A casual conversation at a coffee break in South Africa is shaking up agricultural research throughout the developing world.
Three years ago, Ronald Cantrell and Alexander McCalla shared fears about the future of agricultural research during a gap in a meeting in Durban. Both were acutely aware that new high-yield crop varieties are desperately needed to alleviate hunger among the poor. But their organisations - the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico - were lagging behind private companies and academia in exploiting genetic techniques. So they agreed to explore closer ties, according to a Science magazine article posted on the Science and Development Network website www.scidev.net .
The two groups are the crown jewels of a little-known powerhouse, the $379-million-a-year Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), an association of 16 research centers affiliated with the World Bank. That chat has started a trend: other centers that work on cereals have asked to join the talks. The four CGIAR institutes that focus on legumes are exploring their own collaboration. A task force is studying the possible consolidation of four centers in Africa.
The goal is "all the centers working in common on the big issues for the small farmers of the world," says William Dar, director of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) in Hyderabad, India.
Cantrell, a plant breeder, and McCalla, an agricultural economist, can remember when their two institutions ignited a Green Revolution that led to a quantum jump in agricultural productivity for the developing world. CGIAR was formed in 1971 to build on that progress. But Michael Lipton, an economist at the University of Sussex in the UK, says that the 1980s witnessed increasing pressure from donors to divert money from basic germ-plasm research - the expensive business of collecting, preserving and researching the genetic diversity of plants as well as cataloguing their enemies, pathogens and pests. Donors lost interest in the ongoing expense, equivalent to the running of an expensive if not very glamorous zoo or a library, and moved on "to a whole range of other goals, from improving the participation of women to natural resource management."
The result was a shift in priorities. A recent World Bank evaluation of some 700 previous reports and studies notes that CGIAR spending on improving crop productivity declined by 6.5% annually in real terms through the 1990s and that training programmes for the developing world decreased by nearly 1% a year. Research into environmental protection and biodiversity were receiving larger shares of a shrinking pie.
The resulting fierce competition among centers for funding then isolated research programs at a time when research into the DNA of seeds could have benefited from greater collaboration, especially in biotechnology. While private companies and universities in advanced countries invested $8 billion to $10 billion in agricultural biotechnology in the 1990s, says Uma Lele, an agricultural economist who led the World Bank review, the CGIAR system spent just $25 million. "For a billion poor people in the world, that is just minuscule," she says.
CGIAR already has adopted many of the reforms recommended by the various reports and donors are gradually recognizing the need to give officials greater leeway in spending their money.
The thorniest issue has been determining the appropriate number of centers and their mandates and avoiding top-down restructuring. New research in genetics is helping.
"We know now that the major cereals have a majority of their genes in common," says Ronald Cantrell from the International Rice Research Institute. Taking advantage of the similarities among the cereals might lead to a shared genomics laboratory, jointly appointed researchers, and possibly even a common board.
After Cantrell and McCalla left Durban, they turned to the Rockefeller Foundation, which had helped establish both institutions in the 1960s, and the revamping process may be completed before the end of the year. Most scientists expect a heightened and more centralised effort to use genetic research, with a new lab in India or China. Such labs could identify genetic markers used in more traditional breeding programs and develop gene chips to be distributed to regional and national labs. Similar efficiencies could come from centralizing bioinformatics efforts, intellectual-property management, and training programs.
But restructuring also poses a host of challenges. Genetic research might be universal, but downstream work has to be local. The World Bank meta-evaluation notes that most successful introductions of new crop varieties in Latin America and Asia relied on local research capabilities. Now some of the strongest national agricultural research efforts are ahead of CGIAR in selected areas, says the World Bank's Lele. She points to the development of no-till planting techniques for soil conservation in Brazil, watershed management in India, and hybrid rice breeding in China.
At the same time, the Green Revolution never took hold in Africa, and the continent's agricultural research capabilities are generally weaker than they were a generation ago due to continuing political and funding instability. Yujiro Hayami, a development specialist at the Foundation for Advanced Studies on International Development in Tokyo, thinks that it might be best to shift research staff and resources "to a new food-staple research institute in Africa." But ICRISAT's William Dar disagrees. "There are still more hungry people in Asia than Africa," he counters.