Dr. Amit Roy
IFDC President and CEO
My passion for food issues began in 1965 when I was 18. As I arrived at the Indian Institute of Technology’s student housing, the town of Kharagpur was empty and serene. But this was misleading because India was in the midst of severe food shortages caused by a series of droughts and crop failures. Thousands left their failing farms to seek work and food in the cities. After witnessing this situation, I began to understand why food is a fundamental human right.
Continuous low agricultural productivity, coupled with crop failure, triggered India’s adoption of effective policies and improved seeds and fertilizers. In 1966, then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared the country would no longer rely on food aid. When the government purchased and distributed 47,000 tons of improved wheat seed varieties developed by the late Norman Borlaug, food production skyrocketed. This was the start of the Green Revolution, and I realized innovative agrarian tools are the weapons to winning the hunger battle.
The Green Revolution
Between the 1940s and the late 1960s, agricultural research boomed. Nobel laureate Dr. Norman Borlaug and other scientists bred high-yielding varieties of cereals and encouraged judicious use of fertilizers, pesticides and irrigation.
These agricultural technologies and practices spread across Latin America and into Asia, especially India and Pakistan. The Green Revolution’s successes are far-reaching. Cereal production in developing nations increased more than twofold from 1961 to 1985. Many believe the improved technologies helped avoid widespread famine.
After graduating from the Indian Institute of Technology in Kharagpur, I concentrated my graduate and doctoral studies on fertilizer at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
I was naturally drawn to IFDC because of its global focus on fertilizer to strengthen food production. My initial interview with IFDC’s founding managing director, Dr. Don McCune, was unforgettable. “Are you sure you want to move to a small town in Alabama?” he asked. I explained that the organization and I had a mutual goal: using research to make a difference in people’s lives.
In 1978, I began working for IFDC as a chemical engineer. During my first few years, I focused on new methods to turn phosphorus ores into affordable fertilizers accessible by smallholder farmers. I am blessed with a long and fulfilling career alongside researchers, scientists and many others who make IFDC’s efforts possible.
After nearly four decades with the organization, I still hold the same respect for our staff and mission as I did the first day I walked through the door.
Today, with fertilizer at IFDC’s core, the organization addresses the much broader context of agricultural and economic development. As our scope progressed, I learned important lessons about development from our employees, our collaborators and our beneficiaries. The bottom line: In order to be truly effective, agricultural development must be inclusive, collaborative, creative and forward-thinking.
LISTEN TO OUR BENEFICIARIES
The world’s 500 million small farms are vital in producing food for a population expected to grow to 9.6 billion by 2050. As researchers, we ask, “How can we help farmers grow more food under increasingly challenging conditions?” But we must remember these farmers have been working their land longer than we have been developing new technology. They know the solutions but often lack the necessary tools and resources.
We must ask: What can we learn from listening to the farmer?
This question was critical in the development of urea deep placement (UDP). In the 1960s, Japanese farmers saw their rice crops flourish when they formed urea fertilizer into mud balls and placed them a few centimeters below the soil surface. Our researchers utilized these farmers’ knowledge to create urea briquettes — the cornerstone of UDP technology. Now rice farmers across Africa and Asia are using UDP to increase their income by 30 percent.
Farmers are incredible entrepreneurs. They adopt new technology only if it makes economic sense. When we first introduced UDP technology to Bangladesh, it was not widely adopted. Why? Farmers accessed inexpensive fertilizers that were highly subsidized by the government. The economic benefit did not outweigh the cost. In 2007–2008, the price of fertilizers skyrocketed, forcing the government to look for technologies to produce more crops per unit of fertilizer. This would reduce the subsidy burden. So the government, with our support, promoted the technology. Farmers began adopting UDP because it was more cost-effective to utilize urea briquettes versus broadcasting fertilizers; thus, adoption rates were high.
Our work cannot be a one-way street. Farmers have immense knowledge but we must listen. Listening does not imply agreeing or implementing every solution suggested. It means hearing what lies behind the words.
UREA DEEP PLACEMENT (UDP)
UDP utilizes 1- to 3-gram briquettes of urea placed 5 to 7 centimeters below the soil surface to achieve about 15 percent higher yields with two-thirds of the fertilizer.
Having set up a healthy supply system in Bangladesh with the introduction of the IFDC-designed village-level briquetting machine, the organization spread the technology to nearly 3 million rice farmers in the country. These results are replicated with hundreds of thousands of farmers — and counting— in sub-Saharan Africa.
RESPECT ALL VIEWPOINTS
Over the last 37 years, I have realized all people are connected. Our global interdependence is unavoidable, with no space for attitudes like “not in my backyard.” The world is everybody’s backyard. The farther one travels from home, the closer one returns back home on our globe. In my childhood home, we were taught the importance of respecting all people. Growing up and throughout my career, I learned to value the “otherness of others.” By treating individuals with integrity, mutual understanding and respect, we can arrive at lasting solutions.
