Journal Issue

Special Section: The CGIAR: Investing in Agricultural Research

International Monetary Fund. External Relations Dept.
Published Date:
January 1992
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New Directions for the CGIAR

From famine prevention to sustainable development

When the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) was founded 20 years ago, its principal objective was to increase the supply of food as fast as possible to stave off the spectre of mass starvation, which had been a reality in parts of South and East Asia in the 1960s and, according to some analysts of those days, was an imminent threat to most of the Third World. In fact, Paul Ehrlich, in his book The Population Bomb (1968), predicted terrible famines for the 1970s and thereafter.

Fortunately, these predictions failed to materialize. The Green Revolution—the development of new high yielding varieties of wheat and rice—brought food self-sufficiency and even surpluses to former food deficit areas, especially in Asia. The gains in crop production, mainly through the work of the first two international agricultural research institutes—The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and the Centro Internacional de Mejoramiento de Maiz y Trigo (CIMMYT) for wheat and maize—encouraged a group of international organizations (The World Bank, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, and the UN Development Programme as so-called cosponsors), private foundations (Rockefeller and Ford), and governments to create an umbrella structure, the CGIAR, to support and guide the existing institutes and to establish other international research centers to deal with pressing development needs of Third World agriculture.

Twenty years of work of the Group have since helped to increase food crop productivity in most developing countries, along with a range of other benefits, such as conservation of natural resources, higher farm income, reduced prices of food, better food distribution systems, improved animal production, better nutrition, more rational agricultural policies, and stronger institutions. Today, some 40 donors of the CGIAR system jointly support a network of 17 international research centers to ensure that top scientific capacity is brought to bear on the problems of the world’s disadvantaged people. With total annual core funding of about $250 million—supplemented by project funding of roughly $50 million a year—about 1,700 senior scientists among a total staff of some 15,000 pursue a complex set of six broad objectives:

Productivity research. Stepping up agricultural production through increased productivity has remained a top priority. Improved crop varieties (such as the “dwarf” varieties of wheat and rice, which were critical to Asia’s Green Revolution) with better resistance to pests and diseases are essential, not only to sustain past gains but also to build future productive capacity. At the same time, research to improve soil and water management, fertilizer use, crop management, and other related areas continues to be important for increasing the potential yields of crops.

Management of natural resources. The productivity of natural resources (i.e., soil and water relationship, soil fertility, and plant protection) on which agriculture depends needs to be protected and preserved. New sectors of research such as the institutes for agro-forestry and forestry, irrigation management, and fisheries have either recently been added to or are being integrated into the CGIAR system, while the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (IBPGR) is expected soon to become an autonomous member of the Group.

Institution building. The full benefits of international agricultural research cannot be attained unless there are strong national agricultural research systems that adapt the results of research to national and local conditions and requirements. The CGIAR has therefore given high priority to institution building and training as well as the transfer of technology by helping managers develop their skills in research policy, organization, and management. About a quarter of CGIAR core funds is spent on institution building.

Improving the policy environment. Given the importance of each country’s agricultural sector and the widespread ramifications of national agricultural policy, improving developing countries’ capacity for policy analysis offers substantial benefits. The Consultative Group is assisting governments in formulating and carrying out better policies on sustainable food and agriculture production and related research. In particular, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) has established a network of collaborators in national ministries of planning, economic policy, development finance, and trade, as well as in central banks, universities, and other international agencies.

Germplasm conservation. Partly in pursuit of their crop research function, and partly as a separate endeavor to collect and conserve germplasm (genetic material), CGIAR centers have since 1975 built up the world’s largest collection of plant genetic resources. The IRRI and the CIMMYT led the way with their work with wheat and rice. Other centers have joined in by collecting and maintaining world collections of the most important food crops and ensuring that those plant materials are made available to all countries and organizations that request them, as a common property of humankind, held in trust for current and future generations.

Specific activities, such as those of IBPGR, include the acquisition of crop germplasm that is threatened by genetic erosion or is not adequately represented in existing collections, along with the rapid transfer of that material to suitable storage facilities. Apart from collecting and conserving plant genetic resources, the centers play a major role in characterizing and evaluating collected germ-plasm and facilitating its exchange and use once it has been safely deposited in active collections. The CGIAR places a high priority on supporting relevant research on plant genetic resources, both at its own institutes and through collaborative projects with appropriate institutions around the world.

Building linkages. In the 20 years of its existence, CGIAR has helped to build and strengthen the global system of agricultural research, comprising university and private sector laboratories and institutes in the industrial world, as well as national institutions and extension services in developing countries. In this context, organizing and compiling a thorough and accurate global data base on national agricultural research systems is a major achievement of the CGIAR.

