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.