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The lights in the large tent outside IFAD headquarters in Rome were blazing hot this morning. Beneath them, representatives of IFAD’s member states and staff, along with observers from grassroots farmers’ organizations and the media, gathered for the start of the agency’s 35th Governing Council.

The GC is the body that funds IFAD’s investments in smallholder agriculture around the world. Maybe it was just the lights, but something about the buzz in the room told me that the 2012 session would involve more than business as usual.

For one thing, there was a sense of anticipation about statements by two heads of state, Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame and Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti, who were about to address the GC. For another, the two-day session comes at a critical moment, as world leaders prepare for the upcoming Rio+20 climate conference, where issues of sustainable agriculture will be front and centre. Meanwhile, the international community, very much including Italy, continues to cope with challenges posed by the global financial crisis.

Beyond all that, the theme of the GC – “Feeding the world, protecting the planet” – conveyed an urgency that raised the temperature in the tent even higher.

Nwanze: “An enabling environment”
When the lights finally dimmed, IFAD President Kanayo F. Nwanze’s opening statement set the stage for a potentially transformational session.

Nwanze thanked member states for increasing support for IFAD despite their own fiscal constraints. He pointed out, as well, that the agency has expanded its reach. In 2010, 43 million people obtained services through IFAD-supported projects, Nwanze reported. By 2015, IFAD expects to reach 80 to 90 million rural men, women and children with opportunities to lift themselves out of extreme poverty and become food-secure.

“The time has come for smallholders to play their rightful role in contributing to economic growth and food security,” he said. “When these farmers are recognized as small entrepreneurs, when they have access to better resources and incentives, and when they have access to markets and an enabling environment, they can transform their communities, their own lives, and indeed the world.”

Nwanze underscored IFAD’s commitment to helping smallholders feed a growing global population even as they adapt to a changing climate. Initiatives such as its Adaptation for Smallholder Agriculture Programme, he said, “will make IFAD a leader in climate-smart funding for smallholders.”

Kagame: “Be bold”
When President Kagame took centre-stage, he noted a bitter irony: The world’s poorest and least food-secure households are themselves rural smallholders who can barely eke out a living through subsistence farming.

“It is therefore imperative,” said Kagame, “that affected countries, and the institutions that they partner with, be bold and try what has not been done before. We must learn from what has worked and adapt these models to suit smallholder farmers.”

In Rwanda’s agricultural sector, investments in sustainable smallholder farming have contributed to average annual growth of 8 per cent in the past few years. “This has directly resulted in over one million Rwandans moving above the poverty line,” said Kagame. “Our experience has also shown that yields can be even higher and more sustainable when environmental conservation is integrated with agricultural activity.”

Along with its development partners, including IFAD and the other Rome-based UN agencies, Rwanda is pursuing land intensification and resource conservation initiatives to further expand productivity. Because smallholder farmers produce most of the food, these efforts focus on helping them make the transition from subsistence to market-oriented production.

“Every farmer counts,” said Kagame. “None is too small to be ignored.”

Monti: “Equal access”
Prime Minister Monti briefly greeted staff members in the IFAD lobby before making his way (with a sizeable security detail) to the GC tent. When he took the podium, he said he was glad to come to IFAD “at a time in which food security is once again at the centre of the global agenda.”

Monti acknowledged that leaders of the industrialized world have recently invested much of their attention to addressing financial crises. “Yet we must not lose sight of the fact that we are confronted with a much wider and deeper crisis,” he said. “The rise in energy prices and the pressure on the global food system are a signal that we are putting unsustainable pressure on the world’s natural resources.”

Italy has promoted food security as a policy priority in various multilateral settings since commodity prices surged in 2007, Monti recalled. Even aside from humanitarian and development considerations, he argued, this is essential for political stability.

“A hungry world is an unjust world. It is also an unstable world,” he warned.

Monti also pointed to gender gaps that not only violate the rights of women smallholders but impede rural livelihoods overall. “Giving women equal access to agricultural resources and inputs is one of the most powerful ways of reducing poverty and hunger,” he said.

It was one of many compelling points made at the GC this morning, casting a bright light on critical issues that will be considered during the rest of this session – and beyond.