Due to its continuing success, the mandate of the CGIAR has changed over time. The idea of a short-term, highly informal device to be dissolved after it had initiated the Green Revolution has been abandoned in favor of a permanent centerpiece and engine of the global agricultural research system. This structure allows scientific achievements to be communicated and adapted to field level conditions with increasing speed.

Impact of research

Analysis of recent data reveals as fallacious the popular view of the Green Revolution as a temporary period of rapid increases in food production, mainly in Asia and Latin America, caused by the introduction of high yielding varieties of wheat, rice, and maize during the late 1960s and 1970s. In developing countries, the average annual growth rate of wheat yields continues to rise, from 3.5 percent over 1967-69 to 1977-79 to 3.7 percent over 1977-79 to 1987-89; yield, growth in rice production in Asia is similar, from 2.2 percent to an estimated 2.3 percent over the same periods, according to FAO statistics. Much of the progress in average yields is certainly attributable to the impact of international and national crop research and extension work, which managed to keep yields far ahead of the deterioration of natural resource endowments, such as soil fertility and water quality, and the ever increasing virulence of plant pathogens and pests.

This explains why food production, especially in densely populated Asia, has kept pace with population and income growth even during the economically turbulent 1980s, which were considered by many a “lost decade” for development; a decade which, incidentally, saw increasing concern with the level of maximum yields. For example, maximum yields in Southern latitudes obtained on experiment stations have, in recent years, leveled off and even begun to decline, for several reasons, including the limits on biological potential and environmental stress.

The continuing advances in major foodcrop productivity, however, are impressive. Due to the higher yield levels already achieved, a 3.5 percent average annual yield increase now constitutes a much larger additional quantity of output per hectare than a similar yield increase achieved in, say, 1971. The rising productivity is due to both the spreading of high yield technology to previously low yield areas and to continuing improvements in already high yielding areas. An annual gain of, say, 1.5 percent achieved in high-yield areas harvesting 4 tons of wheat per hectare per-annum is equivalent to a 3 percent gain when compared to the developing country average wheat yield of about 2 tons per hectare. Apparently modest progress in experimental yields can hence translate into a large impact on total production.

Over the years, national research systems, in collaboration with the CGIAR centers, have produced hundreds of new varieties of cereals, legumes, and other crops. Many of these new plant varieties have proved to be well-suited to local environments in developing countries.

Wheat. Modern varieties of wheat (largely developed by CIMMYT and its predecessors in cooperation with the Mexican and later, Indian national programs) have been used extensively by farmers in the developing world, bringing with it the observed surge in wheat production. By 1990, about 50 of the 69 million hectares of wheat area harvested in developing countries, not including China, were planted with improved varieties of wheat, of which 37 million hectares were varieties directly derived from CIMMYT’s work.

Rice. New varieties of rice produced at IRRI and CIAT, about 300 of which have been further refined by plant breeders in the developing countries, have become dominant in the developing world’s rice-growing regions. In several developing countries, including Colombia, Honduras, Indonesia, the Philippines, Senegal, Sri Lanka, and Venezuela, modern rice varieties are being raised on more than 70 percent of the countries’ rice lands.

Other crops. Beyond rice and wheat, the plant-breeding work of the centers, in conjunction with research in developing and industrial countries, has led to more than 200 new varieties of maize, as well as other food crops that are important in parts of the developing world—cassava, field beans, potatoes, pearl millet, sorghum, and cowpeas. New varieties of other field crops, including barley, chickpeas, pigeon peas, and sweet potatoes—have also been bred. Since these are crops largely associated with the more recently established centers, most of their varieties have been available for only a few years and have not yet been introduced at the farm level to the same extent as wheat and rice.

The centers, often through joint efforts with scientists at research agencies in both developing and industrial countries, have devised and adapted many new and improved farming techniques. Promising techniques include:

  • Integrated pest management aimed at reducing pesticide use by combining more resistant crop varieties with biological control methods using natural predators of pests and precise timing of pesticide applications. Perhaps the most spectacular example of successful biological control has been the cassava mealybug campaign in Africa over the past few years. The International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), and the International Institute for Biological Control in the United Kingdom joined in a massive research effort that enabled many African countries to control a devastating insect pest of one of Africa’s staple foodcrops—cassava—saving billions of dollars annually in production that otherwise would have been lost.

The CGIAR global network

Note: Location for CIFOR not yet determined.

CLOAT—Centra International de Agriculture Tropical. Main focus is on crop improvement and improving agriculture in the lowland tropics of Latin America, in the savannahs, forest margins, and on hillsides. Research covers rice, beans, cassava, forages, and pasture.

CIFOR—Center for International Forestry Research. Location to be determined. Research will cover forestry issues related to agriculture and sustainable land use.

CIMMYT—Centra Internacional de Mejoramiento de Maiz y Trigo. Research covers maize, wheat, barley, and triticale, with emphasis on food production in developing countries. Maintains two genebanks, one for maize and the other for wheat,

CIP Centre Internacional de la Papa. Focus on potato and sweet potato improvement. Research covers potato and sweet potato.

