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Critics of the outcome of last week's food summit should have focussed more of their anger on the relative lack of funding for research into the needs of small farmers.

When the latest world food summit ended in Rome last week, much of the anger of critics focussed not only on the summit's failure to secure an enhanced commitment to its goal of halving world hunger by 2015, but also on its explicit endorsement of the importance of biotechnology. By choosing the genetic engineering of agricultural crops as their main target, however, such critics have fallen into a mirror image of the trap that they so often deride in their opponents, namely a form of 'technological determinism'. This is a term used to characterise a way of talking about new technologies that isolates them from their social, economic and political environment.

For one of the major failures of last week's summit, held to review progress since the World Food Summit of 1996, was not its support for a particular technology, or even the absence of senior political figures. Rather, it was the lack of any visible new commitment to reverse one of the main reasons for the difficulties in achieving the 2015 target. This is the continued decline in the proportion of the global agricultural research budget spent on research in developing countries, combined with the relative lack of attention within the global research agenda to the needs and problems faced by small farmers.

Corporate influence

Significantly, many of the reasons for this are identical to the factors that the critics of GM are targetting with their campaigns. They include in particular the growing influence of multinational corporations on agriculture around the world, a trend that encourages a focus on cash crops aimed at markets in developed countries, the neglect of local markets aimed a local needs (since these are unlikely to generate high levels of profit), and an unwillingness to respect local agricultural traditions (such as seed sharing).

The second two of these are each areas where more research (combined with policies to put the results of research into effect) is desperately needed. In other words, at the heart of any global strategy to address world hunger must be a programme of agricultural research and development that is both adequately funded and 'pro-poor'.

This is not the way that major corporations conceive their research efforts, whatever 'spin' their public relations teams may try to impose. It is also a message that tends be obscured by campaigns, however well-meaning, that focus on a particular technology, namely genetically modified crops.

Declining support for research

The need is clear enough. Public support for agricultural research from international aid agencies has been falling steadily in recent years, at a time when concern over world hunger has been growing.

Spending by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), for example, which channels donor funds to 16 separate research institutes, the majority in developing countries, has been declining in real terms since 1996. The drop has been accelerating in recent months, with cuts from individual donors (in particular Japan) leading to large-scale staff lay-offs at centres such as the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines (see Japan cuts crop research funding).

Even more dramatically, the money spent on agricultural research by the US Agency for International Development declined by 75 per cent between the mid-1980s and 1996.

Overall, according to figures produced by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), based in Washington DC, public institutions in developed countries spent about four times more than developing countries on research as a proportion their agricultural output. If research spending by private companies is added, this disparity doubles. As a recent report from IFPRI puts it: "At the beginning of a new century, public investment and institutional initiatives for agricultural R&D in the South are waning, and the South-North gap is no longer shrinking".

Broad benefits

This trend is all the more disheartening in the light of evidence about the range of benefits that agricultural research can bring. At one end of this spectrum, China has recently discovered from experience that investment in research can significantly raise the living standards of both the rural and the urban poor. At the other end, the so-called land-grant colleges — state-run institutions set up in the mid-19th century in the United States as a source of agricultural research and training — continue to boost the local economies in which they are embedded.

Of course, additional funding is not a complete solution in itself. The research institutions that international aid supports need to be will managed and efficiently run, operating according to the international norms of scientific procedure, and not acting as subsidised public works programmes for either researchers or technical staff (a criticism that can be aimed as justifiably at US land-grant colleges as it can at some of the major research centres in developing countries).

Furthermore, such institutions will only thrive if they have a supportive context in which to operate. On the one hand, this means broader investment in scientific capacity building within developing countries (enabling their schools and universities to produce the research and technicians required to carry out the research effectively). On the other, it means outreach programmes and strategies for disseminating the results of research, to ensure that these get into the hands of the farmers and other agricultural workers that can put them into practice.

Responding to farmers' needs

Finally, designing research programmes in response to the broad range of farmers' needs — rather than the more narrowly defined goals of increasing the efficiency of farming practices and other agricultural techniques — implies a participatory process that is at variance with some of the more conventional ways of thinking in the research community. Genuinely involving farmers (and, for that matter, the consumers of agricultural products) as stakeholders in determining research priorities, and not just as passive recipients of research results, is a major challenge, as anyone who has been involved in this process is well aware.

None of these practical difficulties, however, are insurmountable. The real challenge is not how to put such commitments into practice, but how to forge the political will to do so. Last week's meeting in Rome produced some fine words about the need to enhance research capacity, but little sense of genuine political commitment to the new avenues that need to be explored to ensure that such research is carried out effectively, or is genuinely farmer- and consumer-centred. Such failure may take a heavy toll in the years ahead.

Click here to read IFPRI's report Slow Magic: Agricultural R&D a Century After Mendel (requires Adobe Acrobat Reader.)

© SciDev.Net 2002

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