Our work is more successful when we collaborate across disciplines. In addition to building relationships with farmers, we must build networks: with scientists, private industries, donors — those with varying viewpoints. Appreciating others’ experiences helps us find solutions that truly benefit those we seek to help. For example, the transdisciplinary Global TraPs project brought together experts from all sides of the phosphate debate. Parties often questioned the amount of world phosphorus resources, but all discussions reverted to: How can we transition to more sustainable phosphorus use?
Phosphorus is a critical mineral for food security, but it is a finite resource. To better understand sustainable sourcing and use, IFDC and ETH Zurich launched the Global Transdisciplinary Processes for Sustainable Phosphorus Management (Global TraPs) project. The project brought together a wide range of experts to develop a holistic approach to phosphorus management. From 2011 to 2014, the team integrated real-world knowledge with academic rigor, publishing Sustainable Phosphorus Management: A Global Transdisciplinary Roadmap in 2014. The book outlines opportunities for reduced environmental impacts in phosphorus supply and use.
Collaboration at all levels can also bring about important policy changes that ultimately benefit smallholder farmers. When we implemented the Africa Fertilizer Summit in 2006, more than a thousand participants, including heads of state, agriculture ministers, corporate leaders and scientists, came together to address soil fertility and food security in Africa. I was pleased to see Summit attendees adopt the Abuja Declaration on Fertilizer for an African Green Revolution, outlining action to improve farmers’ access to much-needed agricultural supplies. Sustainable, inclusive development requires global, holistic interventions no single person or organization can address.
AFRICA FERTILIZER SUMMIT
At the Africa Fertilizer Summit, heads of state and governments called for the elimination of all fertilizer taxes and tariffs in the Abuja Declaration on Fertilizer for an African Green Revolution. The Declaration’s legacy reached to the African Union’s Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme and the recent Malabo Declaration on Accelerated Agricultural Growth and Transformation for Shared Prosperity and Improved Livelihoods.
INNOVATION IS ESSENTIAL
Innovation is more than creating new technologies. The ultimate objective is to solve problems. We innovate by adapting our skillset to different situations and improving processes across the entire agricultural value chain. Until the early 1990s, our work focused mainly on fertilizer research. But when we were tasked with ensuring fertilizer availability in Albania, we saw the country needed drastic market development, attracting the nation’s budding entrepreneurs. In a few years, 400 new agribusinesses employed 4,000 Albanians. By tailoring our expertise, we demonstrated how a strong fertilizer market anchors agricultural growth.
In late 1991, Albania was challenged to produce enough food for its population. Later that year, with funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development, IFDC began building a private sector-led agriculture system to operate in a free market environment. In 1993, IFDC helped create the country’s first dealers’ association. The Albania project is the model for other dealer development and market-building programs in Africa, Asia and other developing regions.
TRANSFERRING KNOWLEDGE EFFECTIVELY IS VITAL
“Knowing is not enough; We must apply. Willing is not enough; We must do.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Information is not useful if it simply sits in a database. We must translate our data and technology into knowledge that our beneficiaries can use. By utilizing effective information delivery systems, we reach people with knowledge tailored to their specific situations. Modern information and communication technology, including mobile applications, comprises useful instruments to move information into farmers’ hands. In Africa, IFDC projects demonstrate new agricultural techniques to farmers in rural villages via mobile cinema.
Through video, people see new technologies with their own eyes, implemented by people in their own region.
Knowledge delivery needs a champion. When we first began to promote UDP in Bangladesh, our resident representative in the country traveled from village to village, encouraging farmers to use the technology. Adoption was slow at first, but the staffer cleverly began to recruit local imams to publicize it. Once imams began championing the benefits of UDP in their sermons, adoption rates rose dramatically. I have always admired our experts’ ability to deliver information in resourceful, inventive methods.
Innovative fertilizers are critical to help feed the world’s growing population. The Virtual Fertilizer Research Center (VFRC), a semi-autonomous entity of IFDC, fosters the creation of the next generation of fertilizers and production technologies. The VFRC comprises the work of multiple research institutions cooperating to advance a unified research agenda.
From technology transfer to inclusive solutions and innovation, effective development requires that we value all individuals. Our work isn’t about fertilizer or research or economics — it’s about people. Their prosperity fuels our efforts — this is the ultimate lesson.
IFDC is a proactive institution. We address emerging global issues. With the world’s population increasing rapidly and an ever-changing climate, our work is needed now more than ever before. I am confident the organization’s future efforts will address global challenges head-on in a unique and effective way.
IFDC employees, active in more than 25 nations, are helping farming families realize food security. Now numbering 800, we share the latest scientific and technological tools with farmers around the globe. Thank you all, past and present, for your dedication and creativity in carrying out our mission of a food-secure world. Thank you to our Board of Directors for your counsel and guidance whenever I needed it. And last but not the least, thank you to our donors and partners for sustaining our efforts.
I am grateful to my family who, in spite of my long absences from home for important occasions, have continued to support me. In addition, the support of friends, staff and the Shoals community made my work and IFDC’s work possible.
All of us have traveled this journey together to get IFDC where it is today. Our successes have been rooted in our commitments to ethics and integrity. I am confident that you will take IFDC to new heights of achievement under new leadership. I wish you all the best, and bid you farewell.