IBPGR—International Board for Plant Genetic Resources. Focus on conserving genepools of current and potential crops. Research covers plant genetic resources.

ICARDA—International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas. Focus on improving farming systems for North Africa and West Asia, Research covers wheat, barley, chickpea, lentils, pasture legumes, and small ruminants.

ICRAF—International Council for Research in Agroforestry. Focus on initiating and supporting research on integrating trees in land-use systems in de veloping countries.

ICRISAT—International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics. Focus on crop improvement and cropping systems. Research covers sorghum, millet, chickpea, pigeonpea, and groundnut.

IFPRI—International Food Policy Research Institute. Focus on identifying policies for meeting developing countries’ food needs. Research covers all aspects of policy analysis, especially sustainable food production and land use.

IIMI—International Irrigation Management Institute. Focus on performance of irrigation in developing countries. Research covers institutional conditions for managing irrigation systems and facilities; management of water resources, and irrigation support to farmers.

IITA—International Institute of Tropical Agriculture. Focus on crop improvement and land management in humid and sub-humid tropics. Research covers maize, cassava, cowpea, plantain, soybean, rice, and yarn.

ILCA—International Livestock Center for Africa. Focus on farming systems to identify livestock production and marketing constraints in Sub-Saharan Africa. Research covers ruminants, livestock, and forages.

ILRAD—International Laboratory for Research on Animal Diseases. Focus on control of major livestock diseases in Sub-Saharan Africa. Research covers theileriosis (East Coast fever) and animal trypanosomiasis.

INIBAP—International Network for the Improvement of Banana and Plantain. Research covers germplasm exchange and breeding, testing, and pathology research.

IRRI—International Rice Research Institute. Focus on global rice improvement.

ISNAR—International Service for National Agricultural Research. Focus on strengthening and developing national agricultural research systems.

WARDA—West Africa Rice Development Association. Focus on rice improvement in West Africa. Research covers rice in mangrove swamps, inland swamps, upland conditions, irrigated conditions.

  • Integrated soil fertility management achieved through the use of appropriate soil nutrients, mulching, composting, application of animal manure, and protection of land against wind and water erosion. An example of improved land use is provided by the CIAT savanna development program aimed at taking pressure off closed forest areas like the Amazon basin. By introducing rotation of dryland with pastures, unproductive acid soils are becoming productive. Their soil fertility is improved through mulching and the ability of pasture legumes to fix atmospheric nitrogen.

  • Agroforestry, or the growing of crops, trees, and animals together, provides options to answer pressing farming and environmental problems from shortage of fuelwood, timber, and fodder to protection of soil, crops, and animals.

New directions—sustainability

Until recently, the public image of the CGIAR was largely one of a croporiented, scientific mechanism creating progress to boost food supplies. The need to increase productivity has neither changed nor diminished, but research designed to increase food output is being balanced with research to protect and preserve the basis of production.

The Group, following recommendations of its main scientific counsel, the Technical Advisory Committee (TAC), began in 1988 to review the orientation and priorities of CGIAR’s work. The aim was to improve the sustainability of agricultural development—the successful management of resources for agriculture to satisfy changing human needs, without degrading the environment or the natural resource base on which agriculture depends. CGIAR has identified key research areas that will contribute to more sustainable practices:

  • conserving and utilizing genetic resources;

  • managing pests, diseases, and soil fertility in ways that would help reduce the use of harmful chemicals;

  • maintaining productivity growth in already productive areas, while promoting growth in less productive areas; and

  • dealing with soil degradation.

While the CGIAR was undergoing this major reorientation, similar topics appeared on the agenda of the worldwide preparations for the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro 0une 1992)—the “Earth Summit.” The Group is centrally placed in at least three of the major operational sectors of UNCED: management of plant, animal, and forestry genetic resources; sustainability of agricultural development; and capacity building. These broad topics also include the transfer of technology, especially biotechnology, agricultural research for climate change, and forestry research. While conservation of genetic and other natural resources is an important requirement of the future, it is clear that work for sustainable development—with agriculture as its centerpiece—will be the main thrust of the CGIAR’s contribution.

Overall, however, the CGIAR will be expected to continue to ensure a “permanent Green Revolution” to keep up basic food supplies in the face of population and income growth, increased virulence of plant diseases, as well as environmental and climatic stress. At the same time, there is a need to face up to the challenges of “Agenda 21,” the proposed Earth Summit program for the coming century. While suitable institutional arrangements for the permanent Green Revolution exist in the form of the global system of agricultural research, no such structure is yet apparent to facilitate the delivery of the agriculture-related aspects of “Agenda 21.” It is therefore essential that UNCED encourages the creation of an appropriate and comprehensive global research system to be closely linked with the existing global system of agricultural research.

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