The CGIAR: the most important international organisation you’ve never heard of?

This little-known organisation is at the forefront of efforts to alleviate hunger and end poverty

 woodward_daviesRecently, the Economist carried a briefing on the ‘new green revolution’ in which it highlighted the work being done by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) to develop new strains of rice that can be grown under changing climatic conditions. IRRI is one of 15 research centres that comprise the little known Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), an international organisation that can justifiably claim to have made the biggest contribution to global nutritional improvements witnessed in the last 50 years.  

IRRI, alongside another CGIAR centre, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT), were the two key institutions involved in the Green Revolution for which the CIMMYT Director, Norman Borlaug, received the Nobel Peace Prize. CGIAR researchers comprise over half of the recipients of the World Food Prize awarded to those who have advanced the ‘quality, quantity or availability of food in the world’. Yet, in contrast to other international agricultural organisations, such as the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations or the International Fund for Agricultural Development, CGIAR is seldom mentioned in popular discussions on development. This is something of a curiosity in the era of the Millennium Development Goals, which have prioritised eradication of extreme hunger and poverty.

Hunger and poverty are complex problems that defy straightforward policy solutions. Nevertheless, there is widespread agreement that boosting agricultural productivity in an environmentally sustainable manner – a goal to which CGIAR is devoted – is vital if poverty is to be alleviated.

Many of the 15 CGIAR Centres specialise in a particular crop or agro-climatic zone. For example, The International Crop Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, based in Hyderabad, India, develops improved techniques for growing sorghums and other rain-fed crops. Typically, they maintain a wide range of research programmes related to agriculture. Productivity improvements are achieved not by dramatic one-time steps but by releasing a continual supply of improved plant varieties to farmers in the developing world. Additionally, almost all the research centres are beginning to turn their attention to the need to adapt crops to cope with climate change.

For instance, apart from the Economist’s reported improvements in rice breeding in IRRI, in 2013 CIMMYT released 22 new maize varieties for use in developing countries and, in cooperation with the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, has bred new varieties of wheat that are resistant to the devastating UG99 strain of stem rust disease which has spread from Africa to Iran and threatens wheat production in Pakistan and India. The International Potato Centre has developed ‘true seeds’ for potato propagation which cuts the cost of production considerably when compared to the present method of planting tubers (although it is proving difficult to scale up production except in developing countries with relatively advanced agricultural research establishments, such as India and China).

In addition, the Centres undertake activities intended to:

  • protect biodiversity through maintaining gene banks and crop germplasm. Presently, CGIAR centres oversee 11 gene banks containing over 710,000 accessions).
  • conserve natural resources (especially soil and water) and mitigate the impact of agriculture on ecosystems. A case in point is the work undertaken by the World Agro-Forestry Centre to ease soil erosion in the Lake Tanganyika Basin through advising local farmers to plant tree species that increase their overall income and simultaneously stabilise the soil.
  • improve public policies for food and agriculture and strengthen national capacities to develop agricultural systems. For example, CGIAR has trained over 75,000 scientists that now work in National Agricultural Research Services.

Despite the leading role CGIAR centres have played in raising agricultural yields, the future of the organisation is far from secure. Since 1990 the core CGIAR budget has stagnated and continues to place severe restrictions on the organisation’s work. Recent pledges by the G8 and G20 to tackle food security are unlikely to assuage this problem. Hardly bountiful in the first place, much of the extra money has found its way to operational bodies such as the World Food Programme (WFP). Responding to short-term humanitarian catastrophes, WFP’s high-profile, large-scale food distribution operations have a political potency that CGIAR’s long-term scientific research lacks.

Worse, the paucity of funding and the absence of complementary policies to stimulate agricultural trade in developing countries (mainly due to lack of progress in the World Trade Organization’s Doha Round of negotiations) are forcing CGIAR towards uneasy collaboration with large agribusiness corporations. With resources far superior to those of CGIAR, these corporations have muscled in on its terrain and are increasingly dominating markets for some agricultural inputs.

While the private sector does have a legitimate role to play in bringing affordable innovations within the reach of farmers in developing countries, there are nevertheless dangers. Whereas the innovations which flow from CGIAR’s scientific research are  public goods which  in some cases provide income for indigenous peoples, the desires of global agribusiness to generate profits may price inputs beyond the means of poor farmers and trespass on the ‘ownership’ of natural products used in creating new varieties. With market-friendly development policies remaining in the ascendancy and given the power of these corporations to sway global agricultural governance, fears about CGIAR’s survival as a provider of global public goods are not unfounded.

Since the 1990s the proportion of undernourished people in developing countries has halved. Nevertheless, almost 900m people remain chronically malnourished and progress is stagnating. With the UN predicting that there will be another 2.5bn mouths to feed by 2050 and factors related to climate change threatening major farming regions, never has the support for a public institution to boost agricultural productivity been more pressing.  You may never have heard about CGIAR, but you need to care about it!