ILRI, we were struggling to get anyone interested in agriculture. For most politicians, food came from supermarkets. The industrialized countries were awash with milk and butter. There were good reserves of rice and other food commodities. For many decision-makers, the battle to feed the world “had already been won”. So investments in agriculture plummeted—from 15% of overseas development assistance to 2%. But nowadays even the G8 talks about the importance of ag and feeding the world.

‘In terms of organizational changes since I left, ILRI has merged two centers and research cultures into a cohesive force. (The merger of the International Livestock Centre for Africa, ILCA, and the International Laboratory for Animal Diseases, ILRAD, was then in its infancy; it is now grown up). ILRI’s predecessors were essentially based in Africa, but it is a now much more of a global entity. . . .

‘Your declared commitment is “to take ILRI to even higher heights”. What is your vision for the organization, and how do you intend to get there?
‘That’s a tough question. We have the mandate to help feed the world adequately—which means not only sufficient quantities, but also sufficient nutritional quality and diversity of foods. We have to address this mandate as rapidly as possible. Clearly we need to continue our very strong research efforts.

‘But we must also link our research better to development, and translate our findings into real outcomes and impacts. We need to form stronger partnerships with development organizations. That is something the whole CGIAR could do much better over the next 5–10 years.

‘Unfortunately, just as we’ve finally got people’s attention for agriculture, there is a huge economic downturn in the West. Countries are concerned about their own budgets. So we’re going to have to work doubly hard to get our agenda funded. We need to become very effective communicators about what we’re doing, how we’re doing it, what we can deliver and when. We need to communicate this not only at our scientific meetings but wherever we can get global attention. We have to become stronger ambassadors for what we do.

‘But at the bottom of it all is the science. We must be doing good science to deal with the very tough problems that the poor face in the developing world. It’s relatively easy to promote livestock development in an industrial setting. But to make it happen among small farmers is a very difficult challenge.

‘What is the importance to ILRI of its “Hosted Initiatives” such as [Biosciences eastern and central Africa, BecA]?
‘At its creation, ILRI had more bioscience facilities than any other center in Africa. The vision then was that biotech would become increasingly important in developing world agriculture. For instance, if we could breed a corn variety with good yields but only needing as little water as sorghum, then we would be taking a big step forward. This facility was seen as responding to some of the future needs of Africa and giving all Africans access to the platform. We’re working to attain that vision. . . .

‘ILRI’s focus is on livestock; BecA does much broader research. How do you see BecA’s work supporting the ILRI mandate?
‘We call ILRI a “livestock center”, but 50% or more of the world’s meat and milk comes from mixed crop livestock systems. Livestock and crop farming go hand in hand. In poor countries, livestock get most of their feed from left-over crops, and smallholders get much of their fertilizer from livestock. So, we’re a livestock center, but we know a lot about crops as well. So there is a closer fit with BecA than many people think.

‘BecA is dedicated to helping African agriculture with biosciences. I see BecA both as a platform for the outside, but also as one which helps drive ILRI science on the inside. If we’re talking about sequencing genomes, for example, the methodologies for crops and animals are quite similar. With good scientists working together on very broad, important challenges, we expect a lot of cross-fertilization. . . .

‘Among the first people you met after your appointment were Kenyan public sector representatives. Which topics in agriculture particularly interest them today?
‘Some of the discussion revolved around the drought in this region. But we also talked about how to elevate the visibility of livestock as a public topic. Livestock really is the Cinderella of agricultural development. In Kenya, livestock is an important part of the economy, not only in the pastoral areas but also in the highlands. Smallholder dairy farming has been a recent success story here. So our question was: how can we do more of this? . . .

‘Jimmy Smith grew up on a farm in his native Guyana, and also holds Canadian nationality. He received his PhD in Animal Sciences from the University of Illinois. From 1991-2001, Smith served at ILRI and its predecessor, the International Livestock Centre for Africa. As regional representative for West Africa, he directed research programs and built partnerships promoting smallholder livelihoods through animal agriculture. He also led an association of CGIAR centers working on the crop-livestock interface.

‘In his spare time, Jimmy Smith plays golf and listens to music. Asked about his favorite (livestock-based) food, he says: “In Guyana, with its many people of Indian origin, I became very fond of curries. In Canada, there is nothing as refreshing as the first BBQ of spring!”’

Read the full interview at the Syngenta Foundation website: Livestock is the Cinderella of agricultural development, 14 Nov 2011.

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