An unprecedented mix of agriculture ministers, farmers, heads of international organisations, civil society groups, community development organisations and private sector innovators will meet in Montpellier in France from this Sunday (28 March) to discuss a new roadmap for international agricultural research.
The first Global Conference on Agricultural Research for Development (GCARD) (28–31 March), organised by the Global Forum on Agricultural Research, will aim to draw up an action plan and strategy for improving agricultural research in order to make maximum impact on development, especially of the poor.
The meeting, which involves the world's 20 leading economies, also aims to set up a monitoring system to track commitments and whether agricultural research is leading to progress in alleviating poverty.
The meeting occurs during a time of "urgency and common purpose", said Jules Pretty, professor of environment and society at Essex University in the UK.
"There are big problems around the corner: climate change, the energy crunch, economic uncertainty, population growth, environmental degradation and a shift in consumption patterns in emerging economies that are following the unsustainable models found in the West," he said.
"At this meeting we hope to set the global research agenda for agriculture," said Mahmoud Solh, director-general of the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), based in Syria.
The meeting was the idea of the Group of Eight (G8) industrialised countries, which is now expanding into the Group of Twenty (G20) major economies, including countries that are also aid recipients such as Argentina, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Mexico and South Africa. This could provide opportunities for these countries to influence western donors and steer policy on agricultural research in new directions.
"The main advantage of these countries being among the leadership is that they know the problems better than anyone else," said Uma Lele, former senior advisor at the World Bank and lead author of a pivotal report, Transforming Agricultural Research for Development, which will be presented at the meeting.
Developing countries, particularly those now participating in the G20, have the energy, talent, advanced science and indigenous know-how to make agricultural research more responsive to development needs, she believes.
Extensive regional consultations that took place in the lead-up to GCARD will bring some of their views to the fore.
"The consultations were in themselves quite novel," said Lele, with many non-traditional voices being heard for the first time in a high-level international forum.
Much attention in the run-up to GCARD has focused on the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), a group of funders that sponsors 15 research institutes around the world, and which is collaborating with the meeting organisers.
CGIAR is restructuring into a consortium that aims to handle larger programmes that can respond to development needs — discussions about eight major agricultural themes in the new structure will continue at GCARD.
But CGIAR's activities amount to just 4–5 per cent of total global public sector spending on agricultural research, according to Transforming Agricultural Research for Development. "GCARD is intended to leverage the remaining 95 per cent," Lele said.
At Montpellier, the organisers are hoping that developing countries will commit to investing more in their own agriculture research and systems, partly because donor countries have been making promises and not delivering, Lele noted.
"There are countries with strong national programmes such as India, China, Brazil and Argentina that can play a role beyond their borders," added Solh.
China has about 50,000 agricultural scientists, India 26,000, and Brazil 7–8,000, according to the report.
Brazil's agriculture research budget is US$2 billion — twice the budget of the CGIAR as a whole — and Chinese agricultural aid programmes in Africa are larger than those of some western countries, the report found.